When asked if he’s feeling confident about his chances a week before the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Tom Wolf offers a short, unembellished answer.
Wolf has a good reason to be bullish. The 65-year-old York businessman and former revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell has not lost the lofty perch in statewide polls he has held since the beginning of the year, when he began to flood the airwaves with ads that substantially boosted his name recognition.
Despite stepped-up attacks by his Democratic competitors, a poll commissioned at the beginning of the month by Allentown’s Morning Call newspaper and Muhlenberg College put Wolf well out in front of the field, with 38 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they will support him, followed by Philadelphia-area U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz at 13 percent, state Treasurer Rob McCord at 11 percent and former Department of Environmental Protection secretary Katie McGinty at 2 percent.
Wolf has such a commanding lead that, according to Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster and the go-to analyst for state politics, his defeat next Tuesday would be “without precedent.”
In a discussion with the Observer-Reporter’s editorial board Tuesday, Wolf said he is ready to take on Gov. Tom Corbett in the fall, even though his Democratic rivals, particularly Schwartz and McCord, argue Wolf is not battle-tested.
“This is a democracy,” Wolf said by phone from Wilkes-Barre, where he had two campaign events scheduled. “We look for good people to serve … If I don’t have the qualifications, is there any citizen in the commonwealth who does?”
Even as the rhetoric grows more heated as the contest nears its conclusion, there are actually relatively few differences among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates when it comes to the issues. Wolf supports marriage equality, the legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization of its recreational use, and keeping the commonwealth’s liquor outlets in state hands, rather than privatizing them.
“Pennsylvania has a great opportunity here,” Wolf explained. “The state is the largest purchaser of distilled spirts (in the world), and second-largest purchaser of wine, after Costco. We have to make it convenient. There’s no reason why Pennsylvania can’t use its buying heft to sell this product and make more money for the state.”
He also supports an extraction tax on natural gas drillers. Wolf said a tax, set at about 5 percent, would generate somewhere around $600 million to $700 million per year for the commonwealth and replace impact fees that are now levied. The remainder of the funds would be used for primary and secondary education and environmental programs.
Wolf has drawn money from his own coffers to pay for his primary campaign, having built a fortune as the chairman and CEO of his family’s kitchen cabinet business. In the course of the conversation with the editorial board, he seemed most animated when the discussion turned to his proposals to work around the uniformity clause in the state’s constitution in order to institute a progressive income tax, and how pensions for state employees should be approached. Though many observers suggest the state is headed to a crisis, and will be unable to fulfill its pension obligations, Wolf cautioned against taking what he described as a “sky is falling” approach.
“We need to keep the promises we’ve made, but it has to be looked at in terms of compensation. … We can look at different ways to modify this. But we have to recognize that we’re going to get what we pay for.”
Presuming he triumphs next Tuesday, Wolf will have to defeat Corbett in November if he wants to make his home in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Residence. But even if he manages that, chances are he will have to work with Republican majorities in the state House and Senate in 2015 and beyond. Wolf explained the blend of experiences he has had throughout his career will help him get things done with politicians across the aisle.
“I have worked in different settings all my life, and you have to use executive leadership and skills. I had to deal with a Republican Senate and House as revenue secretary. Leadership is the same in all those contexts. You bring people together, listen and lay out a compelling vision of where we might go.”