HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett might not be changing his message as he shifts into re-election mode, but for the first time in his nearly three-year tenure he’s bringing in new messengers.
The Republican has appointed a new chief of staff and a new communications director — both seasoned political operatives who worked for Gov. Tom Ridge — and plans to name a press secretary in an apparent effort to bolster his relationship with the news media.
Corbett’s choice of communication director, announced last week, is Luzerne County resident Lynn Lawson, 53, of Conyngham. “Lynn brings a significant record of accomplishment in developing and implementing communications plans,” Corbett said.
The shake-up comes on the heels of a legislative session that failed to yield a single victory among Corbett’s top three initiatives — transportation funding, liquor privatization and changes to the public pension system — and polls that show his public support sagging.
Among the outsiders watching all of this closely are the former press secretaries to the governors who preceded Corbett. And they have some strong opinions about how the incumbent deals with the news media and the public.
Tim Reeves, who was Ridge’s spokesman, said Ridge often remarked that he “loved” being governor, especially the adversarial relationship he shared with reporters. “I never got the feeling that that love continued” in the Corbett administration, he said.
Reeves, a former newspaper reporter who covered the Capitol, said Corbett’s press office treated journalists’ questions and requests as “a necessary evil and something to be disregarded and minimized and held at arm’s length.”
Ridge, a Republican, “always knew that it was a two-way street, like all healthy relationships, that journalists need information to do their jobs, they need access to do their jobs and they need responsiveness to do their jobs,” he said.
Chuck Ardo, who was Gov. Ed Rendell’s spokesman for much of his two terms, singled out Kevin Harley, Corbett’s departing press secretary, as a source of unnecessary friction.
“Harley’s combative relationship with the press corps made the job more difficult and less fun than it could otherwise have been,” Ardo said.
Former GOP Gov. Mark Schweiker’s press secretary, Dave LaTorre, said the changes are good for Harley, who is joining a Harrisburg public-relations firm with the Corbett campaign as a client, and good for Corbett, whose office will benefit from fresh leadership.
“It frees Kevin up to devote a great deal of time to the political campaign. It makes sense from a practical, political standpoint,” LaTorre said.
Harley said he was not forced out of his dual role as Corbett’s communications director and press secretary. He said Corbett stepped up public appearances earlier this year as he prepares to make his case to Pennsylvania voters for a second term.
“He’s doing what he promised he would do,” Harley said. “He’s creating jobs and reducing taxes — making Pennsylvania a better place to live and raise a family.”
Vince Carocci, who was Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey’s press secretary, said in a telephone interview that it’s not easy being a press secretary.
“No press secretary ever does well enough for the guy they work with,” he said. “The criticism comes with the office of governor and it’s hard for press secretaries to keep their governor happy if he’s constantly getting criticized.”
Of the Corbett reshuffling, Carocci said, “If they’re still talking about this six months from now, then it means it didn’t work.”