By John L. Micek / The Morning Call (Allentown,Pa)
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Corbett stopped, took a breath, folded his hands and stared hard at the top of the podium in front of him, as if it were going to yield the answer to a question a reporter has just asked him about the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed Penn State University.
When he finally spoke, his voice was hard, low and even.
“I am personally disappointed in the lack of action,” he said. “And I had to contain that for the last two years.”
He spat out the words. It wasn’t the politician in him answering, but the former federal prosecutor, and later, state attorney general, who had spent years prosecuting crimes against children. He underlined the anger a few minutes later.
“He who preys on a child is the worst type of person in the world as far as I’m concerned,” said Corbett, who, while attorney general, began investigating the alleged crimes of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in 2009.
And that’s the side of Corbett that national television audiences have seen as well: the confident former prosecutor who exuded steely calm in the face of not only the controversy at Penn State but also during the floods and storms that devastated parts of Pennsylvaniain September.
But that side of Corbett stands in marked contrast to the freshman governor who still seems far less at ease negotiating the choppy waters of policymaking.
“He excels at these big moments and critical junctures. It’s an area where he has tremendous experience,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall Collegein Lancaster. “He is much less comfortable when he’s dealing with individual issues like (school) choice and Marcellus Shale.”
Despite that seeming decisiveness, Corbett has also faced criticism for the two years that elapsed between the beginning of the Sandusky probe on his watch in 2009 and the decision to press charges against Sandusky, who was once considered Paterno’s heir apparent.
Corbett has defended the way the investigation was conducted, arguing that it takes time to develop leads and encourage reluctant witnesses to come forward. The Sandusky probe went “as quickly as it could,” Corbett has said more than once in the nearly two weeks since the investigation became public.
Two incidents from Corbett’s administration demonstrate the split in his leadership style.
Last spring, the Republican’s efforts to pass a school-choice package that included taxpayer-funded vouchers ground to a halt after the administration abruptly withdrew its support for a package sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin.
The issue remained stalled for months and it hamstrung Corbett’s relationship with the majority Republican state Senate. Even this fall, GOP lawmakers said they were shying away from moving major pieces of the administration’s agenda until they were certain that Corbett would support those efforts.
Corbett did that work for them on school choice, rolling out a proposal that included taxpayer-funded vouchers, charter school fixes and the expansion of a popular program that gives tax credits to businesses that make donations to private scholarship organizations. The proposal cleared the Senate earlier this fall and awaits a vote by the House.
There was no such bobbling during the September floods, sparked by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, which caused the Susquehanna River to overflow its banks in central and northeasternPennsylvania.
There, a calm and reassuring Corbett was a constant presence on television. He flew to northeasternPennsylvaniato meet with local officials and homeowners and was the face of the cleanup effort.
The effort paid dividends politically. A Quinnipiac University poll released days after the floodwaters receded found 48 percent of the region’s historically Democratic voters approved of Corbett, compared with 30 percent who did not. In a Quinnipiac poll released a month earlier, Aug. 3, 48 percent of northeastern Pennsylvanians disapproved of the first-term governor, compared with 30 percent who approved.
In an interview at the time, Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy concluded that “anybody with family in that area has to have come away with impression that the state and the governor did a good job. And his numbers had had a significant jump in that area.”
The early fumbles on vouchers and the success on the floods and thePennStatecrisis involve two different sets of muscles. And as is the case with any new skill, it’s likely that Corbett will improve with time, observers say.
“Dealing with the negotiations involved in the legislative process requires a different skill set than managing a crisis or leading an investigation,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg Collegein Allentown. “Corbett may get better in the elements of working with a Legislature with experience, but he has already had considerable experience and expertise in working in situations where he must stay cool and in control.”
Republican consultant Charlie Gerow, an admitted Corbett partisan, said he believes Corbett will increasingly grow into his role as the state’s chief executive – as is the case with any new governor.
“He is clearly growing – his polling shows that,” Gerow said.
Corbett does appear to have learned his lesson about the importance of the gubernatorial imprimatur: He’s appeared at two school choice rallies this past week and energetically called on lawmakers to send him a bill. But voters still need to catch up.
In that September Quinnipiac University poll, half of state voters said they approved of Corbett’s job performance, compared with 32 percent who did not. That’s a marked increase from the 44 percent of voters who approved of Corbett in an August poll by the Connecticut university. And it’s a leap from the 39 percent approval rating Corbett had during the heat of the 2011-12 budget debate in June.
Nonetheless, Corbett is still struggling to sell voters on his skills as a policymaker. Just 42 percent of respondents to that Quinnipiac poll said they approved of Corbett’s policies, compared with 37 percent who disapproved. In August and June, 43 percent of state voters said they disapproved of his policies, compared (respectively) with the 40 percent and 38 percent who approved.
“I do think that Corbett feels very comfortable in crisis mode and much less at home in policy debates,” Muhlenberg’s Borick said. “Public safety and legal crises are clearly areas where the governor looks in his element as opposed to a fairly clumsy appearance when navigating policy matters.”