Pennsylvania Governor Makes Surprise Visits to State Legislators

by | February 12, 2015

By Amy Worden and Angela Couloumbis

Less than a month in office, Gov. Wolf has already shaken up the Capitol status quo -- imposing a gift ban, and scuttling his predecessor's Medicaid plan and firing one of his high-profile appointees.

But the unassuming businessman from York County also is logging miles walking the halls of the Capitol to drop in on lawmakers and their staffs.

Just to say hi.

Lawmakers from both parties are taking notice, sending him shout-outs on Facebook, tweeting selfies with the "guv," and even taking to the House floor to comment on it.

"In a bipartisan way, he's walking the halls, talking to members -- that's been unheard of in my 15 terms," Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny) said late Tuesday on the House floor.

For veterans like DeLuca, Wolf's Capitol listening tour is a radical departure from earlier governors.

"I've served under four governors, there's never been a governor who went around to offices like this," DeLuca said after his floor remarks were broadcast live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. "I think it's a new way and a new day, and we should recognize that."

For Wolf, who campaigned on a pledge to be a different kind of governor, it's just good business.

"He's never been one to sit behind a desk," said his spokesman, Jeff Sheridan. "In order to move Pennsylvania forward and address the deficit and fund schools, he has to work with the legislature."

Sheridan said the governor has visited the offices of about 50 lawmakers and plans to continue his rounds as well as invite all lawmakers to the governor's residence a mile from the Capitol.

On Wednesday, he probably added another mile in his office walk-by tour, shaking hands with clusters of lawmakers and darting into members' offices.

"Apparently they don't do this stuff I like to do," Wolf said as he strode briskly along the Capitol's historic tile floors, veering into House Majority Leader Dave Reed's office off the Rotunda before making a first-time visit to young backbenchers in the East Wing.

"You've been here one more time than we ever saw your predecessor," said Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D., Lehigh), who was chatting with fellow "sophomore" lawmakers Ryan Bizzarro of Erie County and Marty Flynn of Lackawanna County.

Even Republicans, who may be bracing for a budget battle, say they are impressed.

"It's a very smart thing," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leaders. "He's termed himself a newcomer in this building, and it operates on personal relationships. Even if they don't agree on the issues, at least they can talk across the table."

Legislators say Gov. Ed Rendell would call lawmakers and sometimes hang out in leaders' offices after long session days. Gov. Tom Corbett, known for being more reticent, did even less.

"Remember, he wanted to put a lot of these guys in jail," Miskin said, speaking of Corbett's earlier role as attorney general prosecuting corruption.

Rep. Glen Grell (R., Cumberland) said he was in his office last week when he heard a noise at the door and looked up to find Wolf standing there. "It was a nice surprise," said Grell, who said the two discussed the hot-button issue of pension reform. "I think he's getting out to meet people on their own turf, and trying to establish a rapport, especially with people on the other side of the aisle."

Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) had a similar experience.

"You don't expect the governor of Pennsylvania to walk in when you hear a knock at the door," said Harris.

Though Harris said he had met privately with Corbett, he appreciated the fact that Wolf came to his office. "It's not like being summoned to the principal's office," he joked.

But as Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) quickly found out, a visit from Wolf doesn't necessarily mean he can't play political hardball.

Drew Crompton, the Senate Republicans' chief counsel, said Wolf came by shortly after taking office last month. The meeting was pleasant enough. Everyone was cordial.

But less than an hour later, Wolf not only announced that he was recalling Corbett's eleventh-hour nominations, but that he was firing Erik Arneson, a longtime (and well-liked) Senate Republican staffer who had just been named Open Records officer.

Crompton drily noted that Wolf never signaled what he was about to do and Senate Republicans quickly filed suit.

"We thought it was poor judgment to have a roundtable with Joe [Scarnati], albeit brief, and not mention what was going to occur," said Crompton.

"Was it a nice gesture? Yes," said Crompton of Wolf's visit. "But you know this place. . . . There aren't things you are going to just gloss over because a guy shows up at your door."

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer