Sunday, January 13, 2013

'Ello Guvnah

The governor's Mansion in Harrisburg.
I have now had the privilege of interviewing (or participating in an interview with) a Pennsylvania governor five times -- three times with Gov. Ed Rendell and twice with his successor and our current Gov. Tom Corbett -- in my 15 years with The Mercury.

Thursday, however, was the first time it took place in the Governor's official residence, OK, the Governor's Mansion, in Harrisburg.

It's an impressive building, built with native Pennsylvania brick, with a lovely view of the Susquehanna River, on whose eastern shore it sits.

An enthusiastic and surprisingly knowledgeable tour guide, Corbett took a group of Digital First Media journalists through much of the elegant downstairs, showing us various formal rooms as well as his office, paneled with dark wood and graced with a fireplace every-ready to be lit.

(While we appreciated his time and interest, I don't think I was alone in thinking that certainly he had better things to do than show us around, but he was very gracious, so we let the thought pass unconsidered.)

We were there not as tourists but as journalists from our Digital First Media group because Gov. Corbett wanted to talk about pension reform -- a subject of vital importance to Pennsylvania's economic and budgetary health.

PA Treasury Secretary Charles Zogby gave us an hour-long

briefing on the pension crisis.
The hour-long briefing from Treasury Secretary Charles Zogby on how we got to this point of crisis, which preceded the meeting with the governor, was welcome, well-organized and informative. What the crisis essentially boils down to is a series of short-sighted and selfish decisions made with a hefty pinch of extraordinarily bad timing.

I don't envy Corbett the job of being the person who has to clean up this mess, left largely by his predecessor and the collection of rocket scientists known as the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

(I'll be working on a story looking at that issue in greater detail in next Sunday's Mercury. In the meantime, if you can't wait, I recommend Saturday's article by Jennifer Lawson at The Reporter, who was among those there.)

But what I am musing about today is not that crisis, but how the interviews in which I have participated illustrate for me how both men, Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett, approach the job of being governor.

Delaware County Daily Time Editor Phil Heron, right, did a 

pretty good job of keeping Corbett, left, on topic.
No matter what you tell yourself when you lie awake the night before, thinking of all the ways you will grill the governor, you will always find that politicians, especially those good enough to get to the governor's post, have an agenda of their own in agreeing to an interview.

And how they pursue that agenda in an interview, their style, says a lot, to me at least, about how they do their job and why they like their job.

In Rendell's case, it was a mastery of numbers and facts.

Unless you cover state government as part of your every day beat, it was easy for Rendell to overwhelm you with details about a question asked which left you feeling unqualified to ask a follow-up -- a kind of obfuscating fog of facts which, paradoxically, can be used to conceal the truth if need be.

He rarely had to refer to a briefing paper, taking the numbers off the top of his head and then spinning out a scenario about what would happen to those numbers if....

He had equal mastery, necessary for any successful politician, for names.

A champion name-dropper, Rendell would go for the upper hand in an interview by saying something like "oh the real expert in that is Joe Jones, do you know him? No? Oh well you really should talk to him about this..."

Corbett, on the other hand, uses a skill set born, no doubt, of his years as a prosecutor, a profession built on asking questions, not answering them.

Also a former school teacher, albeit 40 years ago, Corbett often responds to a question by asking you one.

Nancy and I outside the governor's mansion Thursday.
For example, when my boss, Nancy March, asked a question about educational reforms, he responded with "have you read the report?"

She wisely, and truthfully, answered that she had, but one is left with the impression that if she had said no, Corbett would have suggested she do so before wasting his time by answering the question; or spent time explaining the report's contents rather than answering the direct question those contents inspired.

He also uses a classic tool of politicians by answering the question he wants to answer, not the one you asked.

In August, some of you may recall that I wrote an analysis of the new Opportunity Scholarship Program.

This program begins with the state labeling schools with low-test scores as "under-performing," Pottstown High School being one of them, and then funnels business tax money to non-profit foundations which, in turn, grant scholarships of a maximum of $5,000 to low-income students of those schools.

The businesses pay roughly the same they would in taxes, but into a foundation of their choice instead of the state coffers, which would then be tapped to fund public education.

My analysis of the schools accepting the scholarships, called "vouchers lite" by many, showed that nearly 90 percent of the participating schools had a religious affiliation.

So when I asked the governor if he felt having the state facilitate the movement of money that otherwise would have been tax receipts into religious institutions, he didn't bat an eye and instead answered a question he preferred.

"Are you asking me if I'm against school choice? No, I'm not against school choice. Competition is always good," he said.

This is, of course; not what I had asked him at all.

To my regret, I took that bait and asked him how school choice is benefiting children when those same test scores used to identify Pottstown High School as "under-performing," show that the "choices" at many charter schools, and cyber schools in particular, are no better than the public schools they are leaving.

He responded, no doubt with the troubled Chester-Upland schools in mind, that many of the new schools are safer and that the other schools are "just getting started" and will have to "do better."

And so we moved on.

With six journalists sitting at a table around a sitting governor, there is always another question on another topic.

But I have also come to the conclusion that unlike his predecessor, Corbett does not like doing too many things at the same time.

Rendell always had five or six irons in the fire. Some might say that's why everything he did was only half-done, and there is probably some truth in that.

But the opposite seems to be true of the current governor, who, as Phil Heron asked him, you would expect to be getting more done with his party controlling the governor's mansion, and both houses of the General Assembly.

As he said in response to questions about his latest Penn State bombshell, however, "I’m very cautious. When I know what I’m going to do, that’s when I announce it."

And he seems to approach other aspects of his job that way as well.

Only time will tell if its more effective.

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