HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf will wrap up eight years in office next month, having steered Pennsylvania through unpredictable times when the Democrat made life-and-death decisions in the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic and managed the battleground state’s presidential election amid unprecedented Republican efforts to overturn it.
Wolf, 74, leaves office with positive approval ratings from leading in-state polls and his endorsed successor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, succeeding him — marking the first time since 1966 that a Pennsylvania governor has been succeeded by a member of the same political party.
Wolf’s second term saw monumental challenges, beyond what many — if not every — governor before him had faced: a pandemic that transformed society, wiped out much of his second-term agenda and drew in the efforts of every agency under his command.
He doesn’t hold any grudges and is largely satisfied with his achievements, although he acknowledges regret that he couldn’t get some initiatives through a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Unemployment was at an all-time low in November, the treasury is stuffed with cash and Wolf points to a legacy of dedicating billions more dollars to public schools plagued by funding disparities.
Wolf — who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term — sees his positive approval ratings and Shapiro’s election as an endorsement by voters of his leadership.
“This sort of this progressive vision actually ended up producing results,” Wolf said. “It wasn’t just sort of a pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff. It was ‘your life is actually better.’ And I’d done it in an efficient, effective, fair, honest way. And that’s what I think people are really looking for.”
Berwood Yost, a pollster and director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, said Wolf was generally popular throughout his term, despite high-profile fights with lawmakers.
Wolf won reelection easily in 2018 and ended his second term with both a positive approval rating — more voters approving of the job he did than disapproving — and a rating better than President Joe Biden’s, Yost said.
“That speaks to people’s general satisfaction with how he has performed his job,” Yost said.
Wolf’s time in office coincided with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate that were, at times, historically large.
He fought two protracted budget battles with Republicans, propelled by perennial deficits. Wolf also saw many of his priorities pushed aside by lawmakers and racked up the most vetoes by any governor since Democrat Milton Shapp in the 1970s.
Many vetoes were driven by Republican efforts to undo his pandemic-related mitigation measures or limit his powers, and a mild-mannered governor who had once talked optimistically about bipartisanship instead had to navigate an often poisonous and partisan Capitol.
Wolf ascribed the vetoes to a democratic process that can be messy.
“The thing that you ought to be judging that democracy by is not by how many vetoes. It’s by ‘what did you get done?’ … We still got a lot of really important things done,” Wolf said.
Ultimately, Wolf often pursued change unilaterally to get around Republican lawmakers — and Republican lawmakers did the same, pursuing constitutional amendments to get around Wolf’s veto pen.
Wolf used executive powers in ways never seen before during the pandemic, and drew a rebuke from voters when they narrowly approved a GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment to curb a governor’s emergency powers.
Wolf doesn’t say he would have done things differently, only that he’ll be “second-guessing myself for the rest of my life.”
He and his administration’s emergency managers did “table top” exercises to be ready for any eventuality, but they were forced into unpredictable situations for which they couldn’t possibly be prepared.
“I’m not sure anyone is,” Wolf said. “You’re constantly surprised by the things that assault you in life in any position.”
All told, more than 48,000 have died in Pennsylvania from COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.
Outside the statehouse, Wolf managed through floods and tornadoes, a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, unrest over police killings of Black men and the fatal shooting of 11 worshippers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.
Perhaps Wolf’s biggest achievement was school funding.
He boosted the state’s annual aid by almost $3 billion a year, or 41% more, to try to fix a school-funding system that has been among the nation’s most inequitable, particularly for districts with heavy populations of Black and Latino students.
It came at a cost: Republican lawmakers demanded concessions on Wolf’s other priorities.
He was a champion for liberal causes.
He imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, granted more clemency applications than his predecessors and blocked legislation to curtail abortion rights.
Wolf also portrayed his administration as honest, imposing a gift ban for executive-branch employees. His administration was relatively scandal-free and Wolf vowed to be transparent, although his administration often played hardball over public records requests.
Elections drew heavy scrutiny in his second term.
Wolf forced counties to buy new, more secure voting machines on the advice of federal authorities and negotiated an expansive mail-in voting law that later became a target of then-President Donald Trump’s election lies.
When Biden won Pennsylvania and cemented his path to the White House, Wolf’s administration had to defend the integrity of the state’s election and its mail-in voting law against Trump’s full-court press in the Legislature, Congress and the courts to stay in power.
Wolf’s environmental record was mixed.
Environmental advocates say he could have gone farther to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, his administration empowered the nation’s No. 2 natural gas industry, approving millions of dollars for tax breaks and issuing permits for major refineries, power plants and pipelines.
To be sure, Republicans blocked many of Wolf’s priorities. Those included raising billions of dollars in taxes, boosting the minimum wage and expanding restrictions on gun purchases.
After Wolf leaves, state policymakers will still face calls for billions of dollars more for transportation projects and school aid.
But, unlike the deficits Wolf faced when he took office, Wolf is leaving with billions of dollars in reserve, thanks to inflation-juiced tax collections and billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid.