Gov. Wolf turned to a new, if not totally secret, weapon Friday in the high-volume campaign for his education and tax reform package - a soft-spoken York County artist who is also the new first lady of Pennsylvania.
Frances Wolf, 62, took the case for the Democratic governor's roughly $1 billion proposed hike in school funding to Paul Fly Elementary School in Norristown, where she hosted a roundtable and listened to teachers and administrators, many of whom complained about budget cuts under GOP predecessor Tom Corbett.
"The Norristown Area School District has been underfunded for years," said Superintendent Janet Samuels. "We have done our best to stretch so we are able to provide quality services to your students."
Frances Wolf's visit to the Montgomery County school was another sign of how aggressively the administration hopes to rally public support for his budget and tax overhaul, which has been greeted with sharp resistance from Republican lawmakers.
Gov. Wolf's $30 billion plan would hike state income and sales taxes while cutting property and corporate net income taxes. He also has proposed an extraction tax on natural-gas drilling that he contends could yield $1 billion for schools.
Before and since unveiling his education funding proposal, Gov. Wolf has been touting it across the state, often in camera-ready visits to schools, while his press office pumps out a steady stream of accolades and arguments in support of the budget. As his wife traveled Friday to the state's southeastern corner, the governor planned similar appearances at schools in Exeter, north of Wilkes-Barre, and Lock Haven, in central Pennsylvania.
The effort suggests that Gov. Wolf is adopting the "permanent campaign" mode of governing popularized by President Bill Clinton.
Frances Wolf's appearance also hinted that the first lady might keep a higher profile than at least her most recent predecessors.
Susan Corbett, a librarian, didn't bask in the glare of public attention or take a notable role in pushing the administration's agenda. Marjorie O. Rendell was explicitly barred from political events in her job as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge.
Still, Frances Wolf's street-level advocacy for her husband's school funding plan is not surprising, said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
"In contemporary politics, first ladies from the White House down to state capitols have played significant roles in supporting policy efforts," he said.
A painter who has exhibited throughout Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia galleries, Frances Wolf attended college in London and has a master's degree in art history from Bryn Mawr College. When she accompanied Wolf on the campaign trail last year, she was a quiet and unobtrusive presence, speaking with voters and asking an occasional question.
On Friday, she told the Norristown staff that she came "to hear your stories." Education, she said, "is something so important to Tom and myself."
For the next hour, she heard about a litany of issues facing the financially strapped district - teacher reductions; fewer extracurricular activities; cuts in languages, arts and music; not enough new technology; too few librarians.
But district officials also told her that school staff were working extra-hard to make sure the roughly 7,000 students they serve in 11 buildings got what they needed.
Kyle Kanter, director of special education and pupil services, said 17 percent of district students had special needs. As a result, the district's school psychologists perform three times as many evaluations as other psychologists in the county.
"We wear many hats," he said. "We're always thinking about what's in the best interest of the students."
When Wolf asked if there was anything the district didn't have that they felt it needed, the staff all laughed. Topping the list, an administrator said, was computers. Unlike many districts in the area, Norristown does not have a "one-to-one" computer initiative, though it is applying for grants to buy iPads for some schools next year.
Under the spending formula in Gov. Wolf's proposed budget, the Norristown district would get an additional $2.2 million in state funding in the next fiscal year, or nearly 15 percent more than the $15.3 million it received this year.
Before heading off to read to a classroom of third graders, Frances Wolf said the stories she heard from administrators and staff "were sobering, a little sad." She has heard similar complaints on her "Schools that Teach Tour," which took her to King Elementary School in Lancaster on Feb. 19 and will continue for the next few weeks.
But she and her husband have a tale to tell, too.
"I'm trying to help my husband's administration," she said, by going out to "tell the story of the budget."
"This is something we're truly interested in," she said.