Budget cuts, PSU probe hurt Corbett's popularity
HARRISBURG — Republican Tom Corbett is the “invisible” governor to W. Wesley McDonald, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.
“He's invisible. That's his main problem,” said McDonald, a conservative who voted for Corbett.
McDonald, who makes it his business to keep up with politicians, thinks he doesn't know enough about Corbett. He can identify the agendas of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but not Corbett's; he watches New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on television, “but not Corbett.”
Almost midway through his four-year term, Corbett's popularity has plummeted, polling shows. In addition to the perception that he's not publicly accessible, he proposed two years' worth of drastic budget cuts to education and human services programs, and he lost favor with some Penn State University fans over the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse investigation, begun when Corbett was attorney general.
A poll by Lancaster's Franklin & Marshall College in September found 65 percent of Pennsylvania voters thought Corbett did a fair or poor job of handling the case involving the former assistant football coach imprisoned for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
Corbett “understands leadership is not a popularity contest,” said spokesman Kevin Harley.
“(Poll ratings) will go up and down over four years. He's trying to create an environment where business can flourish and an economic climate to create jobs. The governor's message is certainly getting out there: to reduce the size and cost of government without raising taxes,” Harley said.
Corbett's lack of visibility across the state and apparent unwillingness to sell his agenda, especially coming on the heels of gregarious Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, prompt some to wonder whether he wants a second term in 2014.
Corbett noted last week that every governor since 1968, when the state Constitution was amended to allow a second term, has served consecutive terms.
“I don't plan on breaking that trend,” he said.
The notion that Corbett, a Shaler native, is a Capitol recluse is an “old narrative,” Harley said, spun from the time the governor spent working on the budget.
“He said at the very beginning, when he ran for office, that the (fiscal) problems were so severe he might be a one-term governor,” said Maura Donley, a business consultant and co-host of “Behind the Headlines,” a public interest cable TV show.
GOP consultant Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg thinks Corbett's sagging poll numbers do not portend anything for 2014.
“I would say watch his smoke,” Gerow said. “He's beginning to pick up speed.”
Larry Ceisler, a Democratic strategist and public relations consultant in Philadelphia, thinks Corbett's problem politically is his reluctance to act as a salesman.
“I think he is still a prosecutor at heart. He's a black-and-white type of guy. As governor, you have to wade into the gray,” Ceisler said.
G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall, agreed: “(Corbett) still has not embraced a full-blown PR campaign to promote his agenda.”
Some view a strong showing in the Nov. 6 election by Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane as partly a referendum on Corbett. Kane, who outpolled President Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket, campaigned with a promise to investigate why Corbett and his successor, Linda Kelly, took 33 months to investigate Sandusky rather than arresting him when investigators confirmed the existence of one victim.
Corbett, who denies prolonging the investigation, said he welcomes Kane's review. He doesn't think her election reflects how voters feel about him, saying voters turned out for Obama and for the first woman to run for attorney general.
Kane spent about $2 million of her family's money in the primary, which gave her voter recognition.
“Let's hope she can put the rhetoric aside,” Corbett said.
He said he and Kane spoke after her election because the governor's lawyers often work closely with the Attorney General's Office.
Asked what Kane said, Corbett replied: “She listened.”
Corbett said he ran the attorney general's office with integrity for six years — and for 1½ years in the 1990s as an appointee of Gov. Tom Ridge to restore integrity to the office after Attorney General Ernie Preate pleaded guilty to mail fraud and resigned.
“Anyone can come in with Monday morning quarterbacking,” Corbett said. “I know I didn't commit any criminal act.”
Democrats swept the state row offices of auditor general and treasurer, leading party Chairman Jim Burn of Millvale to conclude that people voted for candidates running “against Tom Corbett's unpopular and harmful policies.”
In a party memorandum on Friday, Burn said Corbett is in a “perilous” position.
“Pennsylvanians backed Democrats in every statewide office, and most pundits see it as a personal rebuke to Gov. Corbett and his failed policies,” the memo said.
In Centre County, where Sandusky committed his crimes, Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney deadlocked at 49 percent while Kane, a Democrat, outpolled Republican candidate David Freed by 17 percentage points. That shows Republicans crossed over to vote for Kane, Madonna said.
Corbett, as governor, was a member of the university board of trustees that abruptly fired legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. That stirred people's passion, as did accusations in a university-commissioned report that Paterno and top administrators engaged in a cover-up in the Sandusky case.
Paterno died in January.
Former university President Graham Spanier and two other administrators face criminal charges.
Anthony Lubrano, a Republican businessman and Penn State donor who joined the university's board in July, said on Facebook that he intended to vote for Kane. He attended her victory celebration in Scranton.
“I was fully confident she would investigate the Sandusky matter,” Lubrano said.
An estimated 315,000 Penn State alumni live in Pennsylvania, according to the university, along with hundreds of thousands of other Nittany Lions fans.
“People want us to move on and forget it,” said former Steeler Franco Harris, a star running back under Paterno. “Penn Staters are not going to do that.”
Harris supported Kane and urged others to do so. He believes she will help provide answers.
“We want the truth. It doesn't matter who it implicates,” Harris said.
“This is the first investigation I've ever heard of to look into a successful prosecution,” Corbett said.
Second year important
The second year of a governor's first term often is precarious in terms of popularity, said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Corbett's job approval rating dipped to 30 percent in a Quinnipiac survey in June. His disapproval rating has hovered there, although it edged up recently.
“The post-election honeymoon passes; inevitable budget cuts arise — in Tom Corbett's case, unpopular cuts to the state education budget,” Malloy said. “He has company. Governors (John) Kasich in Ohio and (Rick) Scott in Florida are in no better shape.”
Pundits dubbed Ridge “One-Term Tom” midway through his first term, although he easily won re-election in 1998.
Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, said he heard plenty of anti-Corbett talk as he knocked on thousands of doors this summer in his successful re-election campaign. He said voters can't put aside the Sandusky investigation and Corbett's budget cuts, particularly to education.
The Democrats took every opportunity to tell Pennsylvanians that those cuts were “harmful to the fabric of our society,” Markosek said.
Still, no lawmaker wanted to raise taxes, and Corbett faced a $4 billion deficit upon entering office. He made it clear during his campaign that he would cut spending.
“He is living up to his campaign promise, of course, but people are not always going to like that,” Donley said.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.