Tom Wolf stabbed the broom at an area rug, a dustpan in his other hand. The grit didn't budge.

"Mr. Wolf," Aretha Spady said, "there's no cute way to do the rug."

She yanked the broom away from the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania and whisked it. "See, this is professional," Spady said. "Quick and to the point."

On a recent afternoon, Wolf was shadowing Spady, a home health aide, as she cared for her patient in a Northwest Philadelphia rowhouse. Maybe the visit would not directly win votes, but Wolf considered it important to his continuing education.

Polls suggest Wolf, 65, stands a good chance of becoming the state's chief executive in his first run for office. With projected deficits, a legislature likely to stay in Republican hands, and voters impatient for a turnaround, his prize could be the steepest learning curve of his life.

In many respects, Wolf has approached the campaign trail as a series of seminars. He has debriefed fruit vendors at the Allentown Farmer's Market, watched major-league baseball bats lathed at Chandler's Bats in Norristown, interrogated teachers about lesson plans and budget needs at dozens of schools.

"Sometimes you get the sense that politics is just about show," Wolf said after getting schooled on his sweeping technique. "For me, this has been as much about learning and gathering information as it is about trying to tell people about who I am."

By now, millions of dollars worth of TV ads have outlined his story: a midstate, Jeep-driving man who sold the family business, bought it back, and revived it in the trough of the recession; a former Peace Corps volunteer; a scholar with a doctorate in political science; a former state revenue secretary.

A less obvious thread runs through it all: perpetual student.

"That's not just this campaign," Wolf said. "That's the way I have lived my life."

Before he ran the Wolf Organization, which now boasts of being the largest U.S. distributor of kitchen cabinets, Wolf drove a forklift in the warehouse. As boss, he went on sales calls and rode with truckers on deliveries. As Ed Rendell's revenue secretary, he made sure he met and talked with each of the department's employees; that took him 13 months.

On the tenure track

He had been on the fast track.

After two years of prep school, Wolf went to Dartmouth College. His master's followed at the University of London, where he met his wife, Frances, a daughter of diplomats, in the library. In 1981 he earned a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When a politician is called "a wonderful human being, your antennae go up," said Drew Altman, a health policy expert and founder of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who was a fellow Ph.D. student. "But in this case it's true."

Doctoral students are a competitive lot, but Wolf was hard to resent, Altman said - "He annoyed us all to death because we considered him too likeable."

His dissertation, on structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1878 to 1921, won a national prize.

M.I.T. political scientist Richard Samuels, who was a graduate student with Wolf and remains a close friend, said, "He was a star."

Samuels said Harvard offered Wolf a tenure-track position - and recalls how the recruiter was gobsmacked when the prize recruit chose instead to stay in York, run a hardware store (then part of the Wolf empire), and start in the family business.

"He turned down a career in the academy in favor of building things," Samuels said.

Wolf had switched directions before. He joined the Peace Corps after freshman year and worked in India, promoting the growth of high-yield rice.

The work "made me figure I could do anything," Wolf said. "I had to learn surveying. I had to learn to build an irrigation system. I had to figure out how to put machinery back together."

Why the turn to politics?

Wolf said he decided to run for governor as an extension of the public service he had done as a civic leader in York - "only on a much grander scale" - and out of a belief in the power of government to improve people's lives.

In January, he stood at about 3 percent in the polls. But he rose like a rocket by going on television first, putting up $10 million of his own - at a time voters seemed fed up with politics as usual. In the primary, he bested more established Democrats.

He has never trailed in the matchup with Gov. Corbett.

While Wolf touts himself as a "different kind of politician," positions he stresses hew to Democratic orthodoxy: tax the shale-gas producers at 5 percent; send more money to public schools; make the tax system fairer.

Though he has grown as a candidate, critics have hammered him for the vagueness of his tax plan, with a cut for the middle class and the well-off paying more. But he has resisted spelling out details, saying he needs to be in office to have real-time data.

Was it naïve to get into taxes? Does Wolf's oft-expressed faith in the power of rational thought and democratic deliberation mean he can wrestle with and reach accord with a likely GOP-run legislature?

After all, Corbett, who has years of experience in Harrisburg but is an admittedly poor pitchman, has rarely made that relationship work.

"I certainly will do no worse," Wolf told Inquirer editors when pressed about how he would build bridges with a balky legislature.

Thinking big - and small

People who have worked with Wolf say he focuses on the big picture as well as on the granular. Dave Confer, who, as Wolf Organization vice chairman and general counsel, has worked beside him for a quarter-century, says he saw Wolf guide the company through two serious tests.

In the 1990s, the firm implemented a computer system to increase efficiency. Workers had to map out every task they did.

Confer was antsy at the slow pace; Wolf counseled patience. "He said, 'We could go out and make people do this, but I want you to understand this is like a political campaign - we have to get people to understand why this is important, and give them the time and training to make it their own.' "

In 2006, Wolf and two cousins wanted to cash out. They brought in an investment bank, which put up $32 million; a team of longtime executives put up an additional $5 million. The company had to borrow $50 million.

Then the crash happened, and the company was left deeply in debt.

Wolf wanted to run for governor in 2010. Instead, he came back to the company, sinking in $11 million of his own and restructuring its debt.

The second revolution: He pushed the firm to change from a distributor of others' wares to a designer of products made under its own brand.

"Tom realized that the economy and housing were going to come back," Confer said, "and if we stood still as a tradition two-step distributor, eventually we weren't going to have a place to stand."

One step at a time

Leroy Evans, 62, was using two canes to make his way up Rugby Street in East Mount Airy, the first time he had made the block-long walk without a walker. Spady, who has worked with him since he left rehab in March, teased him for showing off for Wolf.

"I'm so proud of him," Spady said of Evans, who has diabetes.

With a video crew in tow, Wolf walked behind them, wearing blue latex gloves and carrying the walker, just in case.

"When I came home, I couldn't do anything," Evans told Wolf.

"To what do you attribute your progress?" Wolf asked.

"Forcing myself to do it," Evans said. " If you don't do it for yourself, or try to, who's going to do it for you?"

Wolf said, "Exactly right."

He is still new to the political arts. Wolf's quirky humor - often mocking his bald pate and beard - is a reminder of this.

At a September event in Reading to accept the support of Latino leaders from across the state, he came onstage in a white guayabera, to cheers, and deadpanned: "I was kind of hoping to be introduced as 'Señor Lobo.' "

The crowd laughed a little, as did one at a farm show when Wolf tried a joke about the divergence between Democrats and most rural residents. "I wasn't going around and saying 'Hi' to people before," he said. "I was checking for weapons."

Though he doesn't talk about winning, at least in public - he is nervous about turnout - he said that if he wins, he and Frances will stay in their rambling home in Mount Wolf, York County, rather than move to Harrisburg. He hopes to use his Jeep for the 20-minute commute.

His life already has changed.

A little wistfully, he recalled the words of his younger daughter, Katie, 30, the night he won the Democratic nomination.

Amid supporters' cheers, "Katie looked at Frances and said, 'I think we've lost him. He's not ours anymore.' "

The Wolfs are still learning.

Thomas W. Wolf

Age: 65.

Residence: York County.

Family: Wife, Frances; two grown daughters, Sarah and Katie.

Education: B.A., Dartmouth (1972); M.Phil., University of London (1978); Ph.D. in political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1981).

Occupation: Businessman.

Campaign website:

Career: Peace Corps volunteer in India (1968-70), headed the Wolf Organization Inc., a building-products company in York (1985-2006, 2009-present); secretary of revenue, state of Pennsylvania (2007-08).


215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald