HARRISBURG - Gov. Wolf's embattled nominee to head the Pennsylvania State Police on Wednesday cleared a key hurdle on the path to confirmation, but his future remains in question.
Skeptical Republican legislators on the Senate Law and Justice Committee grilled acting Commissioner Marcus Brown about everything from the death penalty and tax breaks to why he chose not to wear a police uniform to the hearing. When it ended, the committee chose not to endorse Brown but forwarded his nomination to the full Senate for a vote next week.
It was unclear if Brown - one of two cabinet members yet to be confirmed - has support to keep the job. "It's a fight that is being negotiated as we speak," said a Senate aide, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the talks.
After the unanimous vote, Brown emerged from the hearing saying that he expected a thorough vetting, but that he believes he will be judged on his long career in law enforcement.
"My goal is making this agency better and to help public safety across the state," he told reporters after the hearing. He later added: "There hasn't been one senator who has said I am not qualified for this job."
A Senate vote against Brown would be among the biggest political losses for Wolf in his short tenure, coming as the first term Democrat tries to build support in the GOP-led legislature for parts, if not all, of his nearly $30 billion budget plan.
Wolf's spokesman described the committee's interrogation of Brown as "the same tired questions that they have been charging against him for months." Brown gave truthful, honest answers and "handled himself well," spokesman Jeff Sheridan said.
Since Wolf tapped Brown in January, the nomination has been enveloped in controversy. Senate GOP leaders in March even took the extraordinary step of asking Wolf to withdraw the nomination, saying they did not have confidence in Brown's ability to be the state's top cop.
Much of the opposition has stemmed from the career law enforcement officer's decision since becoming acting commissioner to wear the Pennsylvania State Police uniform, despite having never attended its academy or received its training. The decision gave rise to a vocal group of ex-troopers, who stormed social media with criticism of Brown, scrutinizing every aspect of his past.
Brown opted for just a suit at Wednesday's hearing, which was crowded and included some in the gallery wearing stickers that read, "Confirm Brown." It didn't appear to draw uniformed troopers, but Brown's critics were apparent on the committee.
Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York) said the uniform issue alone was reason enough for him to vote against Brown's nomination.
Brown replied: "I wear the uniform because it honors the men and women who wear that uniform."
Before Wolf nominated him, citing among other attributes his commitment to making law enforcement more racially diverse, Brown headed the Maryland State Police. Prior to that, he rose through the ranks of the Baltimore City Police Department to become its second-in-command.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, blamed a "good old boys network" for stirring the opposition. He praised Brown's commitment to diversify the state police force in Maryland.
"That alone should confirm you," Williams said, later adding: "You need to be commended, not interrogated."
Brown also faced scrutiny on his past statements about gun control and the role of police in escalating civil disobedience, as well as questions about his Baltimore pension and tax breaks for homes he owned while working in Maryland.
"I get the feeling you are pushing the envelope a little bit," said Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming).
Brown's response: "When the facts come out, I've always followed the law."
With roughly 6,000 employees, the Pennsylvania State Police is among the nation's largest law enforcement forces.
Brown would succeed Frank Noonan, who also did not come up through the Pennsylvania State Police ranks. Noonan spent a quarter-century as an FBI agent and later a top investigator for the state Attorney General's Office. He did not wear a uniform during his four-year tenure.
The uniform controversy festered for months before culminating with a politically embarrassing showdown between Brown and his critics.
In March, a retired trooper planted signs along a public roadway near Brown's Harrisburg-area home critical of his decision to don the uniform. Brown removed the signs as the ex-trooper secretly video-recorded him.
After the incident became public, Brown acknowledged he had "made a mistake and an error in judgment" in removing the signs, but said he was reacting to an invasion of his family's privacy. He said the signs were visible from his children's bus stop.
The local police chief who first investigated the matter said a person caught tampering with signs could be charged with theft by unlawful taking or disposition, a misdemeanor. But area prosecutors concluded that Brown's intent was not to commit a theft but to protect his family.
Wolf has stood by Brown, saying he believes he is qualified to run the agency.
"The governor chose Marcus Brown because of his qualifications," Sheridan said Wednesday. "And that is what this should be about - his qualifications and experience. The political sideshow should not enter into the decision."