Tom Wolf is a pro.
The self-funding millionaire businessman who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to be Governor of Pennsylvania is not shying away from voters like one would expect a first-time candidate to do. On a tour Saturday of Lancaster’s Central Market, a roofed century-old farmer’s market where Amish men in Abe Lincoln beards sell mason jars of jelly next to a stand hawking African bread and samosas, Wolf avoided the expected awkwardness while being hustled around by the city’s mayor, who loudly proclaimed “come meet Pennsylvania’s next governor.” Wolf, a 65-year-old kitchen cabinet magnate dressed in the political uniform of blue shirt, blue suit and red tie, seemed to have voter interaction down to a science. First, he extended his right arm for a handshake with the voter; second, eye contact and a smile; third, using his left hand for a friendly shoulder tap. As he insisted to the Daily Beast afterwards, he was used to this. “I was a Peace Corps volunteer when I was 19 trying to get people [in India] to adopt high yielding rice techniques so I understand how it has to be.” Wolf said his experience in business also helped as he was used to “talking to people and try and sell them hardware, kitchen cabinets and decking.”
Wolf, a lifelong resident of the south-central Pennsylvania industrial town of York, was a wild card in the Democratic primary against incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett when he first threw his hat in the ring. Corbett is considered the most unpopular incumbent in the country, and the Democratic nominee for governor will be heavily favored to win the election in November. Wolf entered a field full of Democratic officeholders who saw this as their opportunity to move up including five-term Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, a moderate social liberal from suburban Philadelphia, and State Treasurer Rob McCord. Wolf though has quickly established himself as a front-runner by the most straightforward means possible: spending $10 million on positive television ads in recent months. With none of his opponents on the airwaves, Wolf has shot to a massive lead for the May 20 primary. While touring the market in Lancaster on Saturday, he was recognized as a local celebrity: “I’ve seen you on TV!” or “Oh, I just love your daughters" (they are featured in one of his ads).
But while his television ads were omnipresent, finding a political figure in the Democratic Party whom Wolf would associate himself with was far more difficult. He continually insisted that he was not trying to model himself after anyone, describing himself as a candidate “the likes of which [Pennsylvania voters] haven’t seen before.” He even dismissed the question of whether he would campaign with Barack Obama in a general election, saying “I haven’t gotten to that point, I’m trying to win a primary election.”
The closest that Wolf came at even expressing an opinion about a fellow pol was casting aspersions on the business experience of another bearded self-funder, Jon Corzine, the former New Jersey governor and senator. Corzine, a Democrat and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, was considered spectacularly unsuccessful in his four-year term governing New Jersey from 2005-2009. When asked what differentiated him for Corzine, Wolf seemed to dismiss the business experience of the former New Jersey governor (who has since been under investigation for his role leading MF Global, a failed futures brokers). “Well, Corzine didn’t come out of business, he was a venture capitalist or a banker, he came out of the finance industry,” said Wolf. “I’ve actually built a business, worked with people and done it right and the 20-30 percent [of profits] I share with my employees is something I learned in business.”
This business experience has become an important part of Wolf’s effort to paint himself as a self-proclaimed “unconventional candidate.” He even flaunts his degrees—at a rally on Saturday, Wolf endorser Rick Gray, the mayor of Lancaster, bragged that the Democratic candidate had a BA from Dartmouth, a master’s from the London School of Economics and a PhD from MIT. But beneath the nonpartisan wonkery and his desire to use his experience “actually [doing] things in the executive sense,” there is an ever-so-slight hint of a more straightforward liberalism underneath.
He said there were broad ideological similarities between himself and his competitors for the Democratic nod, but he said he “focused a little more on leveling the playing field” compared to his competitors. Wolf also referenced his experience as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Revenue, noting “I think we had some issues, challenges in our tax code that we can make a more level playing field.” Continuing, he said, “I think equality and those things actually matter.”
The primary is just over a month away and while Wolf’s opponents, particularly Schwartz, are expected to unleash a torrent of last-minute ads, the first-time candidate appears to be in the catbird’s seat, with a lead of almost 40 points in the most recent poll. Voters, and fellow politicians—judging by his rising number of endorsements—seem to be embracing the message that he has broadcast via television ads across the state. As Wolf noted about his self-funded advertising blitz, “Usually people take a look at people who do [self-fund], say 'Now you’ve got name recognition but I don’t like your story.’ But people seem like to like what I did.” And, unless Pennsylvania voters change their mind, the Jeep-driving businessman from York will likely move into the Governor’s Mansion in Harrisburg next January.