So within hours of becoming the new governor of Pennsylvania by defeating one-term Gov. Tom Corbett, Tom Wolf has done what everyone was hoping would not be done. He started a fight that appears to be about politics when, in fact, Wolf might have been trying to make a statement about his commitment to ethics and transparency.
To which anyone sick of politics trumping governance and/or policy says "Ugh."
Now everyone is scratching their head, or, if you're a Senate Republican, you're calling bullshit on Wolf's apparent decision to try and retroactively govern. That IS the problem that Wolf has created for himself, and it's kind of a big one, given that first impressions mean a lot. No wonder Sen. Jake Corman and other GOP legislators are wondering how come Wolf thinks his term started the day he won election and not the day he was sworn into office. In between those few weeks, Corbett surprisingly announced that former Open Records Director Terry Mutchler was out at the office she helped turn into a national model for governmental transparency and that Erik Arneson was in.
This is standard-operating procedure among all kinds of executive governmental leaders. Most governors or presidents or mayors attempt to extend their influence into the next administration, especially if the new administration represents a party change. But it appears Wolf not only thinks this is not moral or ethical, he is willing to test the legality of the appointments in order to make a bigger case. I suspect that case is one about transparency, about not shoving things down the throats of the electorate, or about doing shady things behind closed doors where no sunshine falls.
I suspect Wolf thinks that in some way there is no better venue to challenge politics as usual, because the Office of Open Records is the only place in state government where the sole mission is to keep things open and honest. It's like ... META! A fight about transparency in appointments and government in the very office that champions that cause. Wolf said he is eager to have this fight and who knows, maybe he has the kind of wisdom and verbiage to convince a majority of people that this action he took was for a greater cause. I think that is what he's trying to say.
By firing or rescinding the appointment of Arneson as director to the Office of Open Records just hours after he took office, Wolf appears to have wanted to make a statement that the last-minute appointments made by Corbett were not ethical. Hence, he has said he also will pull back the names of 27 other last-minute appointments made by Corbett but as yet unconfirmed by the state Legislature. In the case of Arneson and Open Records, the courts are now going to have to decide the fine points of whether or not the director is an at-will employee or whether changes in status about directorship appointment is beyond the control of the sitting governor. And the taxpayers will pay for all that legal wrangling, thank you very much.
What makes this fight more difficult is that the Office of Open Records was created in a way to firewall its director from exactly the kind of political retribution that would have a governor fire the director for disagreements. To gut that aspect of the set-up almost eviscerates the power of the Open Records office. That is not really a fine point, which is why Wolf''s decision to go Rambo on Corbett's appointment power wont sit well with many people, even his own champions.
What is hard to understand is why Wolf and his administration would want to start a fight that on the surface and by any measure can be painted by the Republicans as political on Wolf's part? Was there another way for Wolf to make the point that what Corbett did by making 11th-hour appointments was sleazy and piling on of the same tactics we've come to expect from power-hungry politicians who care more about protecting their turf and ideology than handing over the reins in a transparent fashion. Wolf is trying to UNDO the poor ethics of Tom Corbett and fix the ethics that existed prior to Wolf's swearing in. What he should have done was denounce the Corbett's methodology, and promise the people of Pennsylvania that going forward, he is going to act differently according to his moral code.
This is not about Terry Mutchler, whom Wolf could have more heartily endorsed and championed all during his campaign, this delivering a warning to Corbett that given a Wolf gubernatorial victory, it would be Wolf's intention to retain Mutchler. But the campaign did not do that, so Corbett was even more emboldened in the 11th hour to make the change. Then again, this is not about Erik Arneson, who is a respected and fair Republican legislative director who helped author the Open Records law during his time with former Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.
This is Tom Wolf's fight to show people he wants to do things different from the inscrutable and politically-gamed ways they have been done. Unfortunately, while making his case and taking what he must believe is the moral high ground, he may lose the legal battle to rescind the other guy's sneaky appointments. What's worse in the meantime is that Wolf's moral high ground is very easily obscured in the blur of political name-calling and power-broking. Wolf has not earned the right, not yet anyway, to just DO things because he thinks it's right. That comes with time and some trust. And that is why squandering the goodwill and political capital he earned this campaign season is alarming to anyone who really DOES want change to come to Harrisburg.
Wolf may be right. But his actions were, in the dawn of his own reign, difficult to differentiate from the wrong way things have been perpetrated in the past.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.