There’s one thing you can pretty much count on from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf: no surprises.
Also, apart from a couple of nasty past budget battles, no real drama and, let’s be frank here, little (if any) excitement.
Perhaps the best example of this came at the height of his 2018 reelection run.
When GOP opponent Scott Wagner in October offered Wolf the political quote of the year — “I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes” — Wolf said, “I think that would hurt.”
A snoozer for journalists. But a Wolf response that’s par for the course. No fuss. No fun.
Then again, there’s something to be said for any pol tacking toward serenity at a time when so much of governance and politics is steered by swirling turbulence.
Wolf lately floats on a sea of calm, simultaneously focused on stability while also hopeful for positive change and fully aware of his place in public life.
For instance, in a year-end chat, I ask about national ambitions, in this context: Fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Casey has said since he has multiple comfortable statewide wins (as does Wolf) he, Casey, has “an obligation” to consider a 2020 run for president to ensure Democrats carry the state.
Does Wolf agree, and also feel such obligation?
“No,” he says, without hesitation.
Same for VP or other offices or national posts: “I am not thinking about that, and I think it’s fair to say no one else is either.”
It’s a mix of realism and self-awareness. And, truth is, Wolf doesn’t like to campaign.
When I ask his least favorite thing about being governor, he quickly says, “Having to run for reelection.” Because, when it comes to campaigning, “I don’t think I’m very good at it. … I’m not a natural.”
I think it’s fair to say that’s true.
But he did win twice (even if not against the strongest opponents). And he brought “nice” to the capitol. Doesn’t take a salary. Provides a decency-balance to the often hideous, self-serving legislature. And a sense of predictability.
Looking at the new year and his final term (Pennsylvania governors are term-limited), Wolf’s goals and priorities are much the same as always.
Education funding; access to health care; jobs, including at the Port of Philadelphia; infrastructure; battling the opioid crisis; and reforms aimed at “making people trust government.”
That would include ethics reforms, voting reforms, campaign-finance reforms, redistricting reforms — the very things Harrisburg gets stuck on, then rejects year after year.
Yet Wolf, optimistically, says he senses more interest than usual in reforms and a better chance of achieving them.
Why? Because “people care … It just seems there’s a change in outlook. I think people really seem to think a government that ranks low on trust is not a good thing.” I’d simply note that “people” haven’t had a great deal of luck or success in getting their elected lawmakers to agree with them, and likely won’t unless or until entrenched legislative leadership changes.
But let’s move on.
“What happened is pretty simple,” he tells me. “New York and New Jersey seem to be moving full-speed ahead. … I’m a realist.” Does that mean you’re ready to promote legalization? “No,” he says, but the state “has a responsibility to take a look at it.”
Confused? Don’t be. Ain’t happening in the current GOP-run legislature.
Finally, Wolf says he has run his last campaign and already looks forward to being an ordinary citizen.
Oh, and the thing he likes most about being governor?
“Working through and discussing issues, and trying to come up with different ways to solve practical problems. I really enjoy that.”
Good thing. Pennsylvania has plenty of practical problems: reform-resistance, structural budget woes, taxing inequalities, education inequities, bad or mediocre rankings among best-run states, and more.
So, making progress in any of these things would go a long way in “making people trust government.”