Wolf Bares his Teeth

Pattern of impetuous moves is troubling

Anyone who thought Tom Wolf was going to govern like the sweet old man he projected in his campaign for governor, wasn’t paying attention to the fine print during the campaign.

Within weeks of winning the Democratic primary for governor, Tom Wolf showed his “my-way-or-the-highway” approach to leadership.  His campaign sent out an email days before the Democratic State Committee meeting declaring his support for Katie McGinty — one of his opponents in the Democratic primary — to become chair of the Democratic Party.  There was only one problem:  The Democratic Party already had a chair and that chair,  Jim Burn, wasn’t going anywhere.  After a few uncomfortable days and headlines like “Will leadership rift spoil the party for Pa. Dems?” (philly.com 2.20.15), Wolf blinked.  He picked up his marbles, created his own PAC, called it “Campaign for a Fresh Start” and named McGinty its first chair.

For those of us watching Wolf during the campaign for hints of his leadership style, this was a watershed moment.  Why?  Because it was an impetuous move that created a distraction because of its, well, impetuousness.  Wolf did not attempt to make this move through back-channels; he did not reach out to Burns or key party leaders to build a consensus around the move to oust the party chair.  Had he done so, Wolf  would have found that Jim Burns was actually a pretty popular state party chair and wasn’t going anywhere.  But Wolf’s only move was to send an email out to party chairs announcing his decision. Impetuousness creating a political distraction. This has become a hallmark of the nascent Wolf administration.

Within days of delivering an inaugural address, calling for “leaders today who are willing to listen to each other … and learn from each other … and work together to give all Pennsylvanians a shot at a great life,” Wolf reverted to form in his first executive actions.  As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, “On his second day in office, Gov. Wolf rescinded more than two dozen eleventh-hour appointments by his predecessor — firing the state’s new open records officer, canceling judicial nominations, and effectively booting the former lieutenant governor from Temple University’s board of trustees.”  The most controversial of these moves — and one that continues to haunt the new administration to this day — was the removal of Erik Arneson from his post as the director of the Office of Open Records. “Arneson, 43, told reporters on Thursday [Jan. 22]that he had no intention of leaving the office — except in handcuffs.  ‘This is a nuclear assault on the independence of the Office of Open Records,’ he said.  [Senate Majority Leader Jake] Corman said it was hypocritical of Wolf to remove a Republican from the office at the same time that the new governor wants the chamber to consider his roughly two dozen cabinet nominees on the basis of credentials, not party affiliation.”

One act of impetuousness, an anomaly perhaps.  A second act, a pattern emerging? A third, troubling.  And the third act came just last month with Wolf’s summary sacking of former City Councilman Bill Green from his position as chair of the School Reform Commission (SRC).  Again, Wolf made the move through a public email chain, completely blindsiding the key parties involved.

As reported by EdWeek, “Green … planned to challenge the action in the Commonwealth Court.  In a district-issued statement, Green said that he did not believe that the governor had the authority to remove him as chairman of the SRC, a non-paying post, and his legal action will seek to clarify whether the governor can do so.”  Philadelphia School Superintendent Hite explained the downside of Wolf’s move and its timing, calling it “a distraction,” stating that at “a time when we really should be talking about investments and budgets and the work that we’re trying to accomplish, instead we’re talking about governance once again.”

Picking a fight with Republican leadership over a mid-level bureaucrat in the days leading up to budget negotiations with that very same leadership.  Sacking the SRC chair just days before the School District launches its new $300 million vision, Action Plan v.3.0.

This Wolf needs to be a little more cunning and a lot less impetuous if he is to become the new kind of leader he sold us on when he was running for the office he now holds.