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New chief of staff aims to sell Pa. Gov. Corbett's agenda

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 11:50 p.m.
AP file photo of Leslie Gromis Baker from 2004. Baker was appointed to Gov. Tom Corbett's Chief of Staff.

HARRISBURG — A Mt. Lebanon woman with long-standing ties to the Republican Party will head Gov. Tom Corbett's staff as he tries to reignite a stalled legislative agenda and drive up sagging poll numbers.

Leslie Gromis Baker, 53, a former aide to ex-Gov. Tom Ridge, has amassed experience in government, lobbying, campaigns and public relations. She replaces Chief of Staff Steve Aichele, a former power lawyer and Navy captain. Aichele was paid $154,900.

Whether the third chief of staff in three years will make a difference for Corbett remains to be seen. The shake-up in his inner circle last week follows Corbett's strikeout on legislative priorities: liquor privatization, new money for transportation, and pension reform.

The Legislature recessed on June 30 and won't return until September.

“It reminds me of a baseball manager on a struggling team firing his pitching coach,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “The team's problems might not be caused by the pitching coach, and because a manager can't fire himself, someone has to go as a sign of a need for a change.”

To Democratic Party spokesman Marc Eisenstein, “it is clear the problem is Tom Corbett and his failed policies, not his staff or his message.”

Such a statement shows the Democrats “are playing politics,” said Corbett's spokesman, Kevin Harley. “The governor pushed a very aggressive legislative agenda, and it's not done.”

Harley said Democrats “obstructed his agenda, when it comes to pensions and liquor.”

Gromis Baker declined to talk about her job ahead.

She was public liaison for Ridge and ran his successful 1998 re-election campaign. She worked as a political aide at the White House under President George H.W. Bush and directed President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign in Pennsylvania.

Gromis Baker has a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser.

She was co-director of Corbett's transition committee after his November 2010 election. Since Corbett took office, the state has paid Gromis Baker's firm LG Strategies about $480,000 — $20,000 per month — to lobby for Pennsylvania in Washington.

Harley said that amount is a substantial reduction from money former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell paid Washington lobbyists.

Gromis Baker declined to comment.

“I think she brings an immense amount of talent and understanding of how to get an agenda done in a political environment,” said Chris Bravacos, president and CEO of Bravo Group, a Harrisburg-based lobbying and public relations consultant.

“Ultimately, it's about Corbett and whether he can find a way to sell his agenda to the public and Republican lawmakers,” said Keegan Gibson, managing editor of Politics-PA. “A chief of staff can set the stage, but it's the candidate who must be able to deliver.”

Bringing Gromis Baker on board “sends a clear message to nervous Republican Party leaders and donors that Corbett is serious,” Gibson said.

In announcing her selection, Corbett said Gromis Baker “has mastered the details of effective political management and leadership, skills she will bring to the demanding position of chief of staff.''

Corbett's failure to advance his agenda is due to myriad factors beyond questions about his leadership, experts said. The reasons include union opposition to closing state liquor stores, beer distributors' opposition to privatization of liquor sales and House Democrats' opposition to a transportation funding bill.

Conservative House Republicans held out because they viewed the bill to raise about $2 billion for roads, bridges and mass transit as a tax increase.

Though Republicans control the Legislature, there's general dysfunction among the party's leaders.

“We have the most polarized legislature in modern history — Republicans versus Republicans in the House and Senate,” said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey said Corbett lacked “tools other governors had to win support for their programs. He's not doling out (walking-around money)” for pet legislative projects, and grant money for economic development projects has been drastically reduced.

That may be “good government,” but it makes it harder to govern, given what was the norm in Harrisburg, he said.

“Personnel moves like this are mostly about optics but can help in rebooting some of the governor's legislative initiatives,” said Borick, adding that, given the “malaise Corbett is struggling through, a change of team members might help to get some fresh perspectives.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.

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