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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf is being chastised for supporting a former York, Pa. mayor whose racist beliefs and actions led to charges in connection with a black woman’s murder during a 1960s race riot.

The man leading the charge against Wolf is fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rob McCord, a man uniquely positioned to speak on the issue. McCord’s wife is African American, and as much as we’d like to believe differently, interracial couples are often subjected to scorn, enduring vicious barbs from across the racial divide. They suffer social slights and discrimination. Their children are asked to pick sides in a battle they didn’t create. The very issue they’ve chosen to overlook, race, constantly impacts interracial couples in countless ways.

That’s why I listened when McCord raised the issue. He knows, in ways that others do not, the harm that racism can cause. And he raises a valid point when he says that Wolf’s failure to take a public stand against racism when given the opportunity represented a failure in leadership. Perhaps that’s not important to those who castigated McCord for a campaign ad making that point. But as a black Philadelphian who has watched Gov. Tom Corbett underfund Philadelphia public schools that are 52 percent African American and 19 percent Latino, it’s important to me. As an African American in a city where the 26 percent poverty rate disproportionately affects people who look like me, I am concerned.

To be sure, Wolf has done good things, having served in the Peace Corps in India and given money for day care centers and other projects in York. But this issue raises a red flag for me, because if Wolf has not consistently spoken up against racial injustice in York, why should I believe he will do so statewide?

So how did we get to this point? The story begins in 1969, when Charles Robertson allegedly participated in a race riot.

Robertson went on to become mayor of York, and had been mayor for eight years when Wolf began working with Robertson’s administration through Better York—an organization helmed by Wolf that partnered government and business leaders in an effort to rescue the city from economic stagnation. 

Sources close to Wolf say he was not friends with Robertson, but rather a casual acquaintance, when Wolf was approached in 2001 to chair Robertson’s mayoral campaign. Soon after Robertson won the primary he was charged with murder in connection with the 1969 riot.

Robertson dropped out of the race and was eventually acquitted, but Wolf stayed on as campaign chair. Wolf’s supporters say he did so to clean up loose ends and make sure vendors who’d worked on the campaign were paid. His detractors say Wolf should’ve distanced himself from Robertson, publicly denounced his actions, and resigned as Robertson’s campaign chair.

Now that Wolf is the frontrunner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Rob McCord, who lags behind Wolf in the polls along with two other candidates, has aired an ad rehashing the incident.

I spoke with McCord campaign spokesman Mark Nevins, who stood by the facts of the ad.

I also contacted Wolf’s campaign, and spokesman Mark Nicastre said, “Tom has worked on issues of racial justice throughout his life. He is committed to diversity and fairness in his company with African Americans serving in some of the highest leadership positions.”

Nicastre then referred me to an Inquirer story that quotes current state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who was chairman of York County’s Democratic Party in 2001. DePasquale told the Inquirer that he, Wolf, and Robertson advisor Charlie Bacas held a phone meeting to determine that Robertson could not continue as the party’s nominee after Robertson was charged in 2001.

According to the Inquirer, DePasquale said, “Because Wolf and Bacas knew Robertson best, ‘it fell to them to give the mayor the news, so to speak.’”  

For me, that raises even more questions, because sources close to Wolf told me that Wolf did not know Robertson well. So which is it? Was Wolf one of the people who knew Robertson best, or was he just someone who was acquainted with him through work? And if they weren’t friends, why stay involved with his campaign?

Wolf should answer those questions publicly, and he should answer them himself. If he had a backroom conversation to push Robertson out of the race in 2001, he needs to say that. If he chose to stay on the campaign to tie up loose ends, say it. A man vying to be governor can’t keep trotting out others to defend him. Silence is just not acceptable.

Sadly, that has become the default position when it comes to issues of race. We act as if racism will disappear if we don’t talk about it. When someone chooses to speak up, those who prefer political correctness to real dialogue often shout them down.

I was sorely disappointed to hear that former Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa), two men I respect, adopted that posture when McCord’s ad was aired. In doing so, they sounded like they were reading from the same script.

Casey, who like Rendell, said he hadn’t endorsed anyone, went on to say that Wolf “is a person of uncommon integrity and an abiding commitment to justice and fairness. This ad is offensive. I hope it will be taken down and that all of the candidates will focus on the importance of moving the Commonwealth in a new direction.”

I think that’s nonsense. Calling out inaction in the face of racism is not offensive. Further, silence does not help to move our Commonwealth in a new direction. If anything, it keeps us mired in the same racial stagnation that has resulted in poor schools, poor communities, and a poor economic outlook in many of Pennsylvania’s communities of color.

It’s nice that York mayor Kim Bracey, who is African American, spoke up for Wolf in an ad, reminding us that people in York believe Wolf is “a person of integrity, and he’ll be a governor for all of us.” It’s nice that Wolf worked with African Americans like Bobby Simpson in York, as well.

But neither Bracey nor Simpson is vying to become governor of Pennsylvania. Tom Wolf is.

That’s why Wolf needs to stand up and answer these questions publicly, because if Wolf wants to speak for me in Harrisburg, the very least he can do is speak for himself.