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Dem front-runner Wolf's ties provide ammo for rivals

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 10:33 p.m.
Tom Wolf is a York businessman running for governor of Pennsylvania as a Democrat.
Tom Wolf is a York businessman running for governor of Pennsylvania as a Democrat.

HARRISBURG — Democrat Tom Wolf, the front-runner in a seven-way gubernatorial primary, said on Monday that some of his opponents may try to use against him events from more than a decade ago when he was campaign chairman for a former York mayor, an admitted racist acquitted of murder.

Others may remind voters of his friendship with an ex-legislator who is appealing a corruption conviction, Wolf acknowledged.

Wolf, 65, of Mt. Wolf, shot to the top of three statewide public opinion polls last week because of his TV advertising campaign. Running as an outsider and an “unconventional” candidate who would reform government, Wolf said he becomes a target — and the ex-York mayor's racially tinged case is an example of the fodder.

“I'm new to this. I'm certainly new to being a front-runner,” he told the Tribune-Review in an exclusive interview. “There's obviously going to be a bull's-eye on my back. There's going to be efforts to make everything I ever did or said to be put in the worst possible light.”

Wolf was campaign chairman and a political supporter of former York Mayor Charles Robertson, who was charged as an accomplice to murder in the 1969 death of a young black woman. A jury found Robertson not guilty in 2002.

Any issue that would “slow Wolf's momentum would not be good for his campaign,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. The Robertson case “seems a little remote. ... It's hard to say how it will be used,” Madonna said. “It's not like (Wolf) broke the law.”

Reminding voters that Wolf backed Robertson might be guilt by association, “but that's the way politics is,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

Robertson, a former police officer, was accused of handing out rifle ammunition to a white street gang. Jurors convicted two white men of second-degree murder in the death of Lillie Belle Allen, a South Carolina woman shot as she stepped from her family's car in a York neighborhood dominated by a white gang, the Newberry Street Boys.

Robertson told reporters before his trial that he had been a racist but that sensitivity training reformed him. He admitted to shouting “white power” during the rioting.

In the turbulent 1960s, York was one of many American cities marked by tense race relations and street violence. A white police officer died in York's 1969 rioting, dozens more were injured and Gov. Raymond P. Shafer sent in the National Guard.

York's first black mayor, Kim Bracey, said Wolf has been “a constant supporter, mentor and friend. I have a fond place in my heart for Tom.” If opponents would use the Robertson case to attack Wolf, it would “anger and sadden me,” she said.

In a more recent association, Wolf said he continues to support former state Rep. Stephen Stetler, D-York, convicted in 2012 of six felony counts of public corruption for his alleged participation in a scheme to use public employees to do illegal campaign work.

Theirs is a friendship, Wolf said, rather than the more professional relationship he had with Robertson while trying to revitalize the city as head of a civic group. Wolf's hometown is about nine miles north of York, and he is a prominent businessman in the region.

Stetler has appealed his conviction to Superior Court. Wolf is one of five civic leaders who led a fundraising effort to help pay Stetler's legal bills, and he was a character witness at Stetler's trial.

Neither situation should reflect on his ethics, Wolf said. “I believe he is a good person,” Wolf said, adding that he “respectfully disagrees with the court.”

When he was Department of Revenue secretary, Wolf noted, he declined a state car and “paid my own way” on state trips.

As governor, Wolf said, he would ban gifts for state employees — allowing not even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. He believes in “very high standards” for public officials.

After Robertson's arrest, Wolf was one of more than 100 business leaders who signed a letter to the York newspapers complaining of “inflammatory” news coverage.

“I think it's a truly unfortunate scenario” for Robertson to be in the news again because of a gubernatorial campaign, said his attorney, William C. Costopoulos of Lemoyne. “But politics is what it is. It was a very dark period of his life. He was acquitted by a jury of his peers; I'm sorry he has to be reminded of it now.”

Robertson, 80, declined comment.

Joseph DiSarro, a professor at Washington & Jefferson College, has no doubt that Wolf's opponents will bring up Robertson, directly or indirectly. For Wolf's campaign staff, “It'll take a great deal of time, effort and management to rebut it,” DiSarro said.

The winner of the May 20 primary likely will face Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November. Corbett investigated Stetler as attorney general.

As of Jan. 30, Wolf has raised $3 million and donated $10 million of his money to his campaign — more than any candidate.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and

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