State Treasurer Rob McCord attacked the frontrunner in the Democratic campaign for governor Wednesday for his past political support of a York mayor who shouted "White Power!" as a young police officer during the city's 1969 race riots and was charged three decades later with murder in the death of a black woman.
McCord said that it was a "character issue" for York businessman Tom Wolf, who was the campaign chairman for the mayor, Charlie Robertson, in 2001 when the latter was arrested. Wolf's immediate reaction at the time was to say he would continue to serve as the mayor's campaign chairman.
"I'm going to be introducing the words 'racism' and 'character' and 'judgment' into the conversation," McCord said in a meeting of The Inquirer's editorial board. "I'm going to be asking Tom: 'What were you thinking?' What possible plausible explanation is there?"
The move came with just under three weeks to go in the campaign, with Wolf enjoying a lead of more than 20 percentage points over McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Katie McGinty, the state's former top enviromental regulator.
"It's sad that Rob would stoop to this level - it's politics as usual and it's desperate," Wolf spokesman Mark Nicastre said.
McCord challenged Wolf on the issue in his opening statement Wednesday night in a debate sponsored by the Committee of 70, a Philadelphia government watchdog group, on education.Schwartz also said that Wolf needed to explain himself.
Prosecutors had charged Robertson with supplying bullets to a white gang that were later used to shoot at a car in which Lillie Belle Allen, a 26-year-old African American woman, was riding during the riots; she was killed.
The mayor admitted he was a racist as a young officer – testimony quoted him as encouraging a mob to "kill as many n– as you can" -- but he denied having passing out ammunition. The killing of Allen occurred after a police officer who was shot in the unrest died of his wounds.
"In 2001 Charlie Robertson was saying, well, you know, a white cop had been killed, we saw it is even," McCord said. "I hear any of that kind of stuff, any of that stuff, 13 years ago, I say, 'Count me out of your reelection campaign.' You know, Tom was quoted as saying, 'I barely knew him.' Look, I would lose a friendship over this. I'd walk away from somebody I knew real well, let alone somebody I barely knew."
McCord said that the issue "runs deep for me," noting that Allen was about the same age as his wife, Leigh Jackson, who is black, was when they were newlyweds.
It also runs deep for Kim Bracey, York's first African American mayor, who considers Wolf a friend and mentor of two decades' standing. "This is disgraceful behavior, injecting race into this campaign," she told reporters on a conference call Wednesday night. "I know Tom. He's a good man...I know for a fact: were it not for Tom Wolf in my life, I wouldn't be mayor of York."
Wolf has said he was the honorary chairman of the Robertson campaign, and knew the mayor because he was active in a civic group promoting revitalization of the city. He was quoted in local newspapers on the day of the arrest saying he was willing to keep serving if Robertson "wants me to."
According to York newspaper coverage, Wolf contributed $3,000 to Robertson's campaign committee after the primary as it was paying off bills and winding up its affairs.
"That kind of poor judgment doesn't mean somebody's a racist, and I'm certain Tom is not," McCord said in the editorial board interview.