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Jim Cawley's path from Temple to Corbett's No. 2

Jim Cawley was a Bucks County teen at Temple University when he stopped at the "Rizzo for Mayor" table in the student activities center.

Jim Cawley, left, the lieutenant governor-elect, with Gov.-elect Tom Corbett during a rally. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Jim Cawley, left, the lieutenant governor-elect, with Gov.-elect Tom Corbett during a rally. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)Read more

Jim Cawley was a Bucks County teen at Temple University when he stopped at the "Rizzo for Mayor" table in the student activities center.

Republican Frank Rizzo failed to oust W. Wilson Goode in that 1987 Philadelphia mayoral election. But Cawley's volunteer work for the Rizzo campaign left the young political-science student smitten.

"It was so interesting and so exciting that we formed a College Republicans chapter," Cawley recalled. "The rest is history."

Immersed in local politics ever since, the 41-year-old lawyer from Levittown entered the statewide spotlight Tuesday night when voters elected him Pennsylvania's next lieutenant governor.

Cawley and his running mate, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, took almost 55 percent of the vote - and 63 of 67 counties - in defeating the Democratic ticket of Dan Onorato and Scott Conklin.

Come January, the Bucks County commissioner and former aide to State Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks) will be the proverbial heartbeat away from the governor's seat.

"I told Tom Corbett that with the issues we have before us it's going to take a team, so he's not allowed to go anywhere," Cawley joked in an interview Thursday. "And he's agreed to that."

Lieutenant governor is not among the world's highest-profile public offices. But Cawley is well-practiced at functioning behind the scenes.

Before becoming a county commissioner in 2005, he was Tomlinson's district director and chief of staff.

"He probably is as prepared as anybody to be lieutenant governor," Tomlinson said. "The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate. He has a pretty intimate knowledge not only of how the Senate works but also has a good knowledge of some of the players."

And as a veteran GOP political operative in Bucks County, Cawley has worked to deliver more election wins for others than for himself.

"Many have turned to Jim over the years for his experience in managing campaigns," Republican Rep.-elect Mike Fitzpatrick said. Cawley ran Fitzpatrick's 1999 campaign for county commissioner, as well as his first successful campaign for Congress in 2004.

Cawley has an ability "to see the bigger picture while at the same time meeting deadlines and tending to details," Fitzpatrick said. "I think those skill sets will serve him extremely well in the state capital."

Cawley's antiabortion, pro-gun-rights, get-out-of-the-way-of-entrepreneurs views match those of Corbett, whom Cawley endorsed and teamed with last winter. So does his no-new-taxes stance for citizens and natural-gas drillers alike.

Cawley said he had asked Corbett for a role in shaping policy on Pennsylvania's gas-rich Marcellus Shale resources. He also wants to push for a zero-based state budgeting system and to champion technology upgrades that would make state government more efficient and transparent.

Cawley's new gig comes with limited defined duties. As president of the Senate, he could cast a tie-breaking vote. He also would be chair of the Board of Pardons and of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Council.

Beyond that, "it will be a matter of what Jim negotiates with his friend and partner, Tom Corbett, in nontraditional aspects," former Gov. Mark Schweiker said.

Schweiker knows from experience that the lieutenant governor must be ready to step into the top job. That happened to him in 2001, when Gov. Tom Ridge resigned to become homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush and Schweiker moved up to replace Ridge.

Cawley and Schweiker go back to the early 1990s, when Cawley was a volunteer and driver in Schweiker's campaign for lieutenant governor. "When I first started," Cawley recalled, "it was just the three of us: me, Mark, and his blue Pontiac Bonneville."

Their families knew each other back in Lower Bucks County. Both men were graduates of Bishop Egan High School and blazed similar trails to Harrisburg.

Schweiker, like Cawley, had been a Bucks County commissioner when elected lieutenant governor.

A third Bishop Egan grad - Fitzpatrick - bridged the gap between them. Fitzpatrick was appointed to replace Schweiker as a county commissioner in 1995. And when Fitzpatrick left for Congress in 2005, Cawley was named to succeed him.

"There is no finer preparatory experience than being an executive in a large county government," Schweiker said. "It is truly a proving ground."

During Cawley's time as a commissioner, Bucks County has gone four straight years without a tax increase and earned a triple-A bond rating, its highest ever. The county improved its computer system, Cawley said, helped expand Bucks County Community College, continued its open-space preservation program, and is about to begin construction of a new county courthouse in Doylestown.

The held line on taxes, he vows, will follow him to Harrisburg, if only in a supporting role.

"Tom Corbett gets it," he said. "He believes in the same things I do, and in changing the way Harrisburg does its business."

Cawley grew up in Levittown, the son of a union-leading postal worker who for 20 years directed Philadelphia's St. Patrick's Day Parade. His mother was a secretary for the county library system.

Cawley's wife of seven years, Suzanne, sells residential real estate in Manhattan. They have a 3-year-old son, and have yet to decide whether to sell their Middletown Township home and move everything to Harrisburg.

"My heart is in Bucks County," Cawley said. "So however long a Corbett-Cawley administration may last, when it's over I'll be back here for sure."