Corbett addresses supporters in Fox Chase.
Protesters suggest that voters "send Corbett packing."
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett chose an American Legion hall in Northeast Philadelphia to launch his troubled reelection campaign this morning. He drew a crowd of supporters — and a louder group of protesters outside.
Corbett's campaign slogan is "Promises Kept. More Jobs. Less Taxes." On some signs, it's, "Less Taxes. More Jobs." Either way, the Corbett campaign has decided to focus on a simple message in an effort to cut through widespread criticism of his cuts to funding for education and services for the poor, as well as his reluctance to regulate or tax his donors in the natural gas drilling industry, and the failure to pass his "big three" legislative priorities: transportation funding, liquor-sales privatization and pension reform.
Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley told the crowd that the "best days of our Pennsylvania lie ahead." But it will be difficult for that "morning in Pennsylvania" message, an echo of Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, to overcome painful realities on the ground, where school districts grapple with state cuts. That is particularly true in Philadelphia, where a deep budget crisis has left students in overcrowded classrooms with bare-bones resources.
He called for an "honest discussion about education funding" and accused Gov. Ed Rendell — though not by name — of "spending money" the state "didn't have. ... We did have to reduce spending because we had less money."
Corbett denies responsibility for the cuts and blames the reduction in state funding on expiring stimulus dollars. But what's undeniable is that state budget for education was reduced by about $1 billion under Corbett, and many Democrats — alongside public education advocates, teachers and others — will remind voters of that repeatedly.
Education funding is also key to appraising Corbett's core claims of lower taxes and more jobs.
According to Daily News columnist John Baer, "every other large state, except Virginia, created more jobs than Pennsylvania" since his term began. "In many cases, many more." Corbett likes to talk about private sector job growth, but not reductions in public sector employment — including the elimination of 20,000 public-education positions.
And while Corbett has fought efforts to tax natural gas drillers, school districts statewide have hiked property taxes in a struggle to keep up with declining state contributions.
The governor did not directly address the difficulties Philadelphia students face, though he conceded that "certainly, education is on the front page every day." The governor called on teachers to make concessions, and argued that Philadelphia receives a large share of state education funds — implying that city schools should not receive more than their fair share.
"We have other school districts," he told the crowd.
Most inside the American Legion post did not blame the governor.
Matt Wolf, a Republican ward leader from University City and leading party activist, wouldn't say whether he believed there should be more state aid to schools. But he argued that the expansion of charter schools and the closing of traditional public schools is key to improving education.
"They closed 30 schools last year," said Wolf. "They should have closed 50."
Stephanie Marcinkowski, an accountant from Fox Chase, said that Corbett's critics "just want what they want because it's going to affect them. I think it's very stingy of them, and I don't think it's really helpful to the Commonwealth."
She laid the blame on teachers and parents.
"It's a matter of individual responsibility. Nobody wants to take accountability for the way that the schools are run. Nobody wants to participate in their children's education the way they need to participate. Everybody wants to point fingers. I think the teachers work really hard, but I think there is no mechanism or the ability to get the bad teachers out of the system."
John, a Vietnam veteran and Democrat from Fox Chase, was more skeptical — but he wanted to hear the governor out.
"Education is his downfall as far as I'm concerned," he told City Paper. Overall, he said, "He's done a pretty good job. The education thing really bothers me."
Corbett's choice of Fox Chase for his Philly visit, about as far from the Center City as geographically possible, reflects the uneasiness of a governor who seems to feel out of place in his state's largest city. Corbett will make stops throughout the region today, but he will not venture into the other large swaths of Philadelphia where many low-income and non-white students have faced large class sizes, absent nurses and counselors, shuttered libraries, and barebones arts and music programming.
Even here, in a traditionally white and more conservative-leaning corner of the city, the Republican Party has been losing ground. Though Republican Brian O'Neill represents the area in City Council— the city's only district councilperson from the party — Democrat Kevin Boyle represents the district in the state House. In 2010, Boyle defeated then-under-indictment and now-imprisoned former Republican House Speaker John Perzel.
"We have not spread the word about what Gov. Corbett has done for the city," said Rep. John Taylor, the last Republican representing a state House district entirely within city lines. Taylor pointed to legislation enabling the city to create a land bank, a priority measure to deal with the city's thousands of abandoned properties. Taylor called it an "untold story, and we're going to start telling it today."
I suggested that this will be rather more difficult than his own reelection campaigns, won through a mastery of retail politics and a detail-oriented approach to solving the problems of individual constituents. Taylor's language, like that of Corbett, signaled a campaign that must play defense from day one.
Ella Butcher was among a small group of black Corbett supporters in a largely white crowd. Butcher is the executive director of the state Republican Party's New Majority Council, which is charged with reaching out to non-white people. I asked Butcher, who says she became a Republican because she is a small businesswoman, what Corbett has done to benefit minority Philadelphians. She took a long pause, and then smiled.
"He's reaching out."
Outside, police had to push back protesters who surged toward Corbett as he made his way to a waiting SUV.
"How can y'all support someone who took one billion dollars from children's education?" one woman shouted at Republicans exiting the event.
Correction: Republican Brian O'Neill, not Dennis O'Brian, represents City Council district 10. O'Brian is from the Northeast, but holds an at-large seat.
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