Penn State alumni still simmering over the university’s handling of the 2011 Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and the firing of iconic Coach Joe Paterno are turning their attention to the governor’s race.
Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship — a group of more than 20,000 alumni who’ve been orchestrating the election of new trustees to replace those involved in the response to the scandal — is working to oust Gov. Tom Corbett, according to a spokeswoman for the group.
As governor, Corbett is a member of the Penn State trustees, along with four members of his administration.
But Maribeth Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the network, said its goal is the “removal, resignation and replacement of every single member of the Penn State Board of Trustees who was at the helm in November 2011.”
“Corbett fits the bill,” she said.
The only difference is, instead of campaigning to sway a trustees election, the group is now using social media to encourage people to vote in the general election to oust Corbett and drop him from the Penn State board.
Three years after Paterno was fired over the scandal involving his defensive coordinator — Paterno died months later — the coach remains a central figure in Pennsylvania politics. And the sentiment of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which started as a 10,000-member Facebook group called “We Intend to Vote out the Penn State Board of Trustees,” appears to be a problem for the one-term incumbent governor.
“It’s going to hurt him,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College. “I can’t quantify how much, but I think it’s going to hurt him.
There are more than 600,000 living Penn State alumni, including 175,000 members of the university’s alumni association.
Those who are still the most angry seem to be focused on the treatment of Paterno, who was the all-time winningest coach in college football before the NCAA handed down its penalties in the wake of the scandal.
That penalty scrubbed 111 Penn State wins from the books, dating to 1998, the year that Penn State officials were first notified of allegations that Sandusky had been molesting boys.
Shortly after Sandusky’s arrest, Paterno announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2011 season. The trustees fired him hours later.
Sandusky was later convicted and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison. A review by current Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, found no evidence that the investigation of Sandusky had been “slow-walked” while Corbett was the state’s top prosecutor.
So, while Corbett may not have to answer for his handling of the Sandusky case as attorney general, Madonna said, he’s left with a lingering connection to Paterno as a member of the Penn State trustees.
And, among Paterno admirers, there seems to be clear conviction that Corbett failed when he didn’t stand up for the coach.
Curt Rothermel, a 1995 Penn State graduate who lives in New Berlin, said he’s convinced the governor could have used his influence to protect Paterno but chose not to.
Corbett “wanted the limelight. He wanted the national attention,” Rothermel said.
“He tried to destroy a university, and now the university is stronger than ever.”
While not all Penn State alumni live in the state, Ryan Bagwell, a 2002 graduate, said this election appears to the first in which the university’s alumni have emerged as an important special interest.
Bagwell has been on a crusade to use the state’s Right to Know law to force the trustees and university to share information about how they responded the scandal.
He has sought emails between former Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, the governor and other members of Corbett’s cabinet during the period when Sandusky was charged and Paterno fired. The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has ordered the release of the documents, but the Department of Education is appealing.
Bagwell said he believes the state is stalling to keep the documents out of the public eye until after the election.
“He can allege anything he wants to allege,” said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni. “But there is a Right to Know law in place with a timeline, and we are following it.”
Pagni noted Bagwell wants more than 600 pages of documents, which presents a challenge in the time required to review the records and redact information that should not be made public.
Questions about what those emails reveal could strike at the heart of lingering concerns about the scandal, Paterno’s treatment and the governor’s role.
And those questions seem to be on the minds of voters in the heart of Penn State country — which also happens to be the rural and conservative areas of Pennsylvania that Corbett needs to show up on Election Day.
The stakes are high for Corbett, who has trailed Democratic challenger Tom Wolf in the polls by 17 to 20 points.
Madonna noted evidence that some Republicans withheld votes from the governor in the primary: Statewide, Corbett got 27,000 fewer votes in the primary than his lieutenant governor, Jim Cawley. Both were unopposed.
Not all Penn State alumni have given up on Corbett, even if they’re uneasy about his failure to stand up for Paterno.
“The governor, of all people, should have told people on the board to calm down,” said Larry Weader, who graduated in 1983 with a degree in chemical engineering and is now retired in Lewisburg.
Come election time, Weader said, he will likely vote for Corbett. His anger over Paterno’s treatment, he said, won’t outweigh his concerns that Wolf will raise taxes.
Alan Endicott, a 1976 graduate of Penn State and the owner of a small business in Mercer County, echoed the perspective that the scandal is just one issue voters must consider on Election Day.
“I am not happy with the Penn State trustees and how they handled the Sandusky scandal. I feel they had personal issues that caused them to think of themselves first, rather than defend the school and Paterno. They did not allow for due process,” said Endicott, who is president of the local chapter of the alumni association.
“… I’m not happy with (Corbett) yet, at the same time, being in business, I would have a difficult time voting for Wolf.”
Endicott said he’s more worried about how Wolf’s policies — including an extraction tax on natural gas and an increased income tax — would affect his business than he is about the Sandusky scandal.
That’s exactly the message the Corbett campaign wants conservative voters to consider — whether they’re Penn State fans and Paterno loyalists or not.
“This race is going to come down to one issue for all Pennsylvanians — taxes,” said Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman. “Tom Wolf wants to raise Pennsylvanians’ personal income taxes, and Governor Corbett believes Pennsylvanians are taxed enough.”