First of four candidate profiles
Rob McCord looked like he'd been dropped into that ubiquitous cellphone commercial, seated in an undersized chair at a too-tiny table in a Philadelphia classroom.
But McCord wasn't tossing out inane questions to toddlers. His topic during the visit Wednesday to an early-childhood center near Chinatown was deadly serious: how to keep children - particularly those from struggling families - in school and out of jail.
McCord, state treasurer since 2009, was on hand to make his case that if elected governor he would triple the amount the state spends on its youngest students.
"If we put $220 million more in early-childhood education, we save $3 billion in costs associated with high school dropouts," McCord told members of the Pre-K for PA Coalition at the center, Children's Village. "Talk about an investment that pays for itself."
McCord has a few tough weeks ahead as he jockeys for position in the largest Democratic gubernatorial field in recent memory. The winner of the May 20 primary will likely take on Gov. Corbett in November.
Recent polls placed McCord third out of the four Democrats and lagging in fund-raising. But with two statewide election wins and success in business, McCord says he is best equipped to challenge the man some call the country's most vulnerable governor. And he has spent $2 million on TV ads in recent weeks to deliver that message to the public.
"My nickname is 'Corbett slayer,' " McCord said Wednesday between bites of squid in black bean sauce at a restaurant near Children's Village. The label first appeared in a 2012 magazine profile.
Midway through his second term as state treasurer, McCord is campaigning on his role in helping to end Corbett's bid to hire a London firm to manage the state lottery. At the time, he said he simply wouldn't sign the check.
"What he's trying to say and do is to point out one difference in the field," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin and Marshall College. "He has been in the arena battling Corbett: 'I stood up, and I won.' "
McCord, 55, of Bryn Mawr, with Harvard and Penn degrees and success as a venture capitalist, wasn't always a winner.
He was born to a Stanford University professor and his wife. He was 4 when his alcoholic father moved out, leaving his mother, a doctoral candidate, to support McCord and his brother on a teaching assistant's salary.
When McCord was 10, his mother, Joan, landed a faculty position at Drexel University, and the family moved to Philadelphia. She picked Lower Merion Township because of the school district. He says Pennsylvania's public school system saved him.
"I had undiagnosed dyslexia," said McCord, who has the boyish grin and trim build of the soccer player he was in high school.
He was placed in a remedial class and, in his own words, was a troublemaker. Life improved for him after the school detected his disability and his mother married Carl Silver, a fellow professor.
McCord sold cutlery door to door to help pay for college. After a stint as a congressional staffer, he moved back to Lower Merion with his wife, Leigh Jackson, then a Philadelphia Daily News reporter, where they raised their sons, Grant and Jackson.
With his Wharton MBA, McCord started the first of several venture-capital funds investing in technology and life sciences. Those who know him from the private sector call him a visionary and innovator unafraid to take the risks that made him a millionaire, but responsibile to employees.
Wayne Kimmel, who with McCord founded the Eastern Technology Fund, called him an "altruistic venture capitalist" who connects to people on the street and in the boardroom.
"Not many people can say that," Kimmel said. "He thinks bigger than just making money; he works hard to inspire people."
McCord's most vocal detractor thus far has been his stepbrother, Daniel Silver. In a widely published letter, Silver, who works in Blair County, blasted McCord for publicly portraying himself as a "disadvantaged child of single mom" and failing to acknowledge the role of his stepfather.
"McCord has told half-truths and dishonored the man he called 'Dad,' " Silver wrote. "Why do we care? It's about character. A governor should have some."
McCord says he has often praised his stepfather and takes care to say he was "primarily raised by a single mother."
He emphasizes the difficult years in California, he said, because the story resonates and sets him apart as a candidate who relates to people of all incomes. "We dropped in and out of poverty like many people; it was like bungee jumping," he said. "I got incredibly lucky that my mother married a good guy."
McCord says he never had his eye on higher office after treasurer. But since winning, he said, he has fallen in love with his job running "the most important office nobody cares about."
He became chief steward of $120 billion in state assets at the recession's height. The treasurer also manages the tax-free college savings program known as PA 529 and plays a role in controlling billions in government pension benefits.
McCord said his scramble to stabilize the college savings plan fund helped him "thicken" a relationship with Republican lawmakers. He credits GOP leaders for supporting his decision to invest in the plan in a down market.
Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) said McCord gives lawmakers too much credit. "He came forward with a plan, we supported it, and it's proven successful," Corman said.
The result: McCord repaired the $1.5 billion tuition plan, taking it from 70 percent to 100 percent funded in three years.
Corbett's first budget in 2011, with deep cuts to education, and the governor's "lack of engagement" got him thinking about running for the seat. "I was really underwhelmed and I was appalled by the budget," McCord says.
Some friends and associates say he is not afraid to mix it up when he is challenged or feels he's been wronged. He gave his detractors fodder when he got into a screaming match with the finance manager for a primary rival, Allyson Schwartz, and took more heat after calling Corbett's health-care plan "boneheaded."
Still, McCord says he will sprint to the finish line. As of the last reporting period, he had $7 million in his campaign coffers and plans to step up his campaign ads.
Muhlenberg College political analyst Chris Borick said a low turnout could favor the front-runner next month - but McCord could get a boost from unions. He has two of the largest backing him - the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - with nearly 300,000 members.
"There are very few times employees endorse employers," said David Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13, which represents 65,000 government workers in Harrisburg. "He understands hardships, he's a successful businessman, and he gets the issues, like minimum wage. These are real things my members take to heart and look for in a governor."
Robert M. McCord
Residence: Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County.
Family: Wife, Leigh; sons Jackson, 19, Grant, 16.
Education: History and economics degrees from Harvard College; MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.
Occupation: Pennsylvania state treasurer in his second term. Elected in 2008.
Campaign website: www.robmccord.com/
Background: Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, senior executive at Safeguard Scientifics, founder of the Eastern Technology Fund, co-founder of Pennsylvania Early Stage Partners, chair of Eastern Technology Council.
During his tenure, Treasury generated more than $2.1 billion for the state, and more in returns for the state's two large pension funds.
Schedule of Profiles
Katie McGinty, Former secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Allyson Schwartz, United States representative
Tom Wolf, former secretary of Pennsylvania Revenue DepartmentEndText