The Tom Wolf on the other end of the phone line May 2 was markedly different from the happy-go-lucky Democratic frontrunner who had been campaigning for governor in Bloomfield 10 days earlier.
There he'd been enjoying a pepperoni roll from the Groceria Italiana while talking to veterans, small-business owners and community stakeholders. "I admire what you've built here," he told them, noting that he wants to redevelop struggling communities into walkable mixed-use neighborhoods like Bloomfield. "And what's great is you're not just sustaining: You're still building."
In attendance were two of his earliest and most important backers: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who lauded Wolf for "sharing our values when it comes to hard work, rewarding work. And that's what attracted Bill and I and many others to support Tom."
But over the next 10 days, Wolf's campaign would be accused, with reason, of plagiarizing portions of its policy plan. He'd be criticized for ties to a former state rep caught up in the "Bonusgate" scandal, while having his business practices called into question by U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, one of his opponents. Then another rival, state Treasurer Rob McCord, would accuse him of coddling a racist former mayor in his own hometown.
"I think I expected more of this type of thing in the general election than I did in the primary," Wolf told City Paper a day after McCord aired an ad focusing on the allegation. "I guess this model of politics is the standard fare right now."
Some big-name Democratic Party leaders, including former Gov. Ed Rendell, have come out swinging to defend Wolf. But for some Democrats, the allegations raise concerns about Wolf's unlikely rise, which was launched with TV ads bought with the help of $10 million in self-financing.
Chris Zurawsky, secretary of Squirrel Hill's 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, says he had heard good things about Wolf early on, and that Wolf came across as "a breath of fresh air." Still, "I am bothered by the fact that he is financing his own campaign," Zurawsky says. "It's undemocratic and it has that feeling of allowing the person with the most money to simply step into public office."
And Zurawsky worries what else may be in store.
"If we think this is bad, what happens when he's up against [Republican incumbent] Tom Corbett and the Republican smear machine?" Zurawsky wonders. "I just don't know if he's up for that kind of fight. He seems tired of it already."
Can a political outsider — one who has never run statewide and who comes off more like a high school science teacher than a politician — stand up to the rigors of a general election? The answer may be irrelevant, some experts say, because Wolf's momentum may be impossible to overcome ... at least in May.
Even after days of negative ads and debate attacks, a May 1 a poll from the Allentown Morning Call still showed Wolf a whopping 25 points ahead of Schwartz, his closest competitor. And while one-third of Democratic voters remained undecided, the consensus behind Wolf has been building: 42 percent said they were leaning toward Wolf.
"Even after all of this, Tom Wolf is still 25 points ahead," says G. Terry Madonna, pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. And there may be fewer undecided votes up for grabs than it appears, he says: "One thing we know traditionally about undecided voters is that a large percentage of them will not vote."
"In order to beat Wolf, you have to find something to pull him back into the pack, and that's tough to do when you have a group of candidates who agree on 90 percent of the issues," Madonna adds. "Then, you have to do something to pick up a good chunk of that support in order to overtake him. At this point, with three weeks left to do it, I don't know if it can be done."
Although it seems funny to say that a frontrunner with a 25 percent lead came out of nowhere, that's the case with Wolf. As of Jan. 26, when Wolf appeared as one candidate among eight at a Carnegie Mellon University debate, Wolf was as anonymous as Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski or minister/businessman Max Myers. While he answered all the questions fully and confidently, he did little to set himself apart from the crowd, especially compared to others on the stage.
Shortly afterward, though, Wolf began running television commercials highlighting his story. He was a Jeep-driving businessman who'd run and rescued a family-owned furniture company, and whose employees participated in a generous profit-sharing program.
Making the ads even more effective was the fact that no one challenged them. His opponents stayed off television for weeks.
"Tom Wolf has a great story to tell and he's got the money to go out and tell it," Rendell tells CP. "He got on TV early and by the time anyone else did, it was pretty well over.
"That was a gigantic political blunder by McCord and Schwartz. They let him go on TV for seven or eight weeks unanswered. The momentum you can build is amazing."
Duquesne law professor and political pundit Joseph Sabino Mistick says Wolf followed the playbook that Rendell himself used against Bob Casey during his 2002 gubernatorial run. "He bought broad and deep," Mistick says. "But what's refreshing here is [Wolf] actually had a story to tell, and it's a story that people find appealing. That's why so many politicians and voters were drawn to him so quickly."
Mistick says he was skeptical of Wolf at first, but people "told me I had to check him out. So I met with him and I said, ‘How the hell do you expect to get elected with zero experience and no political infrastructure?' He said, ‘I have a message and a story to tell.' Well, it's been working."
Republican political consultant Bill Green agrees that Wolf has delivered his message better than any of the other candidates — in either party. "His timing was perfect," Green says. "In January and February, we were all locked inside and frozen and he had the airwaves all to himself. No one responded. And it worked. I've had people recite that commercial back to me word-for-word."
Another plus for Wolf has been the broad support he's received from politicians across the state. On March 8, a huge coalition of local politicians showed their support for Wolf, with backers crossing factional lines. Fitzgerald and Peduto were there, of course, but so were some of their occasional political opponents, like state Rep. Jake Wheatley and state Sen. Jim Ferlo.
"That Saturday was really a big deal for Tom Wolf," adds Green.
Still, it's not like Wolf commands all the leverage in the party.
Schwartz, who was the frontrunner in the race's early days, has a strong mix of support from labor as well as women's groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily's List. And what major labor endorsements Schwartz doesn't have likely belong to either McCord or Katie McGinty, who served as the top environmental official in Rendell's cabinet.
McCord especially spent time early in the race setting up infrastructure in southwest Pennsylvania, and reaped some support of his own. The Pittsburgh Firefighters backed him, as has City Controller Michael Lamb and the 14th Ward Club.
Firefighters political director Darrin Kelly says Democrats "have four great candidates," but McCord earned support due to "passionate support for workers and his belief that defined-benefit plans [as opposed to 401ks] actually save taxpayers money in the long run." Wolf has "a great story," Kelly says, but the fact that his company's workforce was non-union "spurred curiosity" among members. And McCord "resonates best with the membership."
By comparison, the soft-spoken Wolf is short on experience as a retail politician. And it remains to be seen whether he'll have the fire to engage in an all-out battle with the extremely vulnerable Corbett.
National pundits consistently rank Corbett among the country's most vulnerable governors. But Mistick says it would be a mistake to take him lightly: "Tom Corbett has horribly sagging poll numbers, but the incumbent is the one guy with the power to actually do something for the voters that could actually fix those numbers."
So far, the Corbett campaign has focused on trying to bring Wolf's numbers down. The campaign has been raising questions about Wolf's business dealings and demanding he produce 10 years of personal- and corporate-tax returns. The company had stumbled after Wolf cashed out, in 2006; he repurchased it in 2010, and stabilized the business.
So far, Wolf has met the challenges head-on. Asked about Corbett's demands during his Bloomfield visit, Wolf replied, "What did I put out, four years? I've tried to be as open and as transparent as I possibly can. I have a private company and I've opened up the books. People wanted to see the profit-sharing, I've opened that up. I've opened up the tax returns, I've opened up my loan [Wolf borrowed $4.5 million to help fund his campaign]. ... I'm doing everything I think I ought to be doing to be transparent."
And if the response to attacks from fellow Democrats are any indication, Wolf has some fire beneath the gentle appearance.
The sharpest criticism has come from McCord, who has blasted Wolf's relationship with former York Mayor Charlie Robertson, a former police officer in the city. Back in 2001, Robertson was an incumbent, running for re-election; Wolf chaired his campaign. Two days after winning the 2001 primary, Robertson was arrested and charged along with two others in the death of a young African-American woman during a 1969 race riot. Robertson, who admitted to holding racist beliefs at the time, was ultimately acquitted; the other men were convicted of second-degree murder.
"Why would he chair the campaign of a man arrested for his role in a race riot," the ad asked — "one that left a black woman dead?"
McCord has said that while he doesn't believe Wolf is racist, he should have severed ties with the campaign immediately. (Robertson dropped out of the race soon after being arrested.) His campaign points to a statement attributed to Wolf in the York Daily Register after Robertson's address: "I was his campaign chairman during the primary and if he wants me to do it in the general, I am willing to," the paper quotes Wolf saying.
Wolf says he was involved with a York civic group, Better York, and that in 2001 he was the honorary chair of Robertson's campaign. Within two days after the primary, Robertson was arrested and the campaign ended, "and that was my so-called relationship with him." Wolf says he had no knowledge of Robertson's alleged connection to the 1969 murder until the arrest. "In 1969, I was in the Peace Corp in India," Wolf says now.
Wolf has launched counter-ads featuring prominent African Americans in the York community — like current Mayor Kim Bracey — and outside it. During a conference call with reporters May 2, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents the Hill District, said that he finds McCord's attack "very problematic" and that when "someone wants to willy-nilly apply [race] as a political maneuver and for political gain, it really upsets me and angers me."
And so far, at least, McCord's attack seems to have solidified political support behind Wolf. Although Rendell is not endorsing any of the Democrats, he held a May 3 press conference calling McCord's ad "one of the worst I have ever seen."
"This ad is offensive," U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is also not endorsing a candidate, said in a statement. "I hope it will be taken down." Fitzgerald also released a statement May 5 saying, "The actions of the McCord campaign are disappointing, desperate and will backfire with the voters who know better."
For his part, McCord held a press conference to say he would continue to use the ad. According to the website PoliticsPA, McCord said, "I, for one, worry about his [Wolf's] ability to make the tough calls."
Madonna says McCord is "trying to make it an issue of judgment," rather than one of racism. But Wolf sounds stung either way.
"I have always focused myself and my company on diversity and moving the cause of racial justice forward," he says. "I don't know what Rob is trying to do with this. But what he's saying is not true and it makes me angry."
Adding to the pain, Wolf says, is the fact that he and McCord had an amiable relationship before. McCord has "eaten dinner in my home," Wolf says, and in 2008, during McCord's first run for state treasurer, Wolf and his wife contributed $50,000 to McCord's campaign, according to campaign-finance records from the Pa. Department of State.
"Am I more hurt by the face value of the accusations or who they're coming from?" Wolf asked. "That's a good question."
It's uncertain about whether the attacks will have an effect on Wolf. But it does bring up the question lurking in the back of Democrats' minds: Do we know enough about Wolf, and does he have what it takes?
"I've heard the question: ‘Does he have the gravitas?'" Mistick says. "While we are accustomed to much bolder approaches to a campaign, his laid-back style has caught the imagination of the public. He's got a great story to tell."
There's a lot more yet to be written.