Can the Wolf administration survive?
That may sound like an odd question, given that Gov. Tom Wolf has two and a half years left in his first term. But by survive I don’t mean will he continue holding the office – he obviously will – rather, will he have any power and influence?
Will Wolf rule or merely reign, with a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats in the legislature essentially ignoring him as they pass budgets and other legislation?
In my search for answers, I have spent a lot of time talking to an array of lobbyists, legislators (past and present), public policy experts and even an academic or two. All of my sources, who wish to remain anonymous, bring to the table years of experience in Harrisburg. They are all experts in realpolitik: the art of knowing how power and politics actually work, as opposed to how they ought to work.
All of them, to varying degrees, believe that Wolf is in deep trouble due to mistakes he has made during his first 18 months in office, especially when it came to his first budget proposal, which never got past the Republican-controlled legislature.
“I think his problems are severe,” one observer said. “Ask anybody: What has he done? Where’s the ‘there’ there? If you can’t do a budget, what can you do?”
After a nine-month slog, the state did get a budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, which Wolf allowed to become law without his signature in March. (Pennsylvania has the reverse of a pocket veto.) A few weeks later, he let the fiscal code – which usually accompanies the budget – become law as well. He had previously vetoed it.
Why did he relent? Because he had to. Those bills, passed with the support of a small group of Democrats who crossed party lines to vote with the Republican majority, had the votes to override any Wolf veto.
“Allowing a budget to become law was a strong indication of his weakness,” said one of my experts. “The fiscal code was proof of it.”
There’s also a strong sentiment that if there is a repeat of the last year’s stalemate, “he will be fucked,” as one expert bluntly put it. The governor needs to come to an agreement with the legislature on taxes and spending – and quickly – or lose whatever political juice he has left. Implicit in this scenario is that Wolf will have to scale back his goals significantly.
As one source put it, “He is in a quagmire. The next 60 days are going to determine whether he is going to be a two-term governor.”
In the absence of an agreement brokered by the governor, there is a belief that a cadre of Democrats in the state Legislature will make a separate peace with Republican leaders on a new budget and pass it with a veto-proof majority.
“If he doesn’t change with this budget,” said one lobbyist source, “there are Democrats who won’t put up with it. They will override (a Wolf veto) and it will be done. They will send it to him and go home.”
I was surprised by the harshness of the criticism of the governor. I thought significant blame would be given to Republicans, who have an ultra-conservative core group of members who are dead set against any tax increases or compromises.
So I asked my experts to draw a mental pie chart, entitled “The Fiscal Mess,” and tell me what slice of blame should go to each party. That was when the Republicans came in for criticism, with people lamenting the rise of state Sen. Scott Wagner, the take-no-prisoners freshman from York County who is as anti-tax and anti-government as they come. Another gave 20 percent to the general polarization in politics these days.
So, the Republicans got a slice of the blame, but Wolf’s slice was never smaller than 40 percent and in one case was as large as 80 percent. Why?
For starters, as governor, Wolf has a broad array of powers at his disposal. He’s been given the tools he needs to lead. But the same observations came up again and again: He’s proven to be a far more ideological leftist than expected, reflexively pro-union and pro-spending.
The words “inexperienced” and “naive” were used several times, though no one doubted Wolf’s intelligence. But, prior to his arrival in Harrisburg, he had limited experience with state politics and failed to do what one source said was necessary for initial success: bringing in someone who had a “dispassionate, cold eye for making deals when deals are needed.”
Instead, he named Katie McGinty and John Hanger as his chief aides. Although both are gone, during their time in Wolf’s cabinet they were viewed as ideologues “who want to fight everything and win surprisingly little.”
The governor also is not interested in hearing from those who disagree with him – and are vocal about alternative strategies. As one source put it:
“He doesn’t want to hear anything because of his intellect and degrees, and the fact that he saved the family business. We thought we were getting the Peace Corps governor. Instead, we got the hard-ass CEO.”
One lobbyist’s assessment: “Tom Wolf is a smart guy, so I would never sell him completely short, but he is woefully inadequate. On election night, he should have looked at the composition of the Legislature. We now had the most liberal governor in the state’s history and a Legislature made up of the largest number of conservative Republicans since 1926. Anyone who is prudent will say to himself, ‘I am not going to get my way on everything here.’”
Seen in this light, his first budget – a huge mélange of new and higher taxes, and more spending – represented a fundamental misreading of the reality in Harrisburg. And he used his second budget address to excoriate Republicans in the legislature, which was seen as a tactical blunder.
“My advice for him? Stop pissing down everyone’s leg. Start with that,” said one ex-Harrisburg aide. “As a Democrat, I like the fact that he beat up on the legislature in his second budget address. But that is not a good strategy.”
Ditto the personal attacks, often delivered by Wolf Press Secretary Jeff Sheridan, against specific legislative leaders, such as House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican legislator from Indiana County. “Why, in the name of God, do you insult the guy who is trying to be a moderate?” was the take of one lobbyist.
What can Wolf do to change things? Some suggestions: Tone down the confrontational rhetoric. Take as much of your ego as possible out of the equation. Get ready to go hat-in-hand to Republican leaders and work hard for an agreement. Accept the reality that no broad-based tax increase can be done this year. And as one source put it, “I don’t know what to tell him other than: ‘You dug this hole – and my advice would be to stop digging.’”
There’s not a lot of confidence among those I talked to that Wolf will change in any major way. “Can you un-ring the bell?” asked one, referring to the path taken and the damage done.
None of the people I talked to would be surprised if Wolf decided not to seek a second term; and none of them – Democrat or Republican – could be classified as Wolf enemies, with some acknowledging they were early and enthusiastic supporters.
Tom Ferrick is an award-winning reporter and columnist who has covered state and local government and politics since the 1970s.