Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Pennsylvania state flags are flying at half-staff to honor former Gov. George Leader, who died Thursday at the age of 95.
Leader was a Democrat from York County who grew up on his dad’s poultry farm. But the man was no chicken, as former Gov. Ed Rendell remembers.
“Always told it like it was and always stood for the things he believed in – wasn’t afraid of anything,” Rendell said hours after news came of Leader’s death.
The York County native was the commonwealth’s second-youngest governor at 37 years old when he took office in 1955. He was known for largely eradicating the spoils system.
Leader discussed the 52 jobs reporting directly to the governor in a witf-TV profile, which he said were traditionally given (“automatically, almost”) to those who contributed heavily to a governor’s campaign.
“They were what we called ‘T to T’ people. They came in Tuesday morning and they went home Thursday afternoon,” said Leader. “So if you wonder why Pennsylvania government was probably 20 to 25 years out of date, it’s because those bureau-heads were protecting their flanks and making mighty sure that they survived in that job long enough to get their pension.”
“He tried to professionalize the civil service,” said Don Morabito, who met Leader when he was working for the Department of Health secretary under Rendell. “He took... jobs off of the patronage system and put them onto civil service which, as you can imagine back in the 1950s, was not a popular thing to do.”
Perhaps it was one of the moves that gave Leader some perspective when he offered encouragement to Gov. Corbett in August of 2011 – a month after the new governor’s first budget, which made controversial cuts to education and public welfare. Leader told a crowd at an unrelated event in Hershey what he told Corbett:
“I said, ‘and I don’t think it’s going to hurt you politically. I hate to say that as a Democrat to a Republican governor, but I think there are enough people in Pennsylvania that appreciate the fantastic job you did balancing that budget, some of them are going to vote for you,’” said Leader.
Public officials have called Leader “aptly named.” He was most recently involved in the Corbett administration’s effort to overhaul the state prison system. In mid-March, he co-signed a letter to state lawmakers urging a change to the way some state judges are selected.
Franklin & Marshall College political science professor Terry Madonna credits Leader for the commonwealth's modern conservation and state parks system, due to his tapping Maurice Goddard to run the agency that was the forerunner to today's state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
"Under Goddard, Pennsylvania went through a huge expansion of state parks," said Madonna. "The goal was to have a state park within 25 or 30 miles of every Pennsylvanian."
"Leader once told me that the greatest thing he did as Governor was to find and appoint Goddard," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "But that is not quite right. He ended the old patronage system and did many other good things. He will be remembered as a great Governor and a thoughtful servant in private life."
Leader's single term as governor – when he was in office, governors were limited to one term – was preceded by four years in the state Senate.
Published in State House Sound Bites
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