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Friday, October 21, 2016

THORNDALE, PA — Tom Wolf’s mood is sunny but his words are serious.

He’s answering teachers’ questions at an elementary school featured last year in a New York Times story about the costs of overcrowding and underinvestment. The Democratic nominee for governor, Wolf criticizes Pennsylvania incumbent Tom Corbett for education cuts, but he is not terribly partisan about it. Wolf is a businessman who also holds a Ph.D. in political science, and he offers a brief commentary on the importance of “public goods,” not a term typically invoked on the stump.

He ends a lengthy response about pensions with an apology. “Am I giving you more information than you want here?” he asks with a smile.

Wolf has reason to be in fine spirits. Democrats are unlikely to have a great evening on Nov. 4, but as the returns roll in, the 65-year-old native of York, PA, is almost certain to emerge as one of his party’s stars. Wolf is so far ahead, wrote The Associated Press‘ Marc Levy, that the state’s pollsters couldn’t find an example of a candidate who “overcame the kind of polling deficit Corbett now faces.”

Democrats may find solace in other governors’ races as well, but Wolf will stand out as an unusual politician who speaks to two of the main sources of popular discontent: unhappiness with the economic system over its failure to deliver for so many workers, and widespread alienation from government.

As a businessman who took over and at one point saved his family’s building materials company, Wolf thinks capitalism works best when employees have a stake in their firm’s success.

“I share 20 to 30 percent of my net profit with my employees,” Wolf says. “Everybody is a stockholder in the company. My Republican father came up with the idea. And he did it because it really works.

“I am judged in my company by my truck drivers, not by me. They see my customers more than I do. I know that my warehouse people who pack the trucks get credit because they pack the trucks so well.” Thinking of workers as stakeholders is old-fashioned. But these days, it’s also revolutionary.

Then there is his talk of “public goods.” Wolf recalls picking up a group of exchange students from France who visited his family in 1965, a time when America’s public works were the best in the world. Kennedy Airport, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the New Jersey Turnpike, the nation’s water systems, the new schools in his hometown — all, he says, were state of the art.

Since then we have fallen far behind other nations in productive infrastructure investment. “You can get away with deferred maintenance in any setting for so long, but then things don’t work,” Wolf notes during an interview in the school’s library where a water-damaged wall underscores his message. “This stuff really does catch up to you. You don’t get jobs. You don’t have people who can buy things. You let your schools get hollowed out. That’s not good for anybody.

“Yes, the market is going to deliver the goods,” he concludes, “but what does the government need to do to make sure the market is operating optimally?”

Yet progressives, Wolf argues, have to confront uncomfortable facts, too: “People are afraid of taxes because they don’t see that they get much for their taxes. … Governments in the United States have to show — and I think it’s a bipartisan finger-pointing exercise here — that we can actually deliver to people who pay taxes.”

He speaks of his time as secretary of revenue under then-Gov. Ed Rendell when he visited with his agency’s employees to persuade them to look at the state’s taxpayers as “our customers,” as “the ones that give you employment.”

“What we need is to get out of this sort of thing that government is this immutable institution that just sits there and is a pain in the butt at best. … The case must be made again that government is something that actually plays a constructive role in the lives of people.”

Then the hard part: “But to do that, you can’t just say it. You’ve got to actually act it out.”

True, Wolf is setting himself high standards. But in an era of deadlock and estrangement from public institutions, it’s bracing just to hear someone insist that they can be made to work again.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Tom Wolf via Flickr

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  • bobnstuff

    For the Democrats to win PA they only had to run a anyone who wasn’t Corbett.

    • cpbis

      True in Kansas as well.

    • Allan Richardson

      In lots of other states, the “not the incumbent” campaign is not working even when voters KNOW the incumbent is a crook. The known crook who steals and lies for “their side” is preferred to the honest man who happens to be in the “other party.”

      • bobnstuff

        I don’t think Corbett is a crook, he’s just not a good governor. His focus is wrong. He is the classic Tea Party believer, cut taxes, cut services and reject anything that Obama might offer even if it helps people.

        • Allan Richardson

          It’s hard to tell if a Republican is a crook, since they believe in cheating to achieve their “legitimate” goals to help their voter (or donor?) base even if they aren’t being paid. Still, it is EASIER to believe in a crazy ideology if you profit from believing it.

  • sigrid28

    Also refreshing is Wolf’s assumption that competency matters, measured and demonstrated competency.

  • raginyank

    This is exactly the kind of mind set that our Government needs to foster; we all need to feel we are part of the solution not just part of a bigger problem

  • charles king

    I think the People of the State Of Pennsylvania check out the type of ruling class that is running the Pennsylvania Government because if they are anybody like myself I just found out in the last three years that my State is ran by Plutocracy instead of Democracy. I advise Every Pennsylvanian look up the meaning of Plutocracy and Who? are they and What? is their format cause it certainly Not Democracy, Which pertains to All the People Not just some but All. The Republicans are using this type of policy more so than the DEmocracts so it is up to the American citizen to use and protect their voting Rights and do not let any of these politicians destroy your voting rights because the VOTE is the only thing that can bring back your Democracy. The things that works for America comes under Democracy, Like Social Security, Unions, Obamacare, Equal pay for all workers Not just some that is What? these other Oligocracies do they divide the People, I am (85yrs old) and their has always been a Dem and a Rep but they were all on the side of our government Now MONIES and the Republicans are pulling away from our Democracy and being Anti-Government. Anyway, the VOTE is still Supreme so with a little Critical Thinking come Nov. Vote and do the right thing and get back your Democracy because Democracy works. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

  • Irishgrammy

    How refreshing, and I completely agree with Mr. Wolf!!! So many failures of large government agencies, i.e., the recent VA failure, due to lack of appropriate funding, antiquated systems when state of the art should be EXPECTED!!! When ONE political party’s entire premise of governing is to limit an actual functioning government and to be able to “drown it in a bath tub”, their favorite battle cry, it is a self full filling result! All the while cutting the actual funds to run government to zip and give those funds back to particularly the wealthy, cause God knows the wealthy will never have enough money, what does one think will be the outcome………..a dysfunctional, under funded, low moral work force government……………….just what the Republicans create, work to produce and proceed to use the obvious results as “campaign talking points and attacks” to “limit and cut” government, “Looky, looky see big government doesn’t work”..then the far right is in it’s element of condemnation of government!! That is until they want government in your private business, then they will find monies from somewhere!!! Public schools, failing infra-structure and systems, all government agencies, especially those that protect the public health and good, look what is happening right now with the CDC, NIH due to huge cuts and the ridiculous sequestration cuts resulting in loss of funds to address not only current crisis but future crisis’ …..just an absolute mess and the entire country pays the price for “ideology” that simply does not WORK!!! INFURIATING!!!

  • charleo1

    I think the majority of Americans agree with Tom Wolf’s characterization of
    government. Absolutely they do. But have forgotten they did once agree.
    Or perhaps, have not heard it explained in such a straight forward, common sense way, for so long, they have forgotten government can, and must work for the common good. And is not always, as Ronald Reagan said, “The Problem.” In retrospect, it was Reagan that urged Americans to embark on this experiment in which we continually cut government. And hand the proceeds to the private sector. In America’s defense, it sounded good. I’ll cut, and never raise your taxes. Because you, the American people are smarter than the government. Who thinks it knows how to spend your hard earned money better you do! Hurray! Of course the rich got 95% of the tax breaks. And the rest of us inherited a debt strapped government, less able to fulfill it’s fundamental responsibilities, and respond to National emergencies, like Ebola. For example, how many of our hospitals are equipped to handle Ebola patients? We know now. Now that the disease, and epidemic are on our doorstep. They say it won’t come to that. But if it does, we know we’re not prepared. So how much money is it going to take to supply one hospital in each of our big cities, say those with over 500,000 people? Are the for profit hospital corporations going to step up, and spend billions to retrofit their hospitals? Of course not! They’re waiting for the government to do it.

  • DurdyDawg

    G’ment was never ‘good’ but unlike today; it’s corruption was practiced behind closed doors and of course, it’s profit was far less achievable than it is today. Both major parties have their share of corruption, but unlike the republicans who just doesn’t care what 47% of the voters feel about them, the democrats give the impression that their fighting for the average citizen which, though updated significantly, is the old school philosophy of gaining popularity (votes). I therefore lean toward democratic issues which can be too ‘left wing’ at times but could certainly be compromised if the conservatives would stop portraying the extreme right and instead offer logical alternatives through cooperation which they refuse on every liberal issue. If Wolf’s philosophy became the foundation of America again (as it had once a very long time ago) then we as Americans could once again feel proud and hold our heads up as the rest of the world would reevaluate our worth as a true leadership nation. The “Me” generation completely jeopardized our ideals of a continued democracy.

  • EriktheRed

    Damn why can’t MY Dem Governor speak like this guy??

  • browninghipower

    I like this guy, too. He’s a breath of fresh air. Let’s hope he doesn’t turn out like Obama and DeBlasio. REading about him makes me recall a few things. You know when America was ravaged by Polio in the 50s, no one…no Dems especially pummeled Ike with ferocious smears and ugly criticicism and blamed him for the epidemic that was killing and paralyzing children. No one. Instead, researchers with government funding were working full throttle with everyone’s support to find a cure/vaccine to eradicate the fucking disease. American’s pulled together.
    But now, the fucking bastards in the right wing media and the tea party gop just can’t enough of piling on the Dems and Obama and the CDC. It’s fear and blame and the most horrific smears and bullshit I’ve ever heard. Really. And to what end? America appears to the world as a bunch of shrill toddlers running around a litter box. Where are the serious adults for chrissake? The country is in a full fucking meltdown and we are going to pay for buying into the panic that the gop/fox news/hate talk radio/24-hour cable news shit storm is blaring out non-stop. It’s just awful. And any reasonable voice of any sane person is once again non-existent-silenced-ignored. How many times is this syndrome going to reoccur before America’s society just fucking collapses once and for all? We have all but collectively lost our fucking minds as a society and the vile and fascist bastards among us have nearly won. Yikes…;;