Thursday, March 4, 2021

Small Town, Big Influence: Two of the top legislative leaders in Pennsylvania – Jake Corman and Kerry Benninghoff – call Bellefonte home, providing a link to the town’s storied political past

Corman-Benninghoff

There are four major pillars that hold up the impressive dome of Pennsylvania’s beautiful Capitol. Within those pillars are little alcoves that feature life-size statues of important state figures, symbolizing them as pillars of the commonwealth.

Being a history buff, state Representative Kerry Benninghoff cannot help but feel a sense of awe and pride when he sees a certain one of those statues.

“Of all the people that lived in Pennsylvania, one of those statues happens to be of Andrew Gregg Curtin. There were a lot of great voices that came out in the past through Bellefonte and Centre County, and I like the fact that Centre County is part of Pennsylvania’s documented history,” says Benninghoff, who was raised in State College and has lived in Bellefonte most of his adult life.

Curtin is an example of the very prominent role that Bellefonte has played in the politics of Pennsylvania through the years, especially in its Victorian heyday. The town is well known for producing seven governors – five who led Pennsylvanian and two who presided over other states. Most of this celebrated history occurred in the 1800s.

Now, in tune with the Bellefonte Renaissance that is seeing the revitalization of the town, Benninghoff and a fellow Bellefontian, state Senator Jake Corman, have risen to be two of the most powerful leaders in state politics.

In June, Benninghoff, a Republican, was elected by his colleagues as majority leader, the No. 2 position in the state House. Corman, also a Republican, recently was elected interim president pro tempore of the state Senate after serving nearly six years as its majority leader; when that chamber reconvenes in January, it is expected to approve his nomination to that top post.

The two men are proving once again that Bellefonte and Centre County are major players in the state of affairs of the commonwealth.

“If Jake and I are a grain of salt of a part of that history, it is kind of unique,” Benninghoff says. “Seldom do you have leadership coming out of the same county, much less out of the same village of Bellefonte; it is kind of neat from a nostalgic perspective.”

Governors town

From The Governors’ Pub to Governors Park, Bellefonte celebrates is political history proudly. Streets are named in honor of some of the governors that called the town home. Governors Memorial sits in Talleyrand Park, and a statue of Curtin stands in front of the courthouse. It is that courthouse that helped make the town such a political powerhouse back in the day.

“I think the No. 1 factor that led to so many governors coming out of Bellefonte was the fact that it was the county seat. Bellefonte became a magnet for lawyers, judges, and politics in general,” says local historian Matt Maris. A history teacher at Bellefonte High, Maris also runs Local Historia, which offers historical walking tours and consultation.

“Many of the governors that came out of Bellefonte, like Andrew Gregg Curtin, started out as lawyers practicing law in Bellefonte’s courthouse. … It’s not an accident that so many governors came out of Bellefonte; it’s the trickle-down effect of being the county seat, as well as other factors,” Maris says.

The educational opportunities in Centre County also paved the way for future leaders.

“The Bellefonte Academy was established in 1806 and also had a major impact. At one time, according to the Philadelphia North American, ‘The Bellefonte Academy educated more governors, more senators, more judges, and more public men than any other school in Pennsylvania,’” says Maris. “Governor Robert Walker attended the Bellefonte Academy in his youth, and they say his carved name could be seen etched in a door jamb before [the building] burned down in 2004.”

By the mid-1800s, Bellefonte and Centre County were prospering economically, thus giving the area more political power, Maris says.

“Around that time, the Juniata Iron Region, including Centre County, produced more iron than anywhere in the country,” he says. “I can imagine having so many ironmasters around made waves, too. One ironmaster named James Irvin, of Centre Furnace, was the one who donated the land to establish the Farmers’ High School (which later became Penn State) in 1855. He also ran for governor, but was unsuccessful. Governor Curtin’s grandfather, Andrew Gregg, also made a gubernatorial bid as well. So, we could easily have more than seven governors.”

It is hard to imagine Centre County having the political pull it has now without Penn State’s enormous economic, cultural, and educational impact. Governor James Beaver’s father-in-law, Hugh McAllister, and Andrew Gregg Curtin were instrumental in starting Penn State.

“These local citizens ensured the state agricultural college found its home in Centre County,” says Maris.

Notably, both Corman and Benninghoff attended Penn State.

Historically, the town’s political influence could be seen by the number of newspapers that were produced there.

“It might be surprising to know that by the late 1800s, Bellefonte had two daily and five weekly papers printed in Bellefonte at one time. This speaks volumes of the town’s political influence. Even more so than today, newspapers back then were not shy about sharing their political views,” says Maris. “A famous local editor of the Democratic Watchman, Peter Gray Meek, was even arrested for treason for his inflammatory politics during the Civil War. Also, Meek became a well-respected state senator as well. Another newspaperman that became a state senator was Henry Petrikin; he started the Bellefonte Patriot very early on and Governor William Packer apprenticed with him long before Packer became another one of our ‘seven governors.’”

‘Late bloomer’

Growing up in Bellefonte, Corman had a front-row seat into politics. Besides living in the town of seven governors, Corman’s father, Doyle Corman, was a long-time county commissioner and a state senator for more than 20 years. The younger Corman initially wasn’t interested in following in his dad’s footsteps.

Corman says he was a “late-bloomer” and growing up, he was more interested in sports. He got an Associate’s Degree in communications from the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Penn State, hoping to be a sports reporter. It was not until his friend Rick Santorum ran successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1994 that Corman caught the political bug.

“It was a major year in politics; you had the Newt Gingrich revolution and there was a lot going on in Washington, D.C., and that really got me excited about politics,” says Corman. He worked for Santorum, meeting with constituents and officials in central Pennsylvania and developing an interest in serving as an elected official.

After considering a run for a seat in the General Assembly in 1996, Corman instead decided to run to represent the 34th Senatorial District in 1998, the very seat his dad had held since 1977. He won with the support of his father.

“It was really a testament to him, because quite frankly, if you looked at my qualifications, they weren’t up to the level that some would like for that position. But I think people trusted me because they trusted him so much,” says Corman.

Now, Corman has been sitting in the seat even longer than his father did, moving up the ranks. For years before his father passed away late last year, he had a great person to turn to if he ever needed help with an issue.

“You can’t have a better resource, because whenever you want to seek advice, you want to have someone you can trust. If it’s your father, there is no one you trust more than that,” he says.

That connection to family is important to Corman. His mom, Rebecca, was very involved in his and his father’s political career. He considers his wife, Kelli, and his three children part of his team, saying he “wouldn’t be in the position I am without my wife’s support.”

Corman says he appreciates the short trip from Harrisburg to Centre County that has allowed him to coach his kids’ sports teams and be a part of a community that means so much to him.

“Knowing everybody, they all watched me grow up and see me at my best and probably at my worst. But I am a human being like everybody else, and it is a great feeling to be in a town that everyone knows you and everybody cares about you,” he says.

Corman says he feels honored by people who have suggested he take a run at the governor’s office. He once considered running for a seat in Congress in the early 2000s, but he didn’t want to uproot his family and move to Washington, D.C. Now, his kids are all in high school and starting to get more interested in politics themselves, so he won’t rule out possible future runs for higher positions; but he is at a different point in his life, too.

“I thought more seriously about it in the past, and I always sort of backed away from it because that was a position that, when my family was young, I did not want to put them through,” he says. “Moving forward, you never rule things out, and now that I have become president pro tempore, I feel like I have the statewide impact. So, while the desire to be governor is not where it once was, you never rule anything out. But I don’t like to get into the next election too quick, and we just finished this one and it was difficult.”

Lessons learned along the way

It is easy to see how a lifetime of living in Centre County has shaped Benninghoff, both by the stories he tells and the things he does.

After all, you would be hard-pressed to find many politicians stopping to help give legit medical advice when someone falls on the street. But there is Benninghoff in a photo a passerby snapped, harkening back to his days spent as an orderly at Mount Nittany Medical Center, providing help to an injured person who fell outside the Bellefonte YMCA on High Street.

Sitting in his office in downtown Bellefonte, looking at the beautiful ironwork of a stove from the 1800s, he talks of building projects that he is working on at home and of the years he spent in construction as a young man. He remembers an old boss and the advice he gave about building things, and about life.

“I still have most of my paystubs from that job, and it is a good reminder of where I came from,” says Benninghoff. “There are few days that I am not putzing in the shop that Frank (his old employer) doesn’t come to my mind.”

On the desk in his office, among pictures of family and friends, sits a pink Disney book. It was a favorite of his daughter Ryleigh, who died at an early age after a courageous battle with cancer. She was one of Benninghoff’s five children, and you can tell as he speaks that her loss still hits hard 10 years later.

“She probably taught me more than I taught her. She taught you to appreciate life and give,” Benninghoff says. “Despite some of the things I deal with in this business, that is one of the things that gives me perspective. It is one of the reasons I started the cancer caucus, one of the reasons I believe that even though some people get mad about the politics of this business, I still believe this is a business of service, and I like trying to help people. There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. We help people out of a lot of tough times.”

Benninghoff remembers growing up in Houserville as part of what he calls a “blended family before they had the term” because he, like four of his five siblings, was adopted. His parents’ caring nature and efforts to help him and his siblings have a good life made a huge impact on him. His parents were his first “counselors,” giving him the advice and support he needed to make it in life.

Benninghoff also understands the need for adopted kids to know something of their family history, both for medical reasons and for having “fundamental information about their heritage.” This drove him to champion a bill passed in 2017 that gave adopted people access to their birth records – just like everyone else.

He was never able to reconnect with his biological mother, but he wishes he could tell her that “her decision not only gave me life, but life to five other children.”

Benninghoff remembers the guidance from teachers and friends from back when he was a student at State High. He still talks with many of those old classmates, and in early December he was working on a letter he planned to send to a teacher from his school days who inspired him. That teacher saw something in young Benninghoff that is evident today: he is a natural leader.

Now, as House majority leader, he has the title. This comes after a political career that began when he was elected Centre County coroner in 1991, after serving as deputy coroner since 1985. In 1996, he ran for a seat in the state House and has held it ever since. He first held a leadership position as Republican whip, beginning in 2018, before moving up to majority leader.

In his leadership roles, Benninghoff is glad to take some of the things he learned through his years of experience and help teach younger legislators the ropes. After all, one of the many jobs he dreamed about having was a teacher, sharing all the lessons he learned along the way with the younger generation.

Unique situation

Corman says having been chosen Senate president pro tempore was one of the highest honors he has received, along with being named a distinguished alumnus of Penn State. He jokes that he is in the position because he has been around in the Senate for such a long time, but in truth, his colleagues elected him for a reason.

Both men agree that having their peers trust and believe in them enough to put them in positions of leadership is one of their greatest honors. They credit it to being able to work with people on both sides of the aisle to get things done.

‘I am absolutely humbled by [my peers’] support and grateful for the opportunity to lead, but most importantly, for the opportunity to serve,’ Benninghoff said when he was elected to the post. ‘It is no secret that we are in challenging times right now as a state and as a nation, and I covet your prayers for greater wisdom, understanding, and cooperation. If we work together to find solutions to the challenges we face, I truly believe that our best days as a commonwealth are ahead of us.’

Corman says having two people from the same town in such powerful positions in the legislature is not unheard of, but it is uncommon, especially with them both coming from little Bellefonte.

“For a small town like Bellefonte, for two guys who go to the same church and kids who went to the same school, that has got to be pretty unique,” says Corman.

Over the years, the two men have become close friends and have grown together as legislators. Now, with both in leadership positions, it means they sometimes can help better solve problems for their constituents while balancing their leadership responsibilities.

“Being a leader, you are in better position to solve problems without having to go lobby for it,” says Corman. “Everything is a trade-off. I have more statewide responsibilities, so I am not necessarily here as much – thank god for my staff – but it also puts me in a position to solve problems.”

 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.