Q&A: In an Era of Shouting, Gov. Tom Wolf Speaks Gently

In an era when partisanship divides the nation, Gov. Tom Wolf prefers to keep the political rhetoric subdued, emphasizing cooperation over divisiveness.

Quietly — unobtrusively — Gov. Tom Wolf is confident.

The Democrat who handily won his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014 does not exhibit the frustration endemic to many politicians in this divisive era. He is far more eager to discuss successes than sticking points; he seems more emboldened by instances of cooperation than he is frustrated by legislative breakdowns.

Since the 2018 election, which saw him garner a substantially larger share of votes than he did in 2014, Wolf has continued to push for victories in Harrisburg, often in spite of a GOP-controlled legislature. And while Wolf — like many governors — is a frequent foe of President Trump, he is patently uninterested in the us-versus-them version of political discourse.

In an era of shouting, Tom Wolf speaks gently.

It’s certainly not a problem unique to Harrisburg — it’s more acute in Washington, if anything — but there’s a lot of legislative gridlock that comes with governing a so-called “purple state.” Is there a solution?
We are a purple state in terms of the makeup of the general assembly and who’s in the governor’s office. But we’ve now gotten two straight budgets done on time; I think we’ve got a lot of really good things done. A historic amount of increase in education funding, pension reform, liquor reform — for the first time since Prohibition. I can do things without ruffling too many feathers in terms of gun control, charter school reform, a whole host of things — health care, expanded Medicaid … I don’t think we have the same gridlock that Washington has. I think Pennsylvania’s actually a model of what you can do; you don’t have to have a governor and general assembly of the same party to have engaging conversations.

There are nearly a million more Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania, yet the legislature has been controlled by the GOP for decades. Is the makeup of that body representing Pennsylvania as it should? We’ve undergone redistricting in terms of Pennsylvania’s representation in Washington; is something like that due for the general assembly, as well?
It is … [although] State Senate and State House districts, that’s done without me; it’s done with each member of the caucus. The tiebreaker there is the Supreme Court. This is the first time in at least two Censuses where we actually have a Democratic majority on the bench. If they keep doing what they did with the U.S. Congressional Map — I actually got a mathematician from Tufts to do what I thought was a fair map, an objective map. They came up with a map that was pretty close to that. Objectivity is often in the eye of the beholder, but I think they did a good job, and I think they’ll do a good job as tiebreakers on the State House and State Senate, and I think we’ll start to see a change in the makeup of the general assembly.

On a somber note, tell me about visiting Auschwitz and the echoes of the Tree of Life attack on that trip.
It was an interesting trip. I went there for two reasons; one, no Pennsylvania governor has ever visited our National Guard troops [in Lithuania], and we’ve had a 26-year relationship with Lithuania. Every year, Pennsylvania National Guard women and men have gone to Lithuania to serve, and Lithuanians come to Pennsylvania all the time. So I really wanted to do that … [and] I figured, as long as I’m there, I’m going to take a trip to [Poland to visit] Auschwitz.

I hadn’t realized there was another site; before the gas chambers, before the concentration camps, the Nazis were just mass shooting. There was a site — [more than] 70,000 victims — in Lithuania; I signed the guestbook there with the [names of the] 11 victims from the Tree of Life Synagogue, then went to Auschwitz and did the same thing. I laid a wreath both places; I lit a candle at Auschwitz. I took the Mezuzah and laid it on the guestbook, signed my name and the names of all the victims. I took that Mezuzah and brought it back to Tree of Life Synagogue.

It was really neat to visit with the troops, [but] it was really a sad, somber — I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s a reminder of, at our worst, what we humans are capable of doing to each other.

In light of the Tree of Life attack, is there any movement on identifying extremist groups and hate groups in Pennsylvania? Is there a problem with those ideologies and those groups in our state?
Yeah. It’s a problem in every state in the country. Pennsylvania’s not immune to that. We have to recognize — and Auschwitz is a great reminder — we can’t behave that way. I tremble for the future of our democracy if all we do is continue to yell at each other and spout hatred and division and xenophobia. That doesn’t work in a nation of immigrants. I also tremble for the future of our species. How are we going to survive if all we do is hate each other? That doesn’t lead to a good outcome. I have signed bills that have put millions of dollars behind defending and protecting places of worship; we need to do that. But what we really need to do is just stop hating each other. We need to disagree, by all means; we need to stick to our principles. But we cannot hate each other. We cannot divide ourselves.

There’s more movement around gun control now than any time I can recall — in terms of legislation and certainly in terms of public support and activism. Do you think we can hope for meaningful change in the near future?
Last year we actually passed legislation for the first time in a long time — domestic abusers, taking guns out of their hands. I thought we really had a shot at getting something passed on red-flag legislation. Now, I’m not so sure. I want to push as hard as I can. I’m doing what I have the authority to do with executive orders to address this.

We have the Second Amendment, but this is another case where we have simply got to stop yelling at each other. We have to sit down and say, “We have a Second Amendment. You have a right to your weapons. But let’s figure out what that means, because I also have the right to go to the mall and not fear for my life — not fear that I’m going to be shot by a random person with a gun.” I’m hoping that we can get beyond the state of just yelling; at some point, we have to do that. We’ve done that with everything else. We have a First Amendment but you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. You can be as absolutist as you want, but you have to recognize that there are limits to what that means. We need to figure out what the balance is.

Personally, one of my biggest concerns as a Pennsylvanian — and as a human — is for the environment. There have been some concerning recent reports about air and water quality in our region. They come at a time when many of the laws that restrict polluters are getting weaker. Should I be worried about the environment in Pennsylvania?
I think you should always be worried about the environment everywhere. I take that very seriously. The challenge that I have is that I also believe we have a unique opportunity with the gas industry … [and] my feeling is that we need to have a strong gas industry. We have a rich natural resource; Pennsylvania has gone through this before with coal, trees, petroleum. We haven’t handled it well. We need to do this right.

When Trump dropped the United States out of the Paris accord, I [stayed] in the Climate Alliance … which is committing us to the Paris accords. I have established greenhouse gas emission targets to achieve by 2026, and also 2050, to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. That’s not 100%, but it’s 80% … I’ve made the argument that we also need to make sure that we recognize the realities of where we are and the unique situation that Pennsylvania is in. There’s no excuse for trashing the environment; there’s no excuse for ignoring climate change. There’s no excuse for ignoring the reality that, if we do nothing, we’re going to be in a world of trouble in a very short time. Where the arguments and debates ought to take place is [around] the right thing to do: How do we get from where we are to the place where we need to be, where we have sustainable energy?

The capital markets are already making it very hard for fossil fuel [companies] to create centralized power plants. Penn State is going to be close to self-sufficient [thanks to a 500-plus acre] solar farm in central Pennsylvania. That’s just the beginning. It’s the biggest in Pennsylvania now; as I said [at a kickoff event], we hope it’s not the biggest for a long time. That’s the future: distributed grids. The future of automobiles, if you talk to a lot of people in Pittsburgh, is electric, autonomous and shared. I think we’re moving in the direction of a real sustainable-energy future. How that happens and what the transition looks like, that’s what we need to focus on — to make it as clean, fast and seamless as we can possibly make it.

It’s been heartening to see states like Pennsylvania and California, when there’s an EPA rule that’s lessened or gutted, say, “Well, we’re going to keep doing this the right way.” But there is a view that says you can’t combat climate change if you do any more fracking. That you can’t combat climate change effectively if there’s a new petrochemical plant. You don’t share that hard line?
No, I don’t. The reason I don’t is because you could make the argument that fracking is actually the cleanest way we’ve extracted a natural resource in the history of the world. In terms of what’s going on up at the Shell cracker plant, they’re creating the feedstock for the very lightweight products that that sustainable energy future is going to require. So we can have all kinds of debates — and I think those are important, to say, “What is the best way to do this?”

And there are going to be people that disagree with me on this. But we’re all trying to get to the same place: A future where my kids and my grandchildren can enjoy a good, long life free of concerns about the air they breathe and the water they drink.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before an Associated Press report revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigations is conducting a probe into the Wolf administration’s permitting process for the Mariner East 2 pipeline project. In a statement to Pittsburgh Magazine, Gov. Wolf said, “I pay my own way. I give my salary to charity. I have a gift ban. Openness and transparency and integrity are absolutely important to me. I welcome anybody to look at what’s going on in the administration. And if something’s not right, then people should be held to account.”)

This month, we’ve named our Pittsburgher of the Year. Who, from Pittsburgh or the Pittsburgh region, has recently stood out to you — for their achievements in any field, whether political or not?
When I started running, I came out here — and I was amazed. Every year, I’m more amazed. This is a place that has just picked itself up from its back. It’s really a neat place.

I don’t know who gets credit for that. But there have been a lot of people, starting with Mayor Murphy and others, who did different things and tried different things. The business community, the Allegheny Conference. Now, the people I’m working with — Rich Fitzgerald, I think he’s remarkable. Mayor Peduto is doing some great things.

I think Pittsburgh is a world example of a community — I don’t know of another example of a community that has done this. I don’t know who to give credit to. Everybody in Pittsburgh deserves credit for this turnaround. It’s amazing … You look around, and everyone is doing something.

Part of it is the spirit; you talk to a Pittsburgher, they say, “I’m from Pittsburgh and I’m really proud of it.” And when something happens like Tree of Life, the entire community rallies around it. This is one of those cases where it is a team effort. And to give any one person credit for it — you don’t want to diminish the work that everyone has done. So I’ll give credit to the community. You’ve done an amazing job.

Gov. Tom Wolf

– Born: Nov. 17, 1948

– Hometown and Current Residence: Mount Wolf, York County

– Education: B.A., Dartmouth, 1972; M.Phil., University of London, 1978; Ph.D. in Political Science, M.I.T., 1981

– Elected: Nov. 4, 2014, Defeating Incumbent Tom Corbett

– Re-elected Nov. 6, 2018, Defeating Challenger Scott Wagner

– Former CEO, Wolf Organization

– Former State Revenue Secretary

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