“They’ve done pretty well,” Wolf said in an interview with POLITICO. “We needed additional N95 masks and I had a couple conversations with the vice president and he actually made it happen.”
It’s a leadership model that has left some Democrats quietly wishing he were a more prominent figure — and a more critical voice — during the crisis. But as the governor of a big battleground state that Trump carried in 2016, Wolf isn’t afforded the same luxuries as his blue-state colleagues.
“Pennsylvania is a different state than New York,” said J.J. Abbott, a former aide to Wolf. “I think he knows in a crisis, he needs credibility and trust with people who don’t necessarily support him or didn’t vote for him or support the president. His focus has clearly been, ‘How do I get everyone, no matter where they fall on the ideological spectrum, to buy into the only strategy we have at this point, which is social distancing?’”
That outlook makes him an outlier compared to many other Democratic governors. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently wore a T-shirt on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” that read “That Woman from Michigan,” poking fun at Trump’s diss of her. On “Meet the Press,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee quipped, “Can you imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, ‘I’ll be right behind you, Connecticut. Good luck building those battleships?’” On Tuesday, Cuomo said of Trump’s assertion of “total” authority, “We don’t have a king in this country.”
Wolf, on the other hand, ended up on cable news for live interviews twice during the pandemic, once for a somewhat impromptu reason, said his staff: It was because he was doing an event with Cuomo. His only other big interviews outside the state have been with the Financial Times, NPR, AP and the Washington Post, according to an aide. His team said he never holds information, such as a decision to expand his shut-down order, for news conferences.
“He doesn’t want to get in the way of major announcements,” said a top staffer.
Wolf’s allies said his keep-his-head-down approach speaks for itself: He acted faster than Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to issue an emergency declaration, close schools, and shut down businesses since the states’ first confirmed cases. Despite its proximity to hot spots such as New Jersey and New York, Pennsylvania ranks 10th in the country in cases per capita. They also argued that a diplomatic style is necessary while working with a vindictive president.
Some Pennsylvania Democrats would prefer less caution and reserve from the governor, and more command of the stage. “The thing that people need right now is somebody to tell them everything’s going to be OK,” said one Democratic elected official who declined to be named.
But it’s not Wolf’s style to be a showboat, even when it comes to grappling with a polarizing president who is deeply unpopular in parts of the state, said people close to him. Wolf had never been elected to office before winning the gubernatorial race as an outsider businessman in 2014.
“There are different ways to do it. Being on TV every day maybe works for Andrew Cuomo, but I think Tom Wolf’s had the same results, maybe even more effective results,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who previously tapped Wolf to be his revenue secretary. “People have responded to him because they don’t think he’s political. They think he’s honest.”
Said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat and top Wolf ally: “When you think about it, he’s not a politician. When he came into office, he said his leadership would be somewhat different, and that’s what he’s tried to do.”