THORNDALE, Pa. – Tom Wolf’s mood is sunny but his words are serious.
He’s answering teachers’ questions at an elementary school featured last year in a New York Times story about the costs of overcrowding and underinvestment. The Democratic nominee for governor, Wolf criticizes Pennsylvania incumbent Tom Corbett for education cuts, but he is not terribly partisan about it. Wolf is a businessman who also holds a Ph.D. in political science, and he offers a brief commentary on the importance of “public goods,” not a term typically invoked on the stump.
He ends a lengthy response about pensions with an apology. “Am I giving you more information than you want here?” he asks with a smile.
Wolf has reason to be in fine spirits. Democrats are unlikely to have a great evening on Nov. 4, but as the returns roll in, the 65-year-old native of York, Pa., is almost certain to emerge as one of his party’s stars. Wolf is so far ahead, wrote The Associated Press’ Marc Levy, that the state’s pollsters couldn’t find an example of a candidate who “overcame the kind of polling deficit Corbett now faces.”
Democrats may find solace in other governors’ races as well, but Wolf will stand out as an unusual politician who speaks to two of the main sources of popular discontent: unhappiness with the economic system over its failure to deliver for so many workers, and widespread alienation from government.
As a businessman who took over and at one point saved his family’s building materials company, Wolf thinks capitalism works best when employees have a stake in their firm’s success.
“I share 20 to 30 percent of my net profit with my employees,” Wolf says. “Everybody is a stockholder in the company. My Republican father came up with the idea. And he did it because it really works.
“I am judged in my company by my truck drivers, not by me. They see my customers more than I do. I know that my warehouse people who pack the trucks get credit because they pack the trucks so well.” Thinking of workers as stakeholders is old-fashioned. But these days, it’s also revolutionary.
Then there is his talk of “public goods.” Wolf recalls picking up a group of exchange students from France who visited his family in 1965, a time when America’s public works were the best in the world. Kennedy Airport, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the New Jersey Turnpike, the nation’s water systems, the new schools in his hometown – all, he says, were state of the art.
Since then we have fallen far behind other nations in productive infrastructure investment. “You can get away with deferred maintenance in any setting for so long, but then things don’t work,” Wolf notes during an interview in the school’s library where a water-damaged wall underscores his message. “This stuff really does catch up to you. You don’t get jobs. You don’t have people who can buy things. You let your schools get hollowed out. That’s not good for anybody.
“Yes, the market is going to deliver the goods,” he concludes, “but what does the government need to do to make sure the market is operating optimally?”
Yet progressives, Wolf argues, have to confront uncomfortable facts, too: “People are afraid of taxes because they don’t see that they get much for their taxes. … Governments in the United States have to show – and I think it’s a bipartisan finger-pointing exercise here – that we can actually deliver to people who pay taxes.”
He speaks of his time as secretary of revenue under then-Gov. Ed Rendell when he visited with his agency’s employees to persuade them to look at the state’s taxpayers as “our customers,” as “the ones that give you employment.”
“What we need is to get out of this sort of thing that government is this immutable institution that just sits there and is a pain in the butt at best. … The case must be made again that government is something that actually plays a constructive role in the lives of people.”
Then the hard part: “But to do that, you can’t just say it. You’ve got to actually act it out.”
True, Wolf is setting himself high standards. But in an era of deadlock and estrangement from public institutions, it’s bracing just to hear someone insist that they can be made to work again.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.