From Kane to Corbett: the Year in Review in Pa. Politics

By Peter Jackson
|  Wednesday, Dec 25, 2013  |  Updated 1:02 PM EDT
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For an off-election year, 2013 was surprisingly full of political intrigue and engagement in Pennsylvania.

The travails of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who polls suggest is one of the nation's most vulnerable governors, inspired at least eight Democrats to declare their candidacy for the nomination to challenge him in next year's election.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who took office in January as the first woman and the first Democrat to be elected as Pennsylvania's chief legal officer, worked in tandem with her fellow Democratic row officers -- newly elected Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Treasurer Rob McCord -- to hold the GOP administration's feet to the fire.

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In the state and federal courts, battles raged over the politically charged issues of whether Pennsylvanians should have to show photo identification in order to cast ballots and whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

In a year-end setback for the Corbett administration, the state Supreme Court struck down industry-friendly rules in a law that limited local governments' power to control where the natural-gas industry can operate.

The 2013 elections were almost exclusively local, with just one contest -- for an open seat on the Superior Court -- on the statewide ballot.

But in the larger political arena, Corbett and Kane were clearly the year's focal points.

Corbett, a former attorney general, has struggled to overcome criticism of his reticent leadership style, his public gaffes on politically sensitive topics, his support for the natural-gas industry, and spending cuts in education and social services. Two of his three major 2013 initiatives -- overhauling state pensions and privatizing liquor and wine sales -- went nowhere.

Polls show Corbett's popularity started to slide in early 2012, his second year in office, and remains stubbornly low.

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A Quinnipiac University poll released Dec. 18 showed majorities of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of Corbett's handling of his job and believe he should not be re-elected, while 36 percent supported Corbett on both points. About 10 percent were undecided, according to the poll, which carried a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"No governor in modern history has been below 40 percent," said Terry Madonna, a pollster at Lancaster's Franklin & Marshall College.

Corbett, 64, scored a major victory in late November when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed -- and he signed -- a $2.3 billion transportation funding package that will accelerate long-overdue improvements to highways, bridges and mass transit.

"He deserves as much credit as the leaders of the Legislature do," for helping broker a compromise that has eluded legislatures and governors for years, observed former longtime state Republican chairman Alan Novak. "It was not an easy lift."

"This is a huge victory for him," Madonna said, noting that the bill was supported by a coalition that included business and organized labor.

The victory may be bittersweet.

Corbett ran on a no-new-taxes pledge in 2010 and has sought to play down the fact that most of the revenue will come from gradually increasing a wholesale tax on gasoline. The increase, which is expected to be passed along to motorists, would add more than a quarter a gallon to the price at the pumps once it is fully implemented - a fact some observers believe could come back to haunt Corbett in the general election campaign.

"I think it's going to be easy game for the eventual Democratic nominee to take advantage of," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "No matter how he parses it out, he broke a promise, and that in itself presents a character challenge for him."

Kane, 47, a former Lackawanna County prosecutor who had not previously run for public office, defeated a former congressman in the Democratic primary and a veteran district attorney in the general election in 2012.

Kane, who billed herself in her campaign as "a prosecutor, not a politician," has impressed Democrats and Republicans alike with her independent style and political savvy -- prompting widespread speculation about her political future.

"She's picked her fights very well," said T.J. Rooney, a former state Democratic chairman.

When civil rights advocates filed a challenge to Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage in federal court in July, Kane refused to defend the law because she believed it is unconstitutional. The unusual move left the task to Corbett, who hired an outside law firm to represent state officials named in the suit.

In February, Kane's office blocked Corbett's plan to contract out the management of the $3.5 billion Pennsylvania Lottery to a British firm, saying it violated the state constitution and state law. The issue remained unresolved in the final days of the year.

One of Kane's first official acts was to fulfill her campaign promise to appoint a special deputy to find out why it took state investigators nearly three years to arrest former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges. Sandusky was convicted and imprisoned, but the state's largest university is still reeling from the ensuing scandal.

Kane never accused Corbett of wrongdoing, but he was the attorney general during most of the period in question. He has cited the successful prosecution as proof the probe was effective and denied keeping it from becoming public while he was running for governor.

Corbett faces potential opposition in the May primary from conservative activist Bob Guzzardi, but history is on Corbett's side. In the four decades since the state constitution was amended to allow Pennsylvania governors to serve two terms instead of one, none has been denied re-election.

The Democrat contest is shaping up as an anti-Corbett free-for-all.

Candidates include McCord, who was re-elected state treasurer last year; fifth-term U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a former state senator from the Philadelphia suburbs; York businessman Tom Wolf, a former state revenue secretary; and two former state secretaries of environmental protection, John Hanger and Katie McGinty.

Joe Sestak, the Democratic former congressman who ousted Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter from the U.S. Senate in the 2010 primary, also considered running for governor but ultimately ruled it out. Instead, the retired Navy officer said he may challenge an expected 2016 re-election bid by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

George Leader, a Democrat who served as Pennsylvania's governor from 1955 to 1959, died in May at age 95. Five of Leader's gubernatorial successors were among the nearly 500 mourners who turned out for his funeral in Hershey.

No major public corruption scandals surfaced in Pennsylvania in 2013.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fumo was released from federal prison in August to serve the last few months of his sentence in home confinement in Philadelphia, and former state Sen. Raphael Musto, of Pittston, awaited trial on separate federal corruption charges.

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