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Wolf expects business acumen to give him edge with Pa. voters

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 10:40 p.m.
Tom Wolf is a York businessman running for governor of Pennsylvania as a Democrat.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Tom Wolf (middle), a Democratic candidate for governor, tours Chelsea Building Products in Oakmont on January 27, 2014.

History and prosperity play a part in Tom Wolf's bid to govern Pennsylvania.

A former Department of Revenue secretary and one of five Democrats seeking the party's nomination in May to run against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November, Wolf, 65, said he finds inspiration in historical biographies of past leaders, citing Pittsburgh native David McCullough's “Truman” as among his favorites.

“It plays a big role in why I am running,” said Wolf, a Mt. Wolf businessman who lives in a family homestead built in the 1850s in a York County town named for his family.

As president and CEO of the family company, The Wolf Organization, a supplier of kitchen and bath cabinetry, he is a multimillionaire. But you wouldn't know it, said childhood friend Ronald Toomey, 85, a retired music teacher who lives about two blocks from Wolf.

“He's just a very nice man. He is a man of his word,” Toomey said. “A handshake is a contract. He treats his employees as he would treat a friend.”

In television ads he has run since January, Wolf emphasizes his “smart business” approach, saying he shares 20 percent to 30 percent of profits with employees because it's the right thing to do. “I've always believed prosperity is only real when it's shared broadly,” he says on camera. “That's true in my company, and it's true in an economy the size of Pennsylvania.”

This is Wolf's first try at public office, though he toyed with the idea before.

“He has a great story to tell, and once people hear it, they will understand why he stands apart from the rest of the pack,” said Ron Klink, a former Democratic congressman from Murrysville.

Klink said Wolf's business acumen gives him an edge with Western Pennsylvania voters: “We are people who make things in Western Pennsylvania. When they see someone who knows how to create jobs and turn decline around, voters will pay attention.”

More than a businessman

More than the other candidates, Wolf has the means to get his story out — and early polling showed his television ads were well-received by voters, placing him in the lead. He's not shy about talking about $10 million he put into his campaign this year, a decision with which his wife Frances agreed, he said.

He's spending his money, Wolf said, to “overcome the disadvantage I have — name recognition — compared to some of the other elected officials in the race.”

Wolf's personal story is not just the success of his family business, where he started as a forklift driver and worked up to owner. He and two cousins purchased the company with a loan at market value; the family did not believe in inherited wealth, he said.

His civic involvement is wide-ranging: Peace Corps service in India, chairing the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way in York County, serving on an economic development board for the late Gov. Bob Casey, and a legislative commission on urban schools.

In 2009, Wolf decided to make a run for governor and hired a campaign team. He intended to announce once he returned from President Obama's inaugural festivities in Washington, but a phone call changed his path. The company he had sold in 2006 was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“I went back, bought it back, stabilized it, blew it up and changed it to a different, very successful company,” he said.

Today, the company has nearly 260 nonunion, profit-sharing employees and a presence in about 30 states, employing 140 workers. Wolf resigned as CEO in December.

He believes his business prowess puts him ahead of his competitors in the governor's race: “I have actually made executive decisions.”

GOP takes notice

Wolf, who was revenue secretary for 18 months under former Gov. Ed Rendell, said his best accomplishment remains in place. He spent months talking with employees, asking for their input on how to improve the bureaucracy of a department whose functions include overseeing the Pennsylvania Lottery. The result was a five-year plan that he said survives him.

The Republican Party of Pennsylvania has taken notice of Wolf.

In February, Communications Director Megan Sweeney released a statement saying the GOP would relate “Tax Man Tom Wolf's” story to voters: “As (ex-Gov.) Ed Rendell's chief tax collector, Tom Wolf fought to raise our sales tax by $1.3 billion and our trash tax by $41 million. When he left state government, Tax Man Tom Wolf left Pennsylvania with a $1.6 billion budget deficit as a parting gift.”

Sweeney said Wolf is “running on a tax-and-spend agenda that will raise Pennsylvania's income tax and create new taxes on energy.”

Wolf's campaign spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said the “ramped-up attacks confirm what we've said all along: Corbett doesn't want to face Tom Wolf in November. Corbett knows that his record of siding with oil and gas companies over schoolchildren will be on full display.

“Under Corbett, Pennsylvania is the only state that refuses to tax out-of-state oil companies for extracting our natural resources. Under Corbett, big corporations continue to receive tax breaks while working families are stuck with the bill.”

Wolf acknowledged that politics can be frustrating — when he served on a Rendell commission on business tax reform in 2004, he recalled, “We came to a unanimous decision to streamline corporate taxation that never went into place.”

And like many Pennsylvanians, regardless of party affiliation, Wolf is dismayed by the partisanship in government.

“When you run for office, you are running on a partisan basis,” he said, “but when you govern, you do that in the name of everybody.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com. Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed.

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