Gov. Tom Corbett's top aide is leaving his job as the first-term Republican battles criticism from opponents over his cost-cutting agenda and from allies over his ability to forge policy and broadcast a persuasive and strong public message.
Corbett made no mention of pressure when he announced Thursday that he is nominating his chief of staff and longtime friend William Ward to fill a vacant seat on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court after 16 months in Harrisburg with Corbett.
The governor held a brief meeting with Ward and other senior staff members Thursday afternoon to announce the change and declined to comment afterward. Spokesman Kevin Harley said Corbett is "a very independent-minded man" who is not bending to pressure to make a change.
"Every administration is going to have critics," Harley said. "However, this is something that the governor and Bill have been discussing for many months and the governor thought this was the right time to do it so he could get confirmed before the (Legislature's summer) recess."
Ward, 60, a former state and federal prosecutor and colleague of Corbett's who lives in the Pittsburgh area, made $154,133 in the job. He has had a longstanding goal of becoming a judge, the administration said in the statement, and he's happy to help his old friend achieve it. Ward's nomination will require confirmation by the state Senate, and he'll remain on staff as an adviser until that happens, the administration said.
When Corbett tapped Ward for the post in January 2011, he called Ward "a skilled lawyer and a man of unquestioned integrity."
Ward will be replaced by Corbett's top legal adviser, Stephen Aichele, the former chairman of the Philadelphia-based Saul Ewing law firm and the husband of Corbett's secretary of state, Carol Aichele.
Corbett, a former state attorney general who took office last year, is in the unenviable position of digging the state out of massive, recession-driven deficits at the same time that public employee pension costs are spiraling.
But many Republican lawmakers view the Corbett administration as politically clumsy and aloof, and the governor angered the party's grassroots conservatives earlier this year when he leaned on the state GOP to endorse a relatively unknown candidate who lost badly in the crowded U.S. Senate primary.
He has the benefit of a GOP-controlled Legislature to advance his agenda and is supported by the business community. But some of his priorities such as privatizing the state-controlled liquor store system and creating taxpayer-paid vouchers for children to attend private schools are flailing amid a lack of enthusiasm among GOP lawmakers, many of whom prefer that he advance a transportation funding plan.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates for state offices are using Corbett as a foil, and Democratic lawmakers and labor unions are attacking his fiscal agenda of cutting aid to public schools, universities and the poor at the same time that he is cutting business taxes. On Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and elsewhere protested education funding cuts under Corbett.
"There is no amount of staff reshuffling that can help Gov. Corbett unless he is willing to change his unpopular polices," state Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn said in a statement.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.