Magazine article The American Prospect

Liberal Governor, Divided Government: Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf among the Nation's Most Progressive Governors, Has Been Checked by the Most Right-Wing Legislature in State History-But There Are Always Executive Orders

Magazine article The American Prospect

Liberal Governor, Divided Government: Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf among the Nation's Most Progressive Governors, Has Been Checked by the Most Right-Wing Legislature in State History-But There Are Always Executive Orders

Article excerpt

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. …

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