Interviews & Profiles

Exit Interviews Part 2: Tom Wolf, The Backstop

Wolf’s veto pen has often been the only thing stopping bills passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature.

Wolf's veto pen has often been the only thing stopping bills passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature.

Wolf's veto pen has often been the only thing stopping bills passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature. Alex Wong/Getty

There may be no politician in Pennsylvania over the last few decades who has had a more turbulent time in office than Gov. Tom Wolf. A Democrat, Wolf upset the incumbent – Republican Gov. Tom Corbett – in 2014 after mounting an outsider campaign. Immediately upon taking office, Wolf found himself in a protracted budget battle with legislative Republicans, which resulted in years of budget fights with the GOP-dominated legislature. Wolf later developed a better working relationship with Republicans in Harrisburg, but just as things appeared to be smoothing out, COVID-19 hit. Wolf and GOP lawmakers were once again at odds, this time over the governor’s use of executive powers to respond to the pandemic. For much of his time in Harrisburg, Wolf has referred to himself as the Democrat’s backstop against GOP-backed legislation targeting everything from public school funding to abortion and voting rights. 

Wolf has still managed to find common ground with Republican leaders, signing bills that boosted funding for public education, overhauled the state’s Election Code, reformed state pensions and legalized medical marijuana. 

As someone who ran on being an “education governor,” Wolf prides himself on being able to increase funding for basic education throughout his two terms running Pennsylvania’s executive office. “So far, after seven years, I put $1.8 billion in education – basic education – and with this budget, I’m looking at another $1.7 billion,” Wolf told City & State. “I’m proud of that, because education is important in and of itself. We need to actually equip people with the skills they need to have lives we need them to have.”

The governor’s other priorities have eluded him, however. Despite seven-plus years of trying, Wolf has been unable to reach agreements with the General Assembly to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage and levy a severance tax on natural gas extraction. Wolf also expressed a desire to have done more on the issue of infrastructure funding, noting that the state’s gas tax is struggling to provide needed revenue. 

“We need to come up with a way to fund the investments we have to make in infrastructure,” he said. “I think that’s the challenge that was here when I got here and it has not been solved.”

Wolf recalled a conversation he had with an unnamed state senator when he first took office in 2015. Wolf said the senator told him to always keep in mind that there are Pennsylvania families struggling to afford everyday essentials like health care, car payments, housing costs and more – and that policy decisions will have a direct impact on the family down the street trying to make ends meet. Wolf said the story stuck with him – and it’s something he hopes his successor will keep in mind. 

While he was mum on future endeavors, Wolf made it clear that he has no plans to run for public office again. “I want to read and eat and sleep and walk and spend time with my wife and my grandchildren.”