As General Assembly members on both sides of the aisle looked on, Gov. Tom Wolf called for faith, understanding, and continued optimism in Pennsylvania’s future in his second inaugural speech.
Reelected in November by a 58-to-41 percent margin over his Republican challenger, Wolf stressed the need for compromise in a “divided Harrisburg,” and an embrace of Pennsylvania values like “William Penn’s commitment to tolerance.” He called for “empathy over apathy,” while also noting it’s reasonable to have lost faith in politicians.
“So I’m not asking Pennsylvanians to trust me, or any other politician in Harrisburg,” he said. “I’m asking them to trust in themselves. Because that’s where I put my faith every day I wake up with the privilege of holding this office.”
Here are some other takeaways from Wolf’s speech.
Past progress = future hope?
Wolf at several points noted that Pennsylvania was “at a crossroads” when he took office. While he acknowledge the state faces big challenges (specifically, modernizing the workforce and stabilizing state finances), he put an emphasis on reasons to hope for better.
“We have chosen a path of progress,” he said. “We have earned the right to feel not just proud of our past, but hopeful for our future.”
To back this up, Wolf threw out a number of statistics in his speech. Here are some we could fact-check on the fly:
“Pennsylvania has created more than 200,000 new jobs”
TRUE. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Pennsylvania added 239,600 jobs between January 2015 (when Wolf took office) and November 2018.
“We’ve got more people working”
TRUE. The unemployment rate has fallen over the past four years, from 5.4 percent in January 2015 to 4.1 percent in November 2018, per BLS.
“The graduation rate is up”
TRUE. According to the Department of Education, it is.
“We’ve expanded Medicaid to cover an additional 720,000 Pennsylvanians”
TRUE. Expanding Medicaid access was one of first things Wolf did after taking office in 2015.
“Fewer people in prison”
TRUE. Per Philly.com, the prison population is “lowest it’s been in about a decade.”
“The uninsured rate is down”
TRUE. According to the Census Bureau, the number of uninsured people in Pennsylvania fell between 2016 and 2017.
“We’ve restored $1 billion to our schools”
COMPLICATED. Education spending has grown by $2 billion since Wolf took office, though Philly.com reported most of that cash is going to retirement costs.
During both of his runs for office, Wolf claimed his predecessor, Tom Corbett, cut $1 billion in education spending. The AP reported that, during Corbett’s first year, “$860 million, or more than 10 percent, was cut from operations and instruction in school districts.” Corbett said the state had to deal with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars, which were used over two years to supplement state education funding.
4 second-term priorities
Wolf said in a recent PennLive interview he’s not looking to leave office with a flashy legacy. But in his speech, the governor said, “I want us to be ambitious in imagining the Pennsylvania we can build together.” Among those ambitions:
Reforming the justice system
Where we reform a criminal justice system that treats African Americans and the poor unjustly …
Democrats and Republicans were able to compromise on a Clean Slate law that will automatically seal non-violent, low-level misdemeanors after 10 years. Criminal justice reform is seen as the top area where more compromise is possible.
Fighting LGBTQ discrimination
… where we stand as one to stop discrimination against the LGBTQ community…
Democrats for years have been trying to pass a bill that would extend discrimination protections to people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. That could actually happen this session, now that the House State Government committee is no longer controlled by a Republican lawmaker who vowed not to advance legislation from Democrats.
Ensuring fair elections
… where we commit to a process that makes our elections fairer …
Ending the gerrymander
… where we give every Pennsylvanian the same chance to determine our shared future.
This statement appears to reference redistricting reform. Wolf recently created a commission to “study best practices related to non-partisan redistricting process,” which top Republicans called a “spectacle.” GOP leaders said they would not participate.
A shared tragedy
The worst day of Wolf’s tenure as governor, he said, was Oct. 27, 2018 — when 11 people were killed inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“We raced the 45 minutes to the scene, but all I could do was share in the grief and agony of that horrible day,” he said. “I remember seeing [House Speaker] Mike Turzai and [Senate Minority Leader] Jay Costa there, and in that moment, we weren’t Republicans or Democrats. And, for that matter, they weren’t legislative leaders and I wasn’t the governor. We were just like everyone else, feeling helpless and heartbroken.”
But in the days that followed, the people of Pennsylvania lifted us all up. Law enforcement officers who had responded to the scene continued to do their jobs with the courage and grace and professionalism that makes them heroes. High school students from Taylor Allderdice organized an interfaith vigil that night, and more than 3,000 people showed up. The head of the local Islamic Society offered to provide guards to stand watch, so people could feel safe while they grieved the dead at memorial services in their synagogues. Thousands came from all across Pennsylvania to lay stones and show solidarity.
I’m so grateful to you, Rabbi Myers, that you could be with us here today. Your leadership and strength, along with so many others, showed us the way to move forward.
We all came together. We all did what we could. We all leaned on each other. We all found the strength to carry on. And that’s who we are. That’s the Pennsylvania I grew up in. That’s the Pennsylvania Frances and I raised our family in. And that’s the Pennsylvania we should all want.