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In January 2003, Democrat Ed Rendell began his governorship facing a Republican-controlled General Assembly that wasn’t going to raise taxes, wasn’t going to increase spending, and wasn’t going to legalize casino gambling.
Before he reached the middle of his first term, Rendell hit the bettor’s trifecta. With votes in each house from Democrats and Republicans, the legislature raised the state income tax from 2.80 to 3.07 percent, and hiked taxes on utilities, beer and cigarettes; it increased spending on education by $450 million; and it legalized slot machine parlors at horse race tracks, which paved the way to eventual table gambling and casinos.
Statewide polls show a significant majority of voters unlikely to give the current occupant of the highest elected office in Pennsylvania another four-year term. It appears either one of the four candidates who wins the Democratic primary on May 20—former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, state Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Alyson Schwartz or businessman Tom Wolf—is likely to replace incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett in the fall.
Reversals of fortune are not unheard of—anything could occur to change the electoral equation in Corbett’s favor. But, polls over the last year consistently show the governor unable to even motivate his Republican base, which is essential to winning re-election.
Corbett’s struggles have Republicans in the legislature subtly trying to keep their distance from a captain whose ship appears to be foundering, though they don’t keep too distant, just in case the governor can right his ship and sail into a second term.
“The trend among Republicans in the House and the Senate is, ‘Get him off your Facebook page,’ ” said one longtime GOP insider.
Democrats should consider what it would mean if their nominee takes the oath in January 2015. How can a liberal governor—all four Democrats are of the same ideological cloth— move an agenda that, for the most part, would be opposed by at least half of the GOP-controlled legislature?
In the House of Representatives, a bloc of around 40 like-minded conservatives—the tea partiers—view compromise as akin to capitulation of their economic, moral and political values. Conservatives like House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) do understand that to govern means to get things done, but how would a Democratic governor push a liberal agenda with such issues as a severance tax on gas drilling and more funding for public education?
“Any governor has to put together a coalition of sorts,” says John O’Connell, an aide to Republican Governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. “Whoever the next governor is, he or she is going to have to figure out his or her coalition, per issue.”
Coalition building means building relationships with legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Corbett’s critics accuse him of failing at this. They point to the governor’s struggles to get the much-needed transportation bill enacted or to get final approval on a bill to privatize liquor sales.
Governors must build relationships, even in a legislature controlled by their own party, say longtime legislative staffers and aides to former Democratic and Republican governors. Without relationships, and coalitions to address specific issues, getting things done becomes difficult, if not impossible.
It’s not just building relationships, says Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). “It’s building relationships in the legislature with someone who understands the legislative process,” Costa says. “This governor has not been able to do this, arguably, with leaders of his own party.”
Costa recalls that Rendell, as governor, would meet before launching an initiative with leaders of the four caucuses to hammer out compromises and make deals, part of the legislative sausage making that some people, in particular tea party types, abhor.
“He included Republicans, even when at times the Republicans’ answer was ‘no, no, no,’ but Republicans were there for those four caucus meetings,” Costa says. “It’s the function of those relationships you have that will matter.”
Despite their differences with Rendell, Republicans speak fondly about the tactics of the Democratic governor. “One of the reasons Rendell was so successful is because he was always willing to compromise,” said one GOP legislative staffer. “We were able to work with him on many things. As long as you have a governor willing to take that approach then I think there’ll be room to operate.”
Rendell’s deal-making approach may offer a Democratic governor useful lessons, but he or she will face a House significantly more conservative than when the former Philadelphia mayor was governor. This brand of Republican politician has shown much less willingness to entertain compromises on tax increases and spending hikes, even with a Republican governor.
“They should not walk in thinking they have a mandate to raise taxes,” said Steve Miskin, Turzai’s press secretary. “That doesn’t mean, though, Republicans are unwilling to negotiate.”
As of now, it looks as if the new governor will face a House and Senate controlled by Republicans.
The current makeup of the 203-member House is 111 Republicans and 92 Democrats. Neither party is expected to pick up many seats in the fall. At best, they could gain or lose one or two seats, though Republicans say they are confident of gaining at least one seat, if not more.
In the 50-seat Senate, Republicans hold a 27-23 majority, but the Senate GOP is moderate compared with the House. So much so that one House wag complained about his fellow Senate Republicans: “They ran away from the conservative message.”
Yet it was the Senate GOP leadership—not Corbett—that moved the desperately needed $2.3 billion transportation bill for fixing roads, bridges and funding mass transit after the House GOP was unable to launch. After a tortuous route through the legislature, the governor signed it, even though it did include increases in fuel taxes and motor vehicle fees.
For a Democratic governor, says Republican and Democratic sources, the first relationships he or she would want to make is with its ranking Republicans: Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware).
“I think Joe Scarnati and Dominic Pileggi are willing to work issues on the merits rather than play partisan politics,” says Tony May, a public relations man in Harrisburg who served as communications director for Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey in the 1980s and 90s, and press secretary for Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp in the ’70s.
Democrats hope to gain at least one seat in the Senate, that of retiring GOP Sen. Ted Erickson in Delaware County. Re-taking the majority seems less attainable a prize, though Democrats insist they have a good chance of winning control.
Would a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House serve Pennsylvania well and help a new Democratic governor?
Surprisingly, observers on both sides of the aisle say it could lead to the gridlock, like what is occurring in Washington, D.C., where the Democratic White House and the Democratic Senate spend much of the time in political-tug-of-war with the Republican House.
Republicans, Democrats and political scientists interviewed for this story suggest a Democratic governor would likely find better advantage with a Senate that remained in the GOP leadership’s hands because they could better negotiate with the House.
“I think the next governor would be better served working with Pileggi and Scarnati,” May says.
Such an alliance would pose another set of challenges to a Democratic governor, Muhlenberg College Political Science Professor Chris Borick says.
“He or she would have to be creative in finding agenda items that are in agreement with the traditional business section of the Republican Party, and to the Democrats,” says Borick, director of the college’s Institute of Public Opinion.
A Senate Republican staffer considers the idea of a Democratic governor going to Senate GOP leaders to help move his or her agenda “a very realistic scenario. The Senate has far fewer contentious votes than the House, and we try to reach out when we can.”
Although Republicans facing opponents in this year’s election may worry about Corbett’s success at the polls, they are not too concerned that he will drag them down with him, if he goes.
However, Senate Democrats believe Corbett’s spending cuts have been so egregious that they have their best chance yet at unseating such longtime Republicans as Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, 20-year incumbent from Bucks County, and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, 36-year incumbent from Montgomery County.
“All those Republicans voted for Corbett’s budgets,” says Anne Wakabayashi, a spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
Whether tea party conservatives dominate at this year’s polls remains a question, but one such candidate, wealthy businessman Scott Wagner, recently won the special election for the open Senate seat in York County. Using a write-in campaign, he defeated the Senate GOP’s endorsed candidate, the first time in Pennsylvania history that a candidate won a state Senate seat on a write-in vote.
If Wagner wins the May 20 Republican primary, and the general election in November—and Republicans are confident he will—then he and other newly elected conservatives with tea party mindsets will pose a challenge to a Democratic governor who will need reciprocation from them on something they oppose—compromises and deal-making.
But that’s the key to governing. A Senate GOP staffer recalls how Rendell and Senate Republican leaders would meet to reach an agreement on legislation: “Sometimes we would add something we wanted. He did not shy away from deals. To some people, a deal is a negative, but it’s absolutely essential to getting things done. It doesn’t have to be distasteful. It can be a positive experience.”
As press secretary to former Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker, David LaTorre, a public affairs consultant in Harrisburg, believes that no matter who is governor and who controls the legislature, practicality will trump politics.
“There’s campaigning in fantasy land, and then there is governing,” says LaTorre, who believes that Corbett, despite the polls, will win re-election, though it may be a close race.
LaTorre said the magic number remains 128–102 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate, which are the majorities required to pass a bill. “If a Democrat does win,” LaTorre says, “he or she will have to work awfully hard with a Republican legislature, and it’s not going to be easy.”