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Asher drives GOP success in Pennsylvania

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

HARRISBURG — In Republican circles, the candy man is better known as the money man.

Robert B. Asher, 73, co-chairman of the board of Asher's Chocolates in Souderton, Montgomery County, may be Pennsylvania Republicans' most prodigious fundraiser. For three decades, he has raised millions of dollars for GOP candidates, most recently Gov.-elect Tom Corbett of Shaler.

By his estimate, he raised about $3 million for Corbett and $2 million more for other Republicans on last month's ballot.

"Bob Asher has been the top Republican fundraiser in Pennsylvania for a very long time, which says to me that people trust and respect his judgment," said Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey. "If you are a GOP political candidate for any important position in the state, your first assignment is to get the support of Bob Asher."

That's not a bad reputation for a convicted felon.

Asher spent a year in a federal prison after his 1986 conviction in a notorious Harrisburg scandal. A jury convicted Asher of participating in a scheme to steer a multimillion-dollar state contract to a California-based computer company in return for a $300,000 kickback.

His co-defendant, then-state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, fatally shot himself in the head with a .357 Magnum during a televised news conference five days before his sentencing.

Prosecutors contended Asher wanted to steer the kickback to the Republican State Committee, not line his own pocket.

"I tell everybody who asks the same thing," said Asher during an interview last week. "I look you in the eye and tell you, I didn't do anything improper. The court did not agree. I paid my dues."

Politicians, often skittish about their public associations, embrace Asher. Then-Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him to the Republican National Committee in 1998, where he still serves. Corbett, a lifelong prosecutor, appointed him co-chair of his gubernatorial campaign.

What's more, Asher co-chairs Corbett's inaugural in January, working the phones to collect several million dollars, largely from corporate sponsors.

"Asher is an intriguing political figure who has defied expectations in his return to prominence in the Pennsylvania GOP order," said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Bouncing back from the conviction "is a hell of an accomplishment," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. "I never hear that brought up among contributors and other people who deal with the party."

Democrats and some Republicans over the years tried to use Asher's conviction against his candidates — but it never stuck, said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic analyst from Philadelphia.

At a Press Club luncheon in October, Corbett, the state attorney general, was asked about having a convicted felon co-chair his campaign: "(Asher) did suffer a conviction, went to jail, did his time ... and is a very active member of the community, both politically and philanthropically. ... He has provided great counsel, from a political standpoint, on this campaign, and I stand by him."

Asher has moved past the conviction partly because the charges did not involve "personally enriching himself," Ceisler said.

Asher's blunt style and high-powered maneuvering create plenty of detractors.

One critic is Bob Guzzardi, a self-described conservative activist from Lower Merion, Montgomery County.

"In my view, Bob Asher has accepted the established culture of Harrisburg and the culture of Washington," Guzzardi said. "Bob Asher is not going to do anything to change it or improve it, or even question whether this is good for our commonwealth.

"If you want to influence the political process, you have to pay for that influence. It is this establishment view that the Tea Party movement resists and opposes."

Don't look for apologies from Asher.

"I'm not some saint," he said. "I'm not a right-wing kook. I'm a moderate, slightly right of center."

Asher describes himself as liberal on many social issues, and fiscally conservative.

"I truly believe in our form of government, capitalism and democracy ... providing jobs and opportunities," Asher said.

Ceisler believes Corbett might not be governor-elect today without Asher.

After Corbett won re-election as attorney general in 2008 with a strong showing in the Southeast, Asher decided to back him over former Philadelphia U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan of Delaware County. Meehan, elected to Congress in November with Asher's backing, was gaining traction in preliminary maneuvering for the GOP gubernatorial nod.

"When (Asher) decided to go for Tom Corbett, that was the tipping point for Corbett's candidacy: It sent a very strong message to people," Ceisler said.

In 2004, Corbett defeated former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor for the GOP nomination for attorney general. Asher switched his allegiance from Castor to Corbett and helped Corbett win the Republican State Committee endorsement, according to Castor.

"(Asher) recruited me ... and I wasted two years of my life in pursuit of becoming attorney general," said Castor, a Montgomery County commissioner and Asher foe.

The state committee endorsement for Corbett was the key factor in Corbett's victory, Castor said.

"He had all the state committee foot soldiers, and I had none," Castor said.

Potential candidates who seek Asher's advice get "no sugar coating," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County. "You ask him a question, you're going to get an answer. Bob Asher is respected by Democrats, as well."

"I try to be upfront with them. I don't beat around the bush," Asher said.

Vereb said Asher never asks for anything.

Guzzardi contends Asher "has gotten rich from bad government." He points to Asher's work as a Washington lobbyist for a proposed project to convert waste coal to diesel fuel. The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2006 reported Waste Management and Processors Inc. paid Asher $900,000 as a lobbyist.

"That's somewhat exaggerated," Asher said about the dollar amount. "I never took a dime out of government. I worked for a private company, to create jobs."

During the 2009-10 legislative session, Asher was registered in Harrisburg as a lobbyist for several companies and law firms.

"I don't do lobbying," he said. "They told me I should register because I advise them on business matters. I don't want any problems."

He owns the 108-year-old candy company with his brother. His son and nephew run the day-to-day business that Asher's grandfather founded.

"I am truly one of the people truly blessed, financially and family-wise," Asher said.

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