In Pa., we've got a Wolf Watch

JACQUELINE LARMA / ASSOCIATED PRESS Tom Wolf is funding his own campaign for Pennsylvania governor.

NOW THAT THE Democratic primary for governor has become a Wolf Watch, it's time to ask if anything can slow York County's Tom Wolf down.

His TV ads put him well ahead of six other contenders, overshadowing their campaigns.

He has more money than anyone else in the race.

And he just scored a Western Pennsylvania coup, grabbing support of dozens of Democratic elected officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

This, at minimum, snubs the rest of the candidate field, especially latecomer and Pittsburgh's own Jack Wagner, and further secures Wolf's front-runner status.

Still. The May 20 primary's far enough away for Wolf to stumble or for others to rise, because any time a candidate surges, scrutiny is sure to follow.

For Wolf, that means scrutiny of self-financing with $10 million; of his ties to an admitted racist/alleged murderer; and of details about his family business, the nation's largest cabinetry supplier.

Let's start there.

The Wolf Organization is chartered in Delaware, suggesting use of the "Delaware loophole," a tax dodge that candidate Wolf says should be eliminated.

About 70 percent of Pennsylvania companies do not pay corporate net-income taxes, costing the state $500 million annually, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and others.

But Wolf, in an interview, says his company does not use the "loophole." He says it's registered and pays taxes in Pennsylvania and 27 other states in which it does business.

He says that his company was Pennsylvania-chartered when he sold it in 2006, but that when he bought it back in 2009 it had been chartered in Delaware for "governance purposes" and a minority owner-equity firm wanted to keep it that way.

"I don't know that it makes any difference," Wolf says. "It has no impact on taxes."

Data from the Delaware Department of State show that the state is legal home to 1 million businesses, including 50 percent of all publicly traded companies and 64 percent of Fortune 500 firms.

Wolf's company is privately held.

University of Delaware professor of law and political science Sheldon Pollack, a widely published tax expert, says that being chartered in the First State "just means you're organized under the laws of Delaware."

He adds: "People think Delaware law for public companies is more favorable to management . . . [but] for a family company to be chartered in Delaware makes no sense. It's really irrelevant."

On a related issue, Wolf recently backed up his touted profit-sharing policy, a subject of TV ads claiming that he shares 20 to 30 percent of his profits. He provided the Associated Press with records showing 2013 profits of $6 million with $1.26 million in profit-sharing, about 21 percent; and sharing of 20 percent from 2012.

You can bet that opponents are combing Wolf's business, income, spending and investments for potential political fodder.

Which gets us to former York Mayor Charlie Robertson.

Wolf was Robertson's 2001 reelection chairman when Robertson was charged with murder in the 1969 shooting death of an African-American woman during race riots when Robertson was a York police officer.

Robertson admitted being racist as a young man, which he said stemmed from his father being beaten and robbed by three young black men when Robertson was 15. He said he changed in later life following sensitivity training.

Wolf stood by Robertson after his arrest. As others called for Robertson's resignation, Wolf told the York Dispatch, "I was his campaign chairman during the primary and if he wants me to do it in the general, I am willing."

Robertson withdrew from the race and subsequently was acquitted, but one can imagine nasty, targeted mailers and ads linking Wolf to Robertson.

Wolf says that he held the mayor's campaign "honorary" post because at the time Wolf headed a civic group working with the mayor on city revitalization.

Perhaps further feed for a bundled attack on Wolf is his friendship with and financial support of former Democratic York County state Rep. Stephen Stetler, convicted in 2012 for using public employees for campaign work.

Wolf says he and Stetler grew up together and that "I and 150 other civic leaders contributed to his defense fund."

Stetler, recently released from prison, is appealing his conviction.

Although both cases arguably suggest Wolf's loyalty in the face of trouble, it's easy to see some Sarah Palin-like "pals around with terrorists" take.

As to Wolf's wealth, he claims that it lets him be beholden to no one. Others will claim that he's buying an election.

But Democratic opponents and, if it comes to it, Gov. Corbett could find solace in history.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics says that only 11 percent of more than 6,000 self-financed candidates for state offices who were studied won offices sought.

Money can't buy everything. But right now it's buying Wolf lots of attention.