With Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election fight about to begin, it will be no surprise when rivals accuse him of acting as a lackey for the gas industry, and a toady of the far right.
The surprise is that he's not doing a very good job at it. At least so far.
Corbett's latest setback came at the close of last year, when the state Supreme Court tossed out much of Act 13, the state law governing "fracking" for natural gas. In a 4-2 decision, the court found that the law, which Corbett had championed, had gone too far in accommodating the gas industry by weakening zoning and environmental rules.
It wasn't Corbett's first legal setback. Remember the abortive lawsuit to overturn the NCAA's sanctions against Penn State University for enabling Jerry Sandusky? Remember voter ID, which the state Supremes voided before the 2012 election, and which has been idling ever since?
On issues like his courtroom fight to preserve a ban on same-sex marriage, meanwhile, Corbett's legal struggles have mirrored his travails in the court of public opinion. Last fall, his attorneys drew fire for arguing that, legally, removing the ban would be little different than allowing children to marry. Corbett called the analogy "inappropriate" — apparently because it wasn't offensive enough. "I think a better analogy would be brother and sister," he told a Harrisburg reporter.
But even Corbett's backers have little proof that his heart is in the fight, while doubters question whether he has a heart at all. The Act 13 ruling especially must sting, coming as it did just weeks after Corbett kicked off his re-election bid at Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center.
It's not just that drilling interests have been huge campaign donors. It's that in a state where job creation has ranked in the bottom 10, the industry's growth has been among the few successes Corbett can claim. No surprise, then, that his kickoff event included campaign ads so focused on drilling that it was hard to tell what they were advertising: Corbett's re-election, or Range Resources.
Corbett's attorneys have asked the Supreme Court for "re-consideration" — essentially a do-over. It's a legal Hail Mary: Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz says it's "inconceivable" that the court would reverse itself. But it's no less likely than Corbett's political strategy: assuming the mantle of environmentalist.
The ruling, he and other Republicans fretted, voided "setback" requirements that keep drilling rigs at a safe distance from waterways. And despite the ruling, he proclaimed, "I am calling upon Pennsylvania's oil and gas operators to honor both the spirit and intent" of setback rules anyway.
Given that Corbett has touted the drillers' environmental stewardship all along, it was an odd request. I mean, gosh, it was almost like Tom Corbett doesn't think the environmental good intentions of gas-drillers can be trusted after all.
Major drilling groups quickly agreed that, yes, they would continue to obey the rules they helped write. (Whew!) But the odd part about all the environmental hand-wringing was ... environmentalists weren't the ones doing it. They've hailed the ruling instead.
George Jugovic Jr., a former state regulator with environmental group PennFuture, says that's because even without Act 13, the state has plenty of authority to enforce setbacks. What the Supreme Court took issue with, he said, was the ease with which it allowed those setbacks to be waived. "To use the court's opinion as a basis for not providing protections for streams and wetlands would be ludicrous," he says.
But although Pennsylvania Democrats have been gleefully retweeting every poll showing Corbett's dismal approval rating, they shouldn't get too cocky.
Corbett might scrounge up an election-year win, perhaps by selling off the state stores and freeing up liquor sales (though he just scuttled an effort to sell off the state lottery). And while voters may disdain Corbett, they may not like the eventual Democratic nominee any better. Team Corbett is already attacking one Democratic hopeful, Congresswoman/Philly liberal Allyson Schwartz, for voting in favor of healthcare reform. Corbett may not be able to give us much to vote for, but he can give us someone to vote against.
But whoever the Democratic nominee is, the person Tom Corbett really has to get around is ... Tom Corbett.