As Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett continues to trail his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, in the polls, Jewish Pittsburgh seems to be following the rest of the state in favoring the challenger.
A vote for Wolf, however, may actually be more aptly described as a vote against Corbett in this election year, according to Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-editor of “State Politics and Policy Quarterly.”
“I think right now what’s happening in Pennsylvania is what’s happening across the country,” Kanthak noted. “People are just upset and angry. Just look at the national polls and the polls in Pennsylvania. People are unhappy with the way the country’s going.”
Recent polls by Rasmussen Reports, CBS News and the Associated Press all show that more than 65 percent of Americans think that the country is going in the wrong direction. In Pennsylvania, the most current polls by CBS News, The New York Times and YouGov show Wolf leading Corbett by 13 percentage points.
Voters are feeling “a lot of frustration,” Kanthak said.
“In Pittsburgh, that frustration is being aimed at the Republicans,” she continued, “although nationwide, it will be a bad year for the Democrats. People are just really unhappy with Tom Corbett.”
Discourse concerning the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race is being driven in large part by the campaigns themselves, Kanthak said, because most voters are not well informed about the issues. Because Wolf has been able to deliver a campaign message against Corbett that voters can use to validate their general frustration, Wolf is ahead in the polls, she said.
“Most of what voters learn is in the context of a campaign,” Kanthak explained. “Now we have a well-funded Democratic candidate who can put meat on the bones of voter frustration. Wolf’s campaign has been able to set the message for this election.”
Another problem for Corbett, Kanthak said, is the voters’ difficulty relating to him.
“Corbett never could break through with voters and be a person that voters could feel warmly about,” she said. “He’s had some missteps that make it seem like he’s out of touch with normal voters. And voters want to vote for a candidate like them.
“We see it in the polls,” Kanthak continued. “Corbett has never been able to send that kind of message, ‘I care about people like you.’ Wolf seems to be able to do that. And his ads are resonating with voters in a way that they wouldn’t have if people hadn’t had this frustration with Corbett.”
Many Jewish voters say they believe Corbett has cut education spending and that they are frustrated with those cuts.
“I’m voting for Wolf,” said Naomi Grodin, owner of Grodin Professional Simulators, a company that provides role players for educational, assessment and customer service training programs. “It’s not so much that I am voting for Wolf, but it’s against Corbett, because I hate what he did with education. So many teachers lost their jobs; so many school districts lost funding. … If we don’t support and promote education, we don’t have any future.”
This sentiment was echoed by several shoppers at Murray Avenue Kosher in Squirrel Hill on Monday morning.
“I will be voting for Wolf,” said Rosalie Anstandig, a retired teacher. “I’m not pleased with what Corbett did for us, especially in education. And I’m a Democrat.”
Others said they would vote against Corbett because they perceive he favors big business over the common man.
In more than an hour of questioning patrons at the kosher market Monday, not a single definitive Corbett voter could be found, although several people said they had not made up their minds.
Both Corbett and Wolf have demonstrated support for issues that are historically important to the Jewish community. In just the last few months, Corbett has signed into law a Holocaust and genocide education bill as well as an anti-terror bill prohibiting companies that invest in Iranian energy-related activities from entering into certain procurement contracts in Pennsylvania. And Wolf, though not Jewish, has been one of the biggest donors to the York Jewish Community Center and even co-chaired its capital campaign.
In separate interviews with Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, the candidates spoke of what they would tackle during the next four years in Harrisburg.
Wolf, who used the opportunity to reiterate his criticism of Corbett for having cut $1 billion in funding to public education, said he would increase education funding in part through a severance tax on natural gas extraction, by accepting federal Medicaid disbursements and by considering “whether we should” be “spending less on prison.” (He said he would push to decriminalize marijuana as one step toward that goal.)
Corbett, meanwhile, blamed the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell for the $1 billion education shortfall, claiming that the previous governor used federal stimulus funding in the place of state funding and that federal money had run out by the time he took office.
“I don’t think there’s any argument as to who created the problem,” said Corbett. “The prior administration created the problem.”
Corbett wants to move forward on a proposed asset test that would cut down on “waste, fraud and abuse” in state entitlement programs and calls the rising cost of teachers’ pensions the largest problem facing Pennsylvania schools.
Andrew Neft, a financial adviser who supports Corbett, cited taxes and gun control as issues influencing him.
“I can’t vote for someone who wants to raise our taxes but can’t tell us how much he is going to raise them,” Neft said. “The less money in my pocket I have to spend, the less I have to put back into the economy. And I understand that Wolf is anti-Second Amendment. We don’t need gun control; we need criminal control.”
Jewish voters who are undecided are advised “to study both candidates and vote for the candidate that best represents them, their families and their communities,” said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which educates state officials about issues of concern to Jewish Federations and their constituents.
The Jewish Exponent contributed to this story. Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.