‘A pressure cooker’: Pa. governor aims to contain GOP revolt

Marc Levy
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – By many accounts, Gov. Tom Wolf has helped mitigate Pennsylvania’s coronavirus outbreak and avoided the full-blown disasters seen elsewhere. His success in the next challenge – containing the growing resistance to his efforts – is to be determined.

The Democrat at the helm in one of the premier battlegrounds in November’s presidential election is struggling to fight a Republican revolt over his stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. Egged on by state GOP lawmakers, counties have threatened to defy his orders while at least a few business owners have reopened despite his warnings.

The mild-mannered Wolf has had to decide how far to go in enforcing the orders, mindful of criticism that he’s nothing short of a tyrant.

The chief instigator behind the Republican strategy, President Donald Trump, is set to visit the state Thursday. Ahead of the trip, Trump stoked the conflict, tweeting that Pennsylvanians “want their freedom now.”

About 200 protesters rally outside of the home of Gov. Tom Wolf in Mount Wolf, Saturday, May 2, 2020. Activists urge Gov. Wolf to end his stay-at-home order. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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Behind the rhetoric is a political fight as much over people’s well-being and public health – federal health officials are aligned with Wolf’s cautious approach – as it is over who will be blamed for the state’s economic devastation if it is not repaired by Election Day.

Around 2 million Pennsylvania residents have lost their jobs since mid-March, with food and milk giveaways drawing mileslong lines. Meanwhile, some have gone two months without money because of the state’s problem-plagued online unemployment benefits portal.

Republicans in the state, like their counterparts in swing states Michigan and Wisconsin, say they are sticking up for desperate people. But they are also jockeying to ensure that Democratic governors, rather than Trump, take the blame.

“Tom Wolf is going to be as much on the ballot as much as the president, the Legislature and Congress for his handling of this, but he’s going to be judged not just by Republicans but by Democrats and independents,” said Lawrence Tabas, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party.

For Democrats who have stood by Wolf, that’s just fine right now. Polls show that the public has generally embraced how Wolf – who easily won reelection in 2018 – has managed the crisis.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that more than 2 in 3 people surveyed from April 27 to May 4 approve of how Wolf has handled the outbreak. Trump’s approval nationally in the same poll was much lower, at 43%.

When Trump visits Thursday, he’ll head to the politically moderate Allentown area to tour a medical products distribution center. He did particularly well in the area in the 2016 election, when his narrow win in Pennsylvania helped vault him to the White House.

Since then, Republicans lost the area’s congressional seat for the first time in two decades, and Allentown, with highways connecting it to New Jersey and New York City, has become one of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus hot spots.

“Here in the Lehigh Valley, people know we’re in the middle of the pandemic, and they also aren’t taking Trump as seriously as they once did,” said Democratic state Rep. Peter Schweyer of Allentown.

The visit will be Trump’s 18th to the state as president, a marker of Pennsylvania’s importance to his reelection hopes.

While Trump’s advisers have started to doubt whether they can hold Michigan, another Rust Belt state Trump won, they believe Pennsylvania and Wisconsin remain in play if the economy rebounds.

That may mean pressuring the states’ Democratic governors to ease restrictions on business, travel and public spaces – even if it risks a resurgence of the virus.

Pennsylvania is 10th among states in overall infection rate – with some 59,000 confirmed cases, or roughly 450 per 100,000 residents, and nearly 4,000 deaths, according to federal statistics. It is bordered on three sides by states with higher infection rates.

New infections have been trending down, and Wolf has been easing restrictions in lightly affected counties – but not fast enough for some.

“I know my constitutional rights, and I’ve got to pay my bills,” Brad Shepler, a barber who resumed cutting hair – something that is prohibited everywhere in the state right now – told police in a video he posted online when they visited his home studio this week a few miles from Pennsylvania’s Capitol. “The governor’s not paying my bills, so I’ve got to pay my bills.”

Trump weighed in Monday on the intensifying political fight, tweeting: “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails.”

Hours later, Wolf threatened in an extraordinary news conference to punish a growing number of counties that vowed to let businesses reopen against his orders.

He pledged to withhold coronavirus aid from them and branded them “cowards,” saying they are “choosing to desert in the face of the enemy, in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning and that we must win.”

Wolf – who hasn’t spoken one cross word about Trump or the White House’s handling of the outbreak – also warned that business owners could lose certificates and licenses to operate, and face insurance sanctions.

The Republican National Committee accused Wolf of being on a “power trip.”

Wolf, who said he is just trying to keep people safe, already had vetoed legislation Republicans passed in April to limit his powers during the disaster emergency.

Meanwhile, he has won legal challenges to his shutdown orders in both the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, let construction work restart and lifted the most severe restrictions in many areas.

Still, two-thirds of the state’s 12.8 million people are expected to remain under stay-at-home orders past this week.

After Wolf’s bare-knuckled message on Monday, some counties did not back down. In others, Wolf’s threat gave them pause.

Republican state Rep. Dan Moul from conservative Adams County said he didn’t want to be responsible for someone losing a valuable business license.

“We’re trying to get things moving in a safe and responsible manner,” Moul said. “Because this thing is turning into a pressure cooker. This thing is going to blow up if he doesn’t make a move soon.”

— Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed to this report.