This article appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect.
In February, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, first-term Democratic Governor Tom Wolf readied himself for his second budget address. These were not normal times for Pennsylvania politics: The state had been operating without a budget for eight months, an unprecedented crisis as the Republican-controlled General Assembly fought with the governor’s office over issues of taxation, spending, and pension reform. As the impasse dragged on, school districts and nonprofit organizations across the state were forced to borrow money, lay off employees, and reduce social services.
“My fellow Pennsylvanians: Our Commonwealth is in crisis. A crisis that threatens our future,” Wolf declared from the podium. “This crisis is not about politics at all. This is about math.”
Wolf went on to outline the dramatic consequences he foresaw if state legislators failed to pass a budget that included sufficient spending increases. Thousands of teachers and guidance counselors would lose their jobs, he said. Classroom sizes would grow, and tens of thousands of children would lose access to early childhood education. The state would lose nearly $200 million in services for Pennsylvania’s seniors, and $180 million for those with mental illness and learning disabilities. From slashed funds for child care to shuttered domestic-violence shelters, the negative outcomes went on and on.
“This is not a threat. This is not political posturing. This is simply what the math tells us will happen if this crisis is not resolved,” Wolf stressed. “I didn’t run for this office to be party to the corner-cutting and budget gimmickry that got us into this mess. We can’t afford to play political games.”
Wolf’s speech aside, the problem facing Pennsylvania is most certainly about politics—and particularly the challenges of democratic governance in an era of deepening party polarization. While Republicans and Democrats have long staked out different positions on issues of public policy, political scientists are finding that the parties are even further apart than they’ve been in at least 50 years; this polarization has extended to the general public, too, resulting in increasingly partisan communal institutions and news media.
The story of Tom Wolf is the story of how a progressive, liberal Democrat attempts to govern in such an era, at a time when split government means something quite different than it did even a decade ago. The challenges Wolf wrestles with in Harrisburg, with the state’s most conservative legislature in modern history, in one of the most ideologically divided states in the union, are growing increasingly common across the country. They also mirror the challenges President Barack Obama faces in Washington, D.C., as he navigates a Republican-controlled Congress whose leadership has shown unprecedented determination in obstructing Obama’s initiatives and any attempts to broker compromises.
Wolf’s dilemma, then, is both a product of polarized times, and intensely personal: How can he advance a progressive agenda given the political landscape he inherited? What tools are at his disposal? What blame, if any, does he shoulder for a failure to get things done?
IN 2014, WOLF WAS ELECTED governor with a margin large enough to claim a mandate. Not only was he the first person in four decades to defeat a sitting Pennsylvania governor, ousting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett, but he won by ten percentage points. And while the budget impasse has largely defined Wolf’s time in office—dragging on for nine months between July 2015 and March 2016—he also found ways to promote progressive policies amidst the stalemate.
The 67-year-old businessman from south-central Pennsylvania had never before held elected office. The way he emphasized “math” and deemphasized politics in his budget address reflected the way he often describes his vision and responsibilities—for better or for worse. On the campaign trail, Tom Wolf ran on a platform to restore cuts to education, and to do so by passing an extraction tax on natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Though angering many environmentalists and progressives, Wolf opted to embrace the booming fracking industry in his state.
Soon after taking office, Wolf expanded Medicaid, transitioning away from the complicated alternative system his Republican predecessor had implemented. Five hundred thousand beneficiaries were enrolled within his first year—in a far more streamlined and straightforward program than had existed before.
“Pennsylvania is not a state that you would think of as being at the forefront of health-care issues, but now with Wolf, it is,” says Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and a longtime friend of Wolf. “He stands out among governors when it comes to making health and health access top priorities.”
Wolf also signed a series of executive orders for political appointees and state workers, banning gifts to state officials and requiring that all state contracts with private-sector providers go through a bidding process. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty, granting temporary reprieves to 180 inmates on death row as a state task force formally reviews the policy. He also raised the minimum wage—mostly for state janitorial workers and part-time clerical staff—increasing their pay from $7.25 to $10.15 per hour. And in the wake of North Carolina’s passing a law that stripped rights from gay and transgender people, Wolf issued a pair of executive orders that expanded protections against discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted “to show the world that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place for everyone.”
But as G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, points out, Wolf simply “can’t make change for 12 million Pennsylvanians on his own.” His executive actions carry symbolic power, no doubt, but in practice they yield only limited impact. “For really big change,” Madonna says, “Wolf needs the legislature.”
And that’s where he runs into problems.
SHORTLY AFTER ENTERING office, Wolf introduced his budget proposal, which called for more than $1 billion in new education spending, a 5 percent natural gas extraction tax, property tax relief, and an increase to the state’s sales and personal income tax.
While widely seen as “ambitious,” this type of budget proposal, Madonna says, was not actually that unusual. “Governors don’t just put out their first-year agenda, they really try to put out a four-year-agenda,” he explains. “They’re laying out what they’re really trying to do now, and that could change by the end of the first year—you might have new issues, you could have a recession in the middle of your term, any number of things. But what he did was not unusual.”
The Republicans didn’t bite. When the GOP-controlled General Assembly sent Wolf its $30.2 billion budget bill late last June, they included no new taxes, and none of Wolf’s other stated priorities. Wolf struck it down—the first time a Pennsylvania governor vetoed an entire budget in modern history.
What followed were months of debates between lawmakers and the governor’s office over reforming the state’s pension system, the future of the state’s liquor system, tax redistribution, and education spending. As the impasse dragged on, school districts were forced to borrow roughly $900 million, and nonprofits across the state had to scale back.
“People were completely stressed out, and impact on morale was severe,” says Anne Gingerich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “You had organizations with longtime staff that quit and went on to get other jobs because they couldn’t handle that instability.”
“Everyone has concerns about the state and health of our pension system—short- and long-term,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member and strong public schools advocate. “But that’s not an excuse. … If it weren’t pensions, honestly, it would be something else. The legislature is evading a central responsibility, and they hold our kids hostage as they fail to deliver required dollars to schools.”
Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s been criticized for being aloof, for not investing enough in interpersonal relationships with members of Congress. If Obama would just invite Republicans out to golf, to grab a beer, or to dine a few evenings at the White House, the thinking went, then maybe the toxic political atmosphere that seems to derail political compromise could change.
But a lack of schmoozing is certainly not Tom Wolf’s problem. From the very start of his time in office, he began hosting policy breakfasts and lunches with members of the legislature from both parties. He regularly brought people into his office, and dropped by theirs, unannounced, throughout the week.
“I’ve never seen a governor who did so much reaching out to all the members of the legislature,” says State Representative Dan Frankel, the Democratic Caucus chair in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
T.J. Rooney, the former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a former member of the Pennsylvania House, says that Wolf and Obama are similar in that they are both progressive intellectuals. “But Governor Wolf’s approach with the legislature—and I say this in an endearing way—Tom’s approach was much more aggressive than the president’s approach,” he says. “I mean, literally, he spent weeks upon his inauguration walking from office to office to rank-and-file legislators to introduce himself and get to know them.” While Rooney acknowledges these entreaties have not yet “paid off in a big way,” he thinks that, over time, such gestures are not lost and forgotten.
But Stephen Miskin, the spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, views Wolf’s outreach as “absolutely insincere engagement.” While he admits that Wolf has gone and met with Republican and Democratic legislators more than Miskin has ever seen since he started in state politics in 1984, he argues that the governor’s courteousness and kindness just does not make up for doing “everything he can to undermine” Republicans.
As the stalemate stretched on, some pundits criticized Wolf, saying he was too beholden to unions and other progressive constituencies that helped elect him to office. Wolf certainly was no fan of the GOP’s proposals for pension reform. But by November, Wolf made clear that he would sign a pension-reform bill that included a traditional defined benefit plan for future state and public school employees combined with a 401(k)-style plan. The compromise framework also included large increases in education funding and made headway on restoring prior cuts to social services. The Senate passed this framework budget deal in December.
But Republican House leaders did not even let the bill come up for a vote. Mike Turzai, the House speaker—the same man who said that voter-ID laws would “allow” Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in 2012—canceled sessions twice before Christmas, and sent everyone home.
“We have legislation waiting for us to vote on. Yet, the House speaker decided not to hold session,” State Representative Ed Gainey, a Democrat, told thePittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. “It’s bewildering to me, especially when the impasse is wreaking havoc on social services, and schools are considering keeping their doors closed after the holidays. This is the height of irresponsibility.”
The unions had signaled that they would back the Senate budget framework, despite its pension-reform provisions. “SEIU members supported the overall budget framework reached by the governor and legislative leaders last year … despite strong reservations about some aspects of it, because it included significant investments in education and other priorities that are vital for our state’s future,” says Neal Bisno, the president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.
Turzai and his allies claimed they didn’t bring the budget up for a vote because it wasn’t clear how the spending bill would be funded. In fact, the leaders generally understood where the revenues would come from; they just didn’t like it. Still, with no final bill to sign, Wolf was forced to pass a stop-gap budget, as the talks dragged on.
Meeting with the governor in April, I asked him what has most surprised him about his time in office so far. “I was surprised when I thought we had a deal back in December,” Wolf told me. “I understood that when I wrote my first budget, … it was very ‘ambitious’—as the Republicans kept reminding me. I understood I wasn’t going to get all that. But when I got to the fall and I had gotten what I thought was a good compromise—I had made concessions and they had made some good concessions themselves—and it passed the Senate 43–7, I was surprised when the leadership pulled the plug and said, ‘We’re going to go home.’ Yeah, that was a surprise.”
The nine-month impasse finally ended in March, when Wolf allowed a budget to pass into law without his signature—a budget he said that adds to the deficit, and underfunds key programs throughout the state. “I cannot in good conscience attach my name to a budget that simply does not add up,” Wolf said at a press conference. “But to allow us to move on to face budget challenges of 2016-17, I am going to allow [it] to become law.”
Wolf’s problem is not only that he’s dealing with large Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but also with legislators who are markedly more conservative than the Republicans who preceded them.
“Wolf can work with the Senate, there’s still sanity there—but the inability to deliver in the House is the biggest impediment that he faces,” says Rooney.
“I’m becoming particularly pessimistic that we’re going to get a budget that deals with the structural deficit,” says Frankel, the House Democratic Caucus chair. “I just don’t see Republicans cooperating to get a sustainable fix. I think we’ll get a smoke and mirrors budget.”
Indeed, while the General Assembly ultimately avoided another long budget impasse—House and Senate leaders came together to pass a budget that Wolf signed into law earlier this month—many of the state’s long-term fiscal issues remain unaddressed. While Wolf had initially proposed a $2.7 billion budget that would have reduced the state’s structural deficit, lawmakers ultimately approved a budget of just $1.3 billion, though it did include a new $1-per-pack cigarette tax, something few had expected to pass in an election year.
BORN AND RAISED IN York County, Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf grew up in a world of comfort. His wealthy family was well known locally: They ran a successful kitchen-cabinet business, regularly fundraised for political candidates, and donated often to charitable causes.
Wolf has a reputation for being an avid reader and a serious intellectual (when I met him, he was finishing up Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). He sees himself as a “curious human being” and believes books help him ask better questions.
He went to Dartmouth for his undergraduate education, though he took some time off to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Orissa, India. He went to the University of London for his master’s, where he met Frances, his wife of 40 years. Next, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in political science, where he wrote a national-award-winning dissertation on the structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his love for learning, friends say it would be a mistake to think he just holed himself up in the library. “Tom was a revered graduate student, such a wonderful human, and so nice,” says Drew Altman, a fellow grad student from MIT who played intramural sports with Wolf. “He just had such a winning personality. It was sometimes even a little bit annoying to people.”
After graduate school, to the surprise of many of his academic colleagues, Wolf headed back to York to help run his family’s business. Seven years after his return, he and two cousins bought the company, WOLF, from Wolf’s retiring father, and over the next two decades the profitable business continued to expand—employing some 600 workers, who, as a consequence of the company’s unusually conscientious profit-sharing program, reaped between 20 percent and 30 percent of its profits. The company grew to become the largest supplier of kitchen and bath cabinets in the United States, and on the campaign trail, Wolf cited his successful business record and his generous management style as proof of his leadership credentials.
“Although he’s a very wealthy fellow, he really does not bring to the table some of the far-right-wing positions that wealthy Pennsylvanians and wealthy Americans tend to,” says David Fillman, the executive director of AFS-CME Council 13. “Governor Wolf is very labor-friendly, and it’s just been very refreshing.”
Friends and colleagues talk about Wolf’s “strong moral compass.” Raised in a household that taught him that his privilege obligates him to give back and work for the greater good, Wolf donates his entire government salary to charity. He speaks excitedly about democracy, and calls public servants “stewards of a grand democratic tradition.” He prioritizes ethics reforms like gift bans, increased government transparency, and campaign-finance overhauls. While he won every county in the Democratic primary, Wolf acknowledges that turnout of eligible voters was extremely low. His ultimate goal, he says, is to restore trust in government so more people will exercise their fundamental responsibility of citizenship.
In 2015, InsideGov, a government research organization, ranked Tom Wolf as the most liberal governor in America, based on a review of his public statements, press releases, campaign platforms, and voting records. But if you talk to Wolf, he doesn’t see himself as very ideological at all. He insists that his progressive values are just outgrowths of his pragmatic character, shaped by his years at MIT and in the private sector. Being a progressive, he says, is really just about doing the “smart” thing.
He cites his recent nondiscrimination executive order as an example. “That’s not a dogmatic thing; that’s just something that makes common sense,” he tells me. “When I’m in business and I want good talent in my company, why would I want to limit the talent pool by saying I’m only going to look at people who, say, look like me? You don’t do that. You want the best possible people you can [get]. If they work hard, they’re willing to take risks, you want that person.”
There’s a political logic to Wolf’s attempts to position himself as non-ideological, rather than as a liberal progressive. While Pennsylvania leans slightly Democratic, the western part of the state tends to be more culturally Midwestern and politically conservative. And, as Madonna explains, there are also a handful of Democrats in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania who represent districts that have been trending Republican over the past decade. These Democrats are not just conservative on social issues like guns and abortion, but increasingly on fiscal issues as well. Many of these constituents would have been in an uproar if their leaders backed the general tax hikes that Wolf put forth.
But sometimes Wolf’s claims of being above partisanship and ideology have felt grating, even insensitive. He regularly uses phrases like “let’s be honest with ourselves” and urges legislators to do the “right thing”—meaning the thing he thinks needs to be done. He describes his job as “helping people understand” the mathematical issues at hand. He tells me his international hero is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, because he really “took that idea of pragmatism, of goodness.”
“We have a governor who literally believes he is an emperor,” says Miskin, the GOP spokesperson. “He issues decrees and gets upset when people don’t agree with him.”
WHEN I ASKED WOLF if there were things he’d like to get done while in office in order to feel like his time there was a success, he said yes, but “done the right way.” For him, “transactional politics”—which he defines as the day-to-day work of being in office—are less important to him. “I care more about making lives better, making my home state a lot better, and taking advantage of all the great things we have here, than I do about whether this moves bills forward at this pace. I care more about making sure we do it right, and the math adds up.”
He looks at his margin of victory as evidence that the voters also want him to lead in this way. “It’s liberating. I can do what I think is right, and I think people voted for me because they thought that’s the kind of person I am,” Wolf says. “I’m not as concerned with what people think about me as I’m concerned if I’m doing the right thing—whether my daughters and my wife respect me after I make a decision. Those things are a lot more important to me.”
But not everyone is so pleased with Wolf’s confidence to move at his own pace. Cynthia Figueroa, the president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia, a multi-service organization located in the poorest ZIP code in the state, witnessed firsthand how difficult it was to provide social services during the budget impasse. Figueroa’s organization had to furlough staff, reduce programming, and delay the start of other initiatives that normally would have been funded at the start of the fiscal cycle. Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia has been around for nearly 40 years, and Figueroa says that while she spoke out and pushed state leaders to take action, a lot of other organizations “were suffering in silence” because they didn’t want to scare off their individual donor base, and worried their government contracts might be transferred to other people if they made an outcry.
When I asked her if she felt like leaders in Harrisburg really understood the ramifications of their failure to pass a budget, she said absolutely not. “It was a lot of men digging their heels in, a lot of ego,” she says. “It really felt like it was playing poker with poor people’s lives.”
Samantha Balbier, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a coalition of 420 nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania, says that they found that nonprofits that were not Medicaid-reimbursable, with budgets less than $10 million, were hit particularly hard by the impasse—organizations such as senior-care service providers, domestic-violence shelters, and some drug and alcohol facilities. While Balbier’s organization is encouraged that Wolf recognizes both the importance of restoring human-services funding and how the impasse cost nonprofits money, she says there’s still a lot of concern that “there could be a precedent set where the budget is just never passed on time, and where Pennsylvania politics emulate what happens on the federal level.”
IN HIS FINAL STATE OF the Union address, President Obama issued a call to end gerrymandering. “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared.
Pennsylvania is considered one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union. After the 2010 elections, Keystone State Republicans helped redraw the lines around competitive areas to make them swing more easily in their favor. In 2012, Republicans took nearly 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats—13 out of 18—though more than half of all votes cast in the state during that election for the U.S. House were for Democrats.
“Due to gerrymandering, our districts are not competitive, and so the legislatures are unaccountable—especially the leadership,” says Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “They don’t feel the voters anymore. They know they will get re-elected, and they can be as ideologically pure as they want and refuse to negotiate.”
Common Cause Pennsylvania is part of a statewide coalition of civic groups advocating for redistricting reform. Their long-term goal is to establish an independent redistricting commission, which will prevent sitting legislators from drawing district lines for political gain. “We want it to be people who don’t have a specific dog in the fight, and who will ensure the districts are equal in population, compact, and contiguous,” says Kauffman. Creating more-competitive elections, advocates say, will lead to greater accountability.
The two states with model independent commissions are Arizona and California, and in both cases, voters won this reform through statewide initiatives. Since Pennsylvania has no such process, advocates anticipate a much longer, and tougher, fight.
Still, there is reason to think that Pennsylvania’s new era of polarization is rooted in factors that extend beyond gerrymandering. Democratic legislators in the southwestern part of the state, after all, have grown more conservative because their constituents have grown more conservative. Political scientists have measured the ideological position of congressional members and found that representatives in gerrymandered districts are not more extreme than those in others.
Today, there are 19 other states like Pennsylvania where control of the governorship, state Senate, and state House is split between the two parties. Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches in 23 states, compared with just seven Democratic-controlled states. The states that are entirely GOP-controlled have moved their policies sharply rightward; states like California and Oregon, which are controlled by Democrats, have grown far more liberal.
“Redistricting couldn’t hurt, creating more moderate districts would help, but I think more political scientists see this as a problem of where the voters in the two parties are geographically located,” says Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Even if districts were redrawn, there’s reason to assume that many districts would still lean heavily Democratic and heavily Republican given where these voters tend to live.
So what is to be done? The challenges facing Wolf in Pennsylvania look a lot like the challenges facing the president in Washington, D.C. And on the federal level, there are various tools at legislators’ disposal, like the filibuster, that can make gridlock even more likely. Where possible, Obama has effectively opted to work without Congress during his second term, issuing presidential orders and letting the courts weigh in on whether his actions were appropriate uses of executive power.
“I’ve learned a lot from Obama,” Wolf tells me. “I think the executive order is something that I have the right to do, and I can exercise my veto pen.” Unlike the president, the governor can also use his line-item veto power to pick and choose which parts of the budget he likes. “The governor is not afraid to avail himself of the constitutional provisions of his office,” says Rooney.
Historically, American political parties were more ideologically diverse and diffuse; it was not uncommon to find more conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in their ranks. “Now, the parties act much more like coherent teams, and they all take the same positions and back the same people and oppose the other side,” says Pierson. “It’s really hard to figure out how you get this process to go in reverse. A lot of political scientists are asking what would shift this and I haven’t heard a lot of good ideas.”
In January, seven months into the budget impasse, a Franklin & Marshall College poll found that two out of three Pennsylvania voters felt their state was on the wrong track. According to an analysis conducted by a local newspaper, this marked the highest voter dissatisfaction rate in the 21 years that F&M had conducted this poll. Poll respondents placed more blame on the state House and Senate for failing to pass a budget, rather than the governor. The legislature received a 15 percent voter approval rate, compared with Wolf’s 33 percent.
But a Quinnipiac University poll released in April found Wolf earning his worst approval ratings since he first took office. Among Republicans, 75 percent said they disapproved of Wolf’s job performance, and so did 49 percent of independents. Among Democrats, 59 percent approved of his performance. Whether the gridlock will weaken him to the point that he will face a serious challenge in 2018 remains to be seen.
Overall, these broad political dynamics do not bode well for liberals. The more that citizens think the system is rigged—either that their votes don’t really count because of gerrymandering or that nothing will ever get done because of gridlock—the greater is the likelihood that voters will disengage entirely, creating a downward spiral of popular engagement.
The effect of “this kind of dysfunction is not neutral between the parties,” says Pierson. “If I become alienated and think government is not working, on balance, I think that would be more advantageous to the anti-government party.”
Tom Wolf is caught in a hard place, in a tough moment for national, state, and local politics. But he says he’s enjoyed every minute of the time he’s been in office. It’s important to do more than “make the trains run on time,” he tells me, in a reference to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “You’ve got to make the trains run on times in the democratic context. You’ve got to do it right. I think we politicians today lose sight of that second dimension. We’re stewards of a grand democratic tradition.”