By Colleen Kennedy
Anyone who holds any interest in the outcome of the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Primary, or who owns a television in the Philadelphia media market has probably seen “the ad”.
The Rob McCord campaign released an attack ad against presumed frontrunner Tom Wolf, highlighting his connection to a former elected official who played a role in a race riot in York, PA, back in 1969. Here’s the ad.
Admittedly, I did not have the same visceral reaction to reject this ad that many of my friends and colleagues shared, but I could completely understand that reaction. This primary has become pretty heated, and any conversation relating to racism is going to be extremely uncomfortable. Any person who hasn’t initially felt a twinge of defensiveness when discussing the privilege they are unfairly afforded over other groups is probably not having those difficult conversations enough.
We can take this moment to talk about how McCord’s ad was ugly or below the belt, or we can just get all the facts out there. We can talk about the inarticulate nature of the ad after as a matter of politics, but let’s know what the ad meant to say, in addition to what it actually said. The voters deserve to understand all the facts.
1969 Race Riots and Charles Robertson
Charles Robertson, who served as the mayor of York, PA from 1994 to 2002, was arrested in 2001 in relation to his involvement in the York 1969 race riots, a violent event that required the assistance of the National Guard and resulted in the death of a 27 year old African American mother of two named Lillie Belle Allen.
According to newspaper reports during the trial, witnesses testified that Robertson, then a York City police officer, yelled "White Power!" into the crowd, then handed a number of gang members a handful of bullets, telling them to "kill as many n***ers as [they] can." Based on the laws on the books in 1969, when the riot took place, Robertson’s actions constituted a murder charge, and in 2001, they filed these charges, right in the middle of his mayoral re-election campaign.
Tom Wolf was Robertson’s campaign chairman, but that was not his only connection to the alleged racist. He also stood by his friend after the indictment, was included as a character witness for Robertson during the trial, and signed on to a letter to the York Daily Record, saying that their coverage was “inflammatory”. Here is the letter, signed by dozens including Tom Wolf, so you can read it for yourself.
“The undersigned wish to express our grave concern regarding newspaper coverage of the events of 32 years ago and their aftermath. Let it be understood at the outset that we fully understand that the current events represent a highly significant news story requiring full coverage on a ‘hard news’, factual basis. In addition, we do not wish to impede in any way those who seek the ultimate objective of justice in the cases under review. We find very disturbing, however, what we consider to be an excessive, exploitive focus on the ancillary aspects of the story…We believe newspaper coverage has been entirely excessive as well as irresponsible. We believe that in the guise of covering the news the local papers have done and are doing a grave disservice to the community. We fear that this unrelenting attention to the tragedies of 32 years ago, if continued, will have grave social consequences which have already begun to be manifested. The inflammatory approach which has characterized newspaper coverage threatens to undo the selfless efforts of many hundreds of citizens from all over the community who over the past 30 years have managed to heal the social wounds resulting from the riots. A continuation of the irresponsible approach by the newspapers which we have witnessed in recent weeks could open a Pandora’s box of severely damaging consequences. Further, this excessive local coverage has caught the attention of the national media with results that can only be detrimental to the York community.”
Exploitation of a chaotic situation by the news media is not a new thing, and I don’t find this letter to the local newspaper to be shocking or telling of some sort of overt bias by Wolf toward Robertson. It is also important to note the pain that this trial inflicted upon the York community, but events of abject racism are better left in broad daylight to be discussed than hidden or ignored.
Wolf contributed funds to Robertson’s campaign before and after the charges were made, which some will spin as support by Wolf of the crimes Robertson allegedly committed. As a new participant to the world of Pennsylvania campaign finance, I understand that there are fiduciary responsibilities to any campaign, and this includes Wolf’s responsibilities to pay back debts created by the Robertson campaign, whether supporters are still donating to the candidate or not.
Where Wolf loses some credibility is how he has handled the Charles Robertson episode of his life since becoming a candidate in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Wolf and his team have known from the beginning that this was one of the biggest liabilities of his candidacy, and rather than turning a weakness into a strength, showing true leadership and character, they built a brick wall of defense to shield him from any harm.
As the McCord campaign staff has pointed out on Twitter, the Wolf campaign took a pretty cynical approach to Robertson’s impact on Wolf’s candidacy. Two months ago, a video was released of current York Mayor Kim Bracey, an African American public official, in support of Wolf’s campaign.
A few days ago, after the release of McCord’s campaign ad about racism, another ad was released with Bracey, wearing the same exact clothes as the first video, sitting in the same exact room, with a clock positioned in frame. If you watch, at no time is McCord or his ad mentioned by Bracey. It’s almost as if this video was made over two months ago, with the knowledge that one of the other candidates was bound to bring this up as an issue.
If the Wolf campaign knew this was a liability and that his involvement in the affair checked out, why not step out in front on this, rather than waiting for another candidate to pounce?
Former Governor Ed Rendell was one of the first to speak out against McCord’s ad after its release, playing the role of Pennsylvania Democrats’ elder statesman, trying to mentor the younger politicians and operatives to play fair and work together.
It is worth noting that Wolf’s professional relationship with Rendell is well-known, but even further than that, Wolf contributed $200,000 toward Rendell’s gubernatorial campaign. He later became Rendell’s Revenue Secretary. Though the former governor has a right just like anyone else to an opinion about the McCord ad, weighing his opinion as impartial is pretty preposterous, to say the least.
Some Tom Wolf supporters on social media go so far as to say that McCord’s campaign was attempting to suppress the African American vote with his ad. That’s not really an accusation any of us are qualified to make. We will never know what discussions were conducted with McCord senior advisors before this ad was created, and it will probably take a few years before political scientists study the impact of this ad on voter participation within the Pennsylvania African American community - long after this primary. It is of course my hope that this ad has no effect of deterrence on this election.
All this being said, an old report from The Guardian from 2001 has interesting details to shed on the situation with Charles Robertson. According to Michael Ellison, Robertson’s admittance of his racism in the 1960s had a direct impact on the results of the mayoral election that year. Maybe this is what has the Wolf campaign worried.
Robertson’s opponent, Ray Crenshaw, the first African American to seek this particular position, received just 33% of his votes from Caucasian voters. Robertson received 93% of his support from Caucasian voters according to an exit poll that Election Day, and for 74% of all voters in that election, the murder trial involving Robertson and the race riots was a key part of their voting decision.
The events that unfolded and started all of this were over forty years ago, but Wolf’s connection to this person was only thirteen years ago. Most would agree that the point of the ad (albeit a little unclear to some) was not to say that Wolf is a racist. It was to say that he was blinded by loyalty, by friendship, over the greater common good.
Impacts on the General Election
There has been talk from surrogates and staffers of the Wolf campaign to stop talking about this, to “come together” for the good of the Democratic Party. If Wolf’s character is as strong as they say it is, I encourage them to stop saying this, and to embrace this situation as an opportunity for growth and learning for all voters and for all candidates.
We should have a conversation about racism, about what happened over 40 years ago, how it still brings pain to the people of York, and how our very own policies create institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, religious discrimination, and discrimination against the disabled and poor, every single day.
I hate to break it to Democratic operatives, but this story is out there, and Governor Corbett’s operatives will be using it and other stories about Wolf’s past, if he becomes the nominee. As citizens, we should elevate our role to improve our society over political viability of our particular favorite candidate. We are all better than that.
Impacts on the Governor’s Mansion
The Robertson story isn’t troubling to voters because Tom Wolf is a racist - Tom Wolf has not made that indication to anyone. What upsets voters is that he turned a blind eye to wrongdoing and was not resolute in his leadership in the York community. He has since then framed himself as the victim in this political spat, and I wonder how that makes victims of racism and their loved ones feel about the political process. Probably not very good.
Racism plagues our education policies, with an abhorrent lack of a public school funding formula, and conflicts of interest between politicians and the charter school companies and nonprofits charged with educating children.
Our prisons and our drug policies are discriminatory toward those of color, and the economic prospects for a young Latina or a young African American male are less than the economic prospects I am afforded.
Even worse than all this, blind loyalty has hurt so many Pennsylvanians over the past four years, and that’s really where Wolf’s past mistakes hurt most. Governor Corbett has instituted policies to help his richest donors, whether it’s the folks from Shell, the donors for corporate education reform, or the companies wishing to frack for natural gas despite grave health and environmental impacts. We’ve seen person after person leave the post of Education Secretary, without any real improvement at any level of our public school system or our education policies. Tom Wolf is a self-funded candidate, but this and other episodic examples from his past leave voters questioning whether he has the moral stamina to bring real change to the Governor’s mansion.
So in my inaugural post at The P.H.L., I’d call on Tom Wolf to have a real talk about race and political leadership. Stop looking at poll numbers, stop worrying about whether or not Treasurer McCord’s attack was unfair, and prove to Pennsylvanians that you are as honorable and true and intelligent and generous as Mayor Bracey and all of your African American surrogates say you are.
There is absolutely nothing I enjoy more than being proven that my newly-found political cynicism is wrong.