Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett Shakes Up Staff to Boost Approval Ratings

Following Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s  failure to get his “Big Three” policy initiatives through the Pennsylvania Legislature — transportation funding, liquor privatization, and public-employee pension reform — his administration appears to be making staff changes to address his falling approval ratings.

The Philly Inquirer reported Chief of Staff Steve Aichele will step down by the end of the summer along with Legislative Liaison Christopher Carusone.

According to inside sources, the top pick to replace Achiele is GOP strategist Leslie Gromis-Baker. Gromis-Baker served as former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge’s 1994 political campaign director, his public liaison during his first term as well as the manager of his 1998 re-election effort. Gromis-Baker later directed George W. Bush’s state presidential campaign and served as the Mid-Atlantic chair of his 2004 re-election committee.

This will be Corbett’s third chief of staff in three years, an unusual turnover rate that begs the question “Why?” And, now, the once only-whispered rumors of Corbett’s possible future are making their way into print via Alex Roarty in The National Journal (“Pennsylvania Republicans Looking to Push Out Their Governor”) and liberal Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist John Micek (“With Latest Rumored Departures, is Corbett Just Rearranging Deck Chairs?”).

Republican strategist Jeff Coleman of Churchill Strategies told Media Trackers he thinks the staff change will benefit Corbett overall.

“In Leslie Gromis-Baker, you have a seasoned political pro, who is confident,” Coleman told Media Trackers. “She is going to bring a kind of exacting analysis of how Governor Corbett is being served and where he is being underserved.”

Pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College, however, told Media Trackers the problem is a more difficult and complicated fix than a simple staff change. He added Corbett has several factors working against him, such as the economy and the loss of federal stimulus dollars. Corbett has also come under fire for his handling of the Penn State University scandal while he was attorney general. Critics claim he was slow to react and prosecute retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was later convicted of 43 counts of child sex-abuse. Corbett did eventually file an anti-trust suit against the NCAA to try and lighten PSU’s punishment and rescind the $60 million fine, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last month.

Both Madonna and Coleman pointed out that Corbett’s past experience as a prosecutor has also made it hard for Corbett to follow a politician like former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who Coleman described as having “flair and flamboyance.”

“[The Corbett Administration has] not been effective with either the public or finding a way to get the legislature to do what the governor wants, or communication about what the governor wants, or passing the governor’s agenda,” Madonna told Media Trackers. “The governor needs to find a way to reach out to the public and to get the agenda done.”

But the governor’s agenda is also working against him in a way, Madonna added.

“It’s popular,  but not salient,” he told Media Trackers. “Nobody gets up in the morning and sits down at the kitchen table and says to their wife, ‘You know, we need to write our legislator today so we get liquor privatization passed and we don’t have to travel the two extra miles to get that bottle of wine.’”

Achiele is expected to step down by the end of the summer. Last year, Aichele replaced Bill Ward when Corbett nominated Ward to fill an opening on the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas.

“My sense is that this is more [Corbett] discovering a path to achieve his goals,” Coleman told Media Trackers.

But Madonna said that no Pennsylvania governor who has won re-election has had such low poll numbers at this point. On the other hand, no Pennsylvania governor eligible for re-election has ever failed to serve a second term. Corbett’s biggest hope for re-election, Madonna said, will be to get his agenda passed.

“He can’t say right now, ‘I delivered on my agenda. I delivered on my promises. I can lead this state,’” he said.