From write-in campaign to campaign star, Wagner rises quickly in PA politics
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
After the politicians delivered their stump speeches Monday afternoon, most of the crowd that gathered at Lancaster Airport for a stretch-run campaign rally for Gov. Tom Corbett headed immediately for the exits.
Scott Wagner stayed behind.
The state senator and owner of a south-central Pennsylvania waste management company had already given a speech for Corbett, but he wanted to give the embattled Republican governor another last-minute assist before the polls opened the next day. That meant finding an airplane. And fast.
A mechanical issue had grounded Corbett’s plane, so he left on Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley’s aircraft. While Cawley headed toward the airport restaurant, Wagner manned his smartphone and paced around the building, searching for a way to get Corbett’s No. 2 back on the campaign trail.
“I’m a full-service senator and garbage man. I know where to get you just about anything,” Wagner said. “I’m a pretty resourceful guy. I tell people in the waste business, if you need a donkey, we’ll get you a donkey.”
ROAD WARRIOR: State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, has made efficiency a hallmark of his short time in Harrisburg. He travels to and from the capital in his own tricked own van, complete with Internet access, a desk and a flatscreen TV. All so he can work on the way to work. He hopes to one day make government work so efficiently.
The scene was evidence of how far Wagner has come over the past year. He started as a rogue candidate who challenged the Republican establishment on his journey to Harrisburg. Once the wealthy businessman made it — using a write-in campaign no less — he quickly solidified himself as a legitimate political force.
Since arriving at the state Capitol in March, Wagner has dominated two more elections, pushed for a vote on controversial legislation that takes on powerful public-sector unions and even sparked a rebellion against Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, the man that former Gov. Ed Rendell once called “the most powerful person in Harrisburg.”
While some of Wagner’s critics would probably love to pigeonhole him as the caricatured angry tea party politician, political observers have said the brash York County Republican has chosen his fights wisely and positioned himself to bring change to a General Assembly that’s skewing even more conservative after Tuesday’s election.
It all led him to the airport north of Lancaster, where the new senator found himself speaking ahead of Corbett. It wasn’t enough for the governor — who lost to another wealthy York County businessman, Democratic nominee Tom Wolf — but, to some, the appearance was a sign of Wagner’s continued ascension in Pennsylvania politics.
“He’s come a long way,” said David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, “and I think the powers that be recognize that he has captured the zeitgeist.”
Efficient, and beholden to no one
For a minute Monday, Wagner’s office featured a stunning view of the picturesque Susquehanna River. The next moment, it offered a dull highway view of U.S. Route 30.
That’s the nature of a mobile office — in Wagner’s case, a decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van equipped with Internet access, a flat-screen television and a desk where Wagner can use his laptop to keep up with the latest reports from his company, Penn Waste.
“When I’m on the road, I’m efficient,” Wagner said, before he and six others piled into the posh van and left his company office for the Corbett rally.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition for somebody who works in a legislature that’s not exactly known for moving at the rapid-fire pace of the private sector more akin to Wagner’s tastes.
Take the long-stalled efforts to privatize state-owned liquor sales system as a case in point: Wagner thinks special interest groups should lock themselves in a room for a day and develop a suitable privatization plan. If they don’t, they shouldn’t complain when lawmakers do it, Wagner said.
Riding to Corbett’s rally with Wagner, York County GOP Chairman Alex Shorb couldn’t help but recall what Wagner said when one lawmaker bragged about pushing a pet issue for two years.
“He said, ‘If somebody took 20 days to get this done, I would fire him,’” Shorb said.
Wagner puts his philosophy to practice, often working 12-hour days and using his commute to his advantage. A semi-retired friend drives the van, allowing Wagner to send emails, talk on the phone or debrief with others on his way to and from work.
More fitting of Wagner’s wealthy businessman side, the tricked-out van is also evidence he’s far from the typical politician. He doesn’t need the job as state senator, and he doesn’t take the generous taxpayer-funded pension and health care benefits that come with it. Wagner uses his salary to help pay for supplies, like coffee and water, in his Senate office, he said.
“I’m actually a pretty good deal,” said Wagner, who isn’t afraid to speak about himself in self-aggrandizing terms.
Wagner grew up on a farm, taking caring care of horses, driving a tractor by the time he was 10 years old and baling hay in the summer. He briefly attended community college in Williamsport, but decided he would rather work than be in a classroom. So he invested in rental properties in his 20s, later opened a ski shop in Maryland, did some work in bail bonding and eventually started his first waste management company, York Waste Disposal, in 1985.
The profits that came with Wagner’s successful ventures gave him a voice in local politics before he ran for office. Now that he’s in Harrisburg, Wagner’s money has freed him from becoming beholden to special interest groups and party leaders who control campaign purse strings.
Never was that more evident than in the special election that catapulted Wagner into the 28th Senate District seat in the first place — a particular nasty affair unusual for bucolic York County.
The incumbent, the late Republican state Sen. Mike Waugh, announced Jan. 13 he was retiring effective immediately. On the same day, Cawley set a special election for March 18. Soon, state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, announced he wanted the seat.
Wagner withdrew his name from consideration for the GOP nomination for the special election. Instead, he ran a write-in campaign, loaning his campaign at least $100,000 as he took on a Democratic challenger and the Republican establishment-backed Miller.
Unlike traditional write-in candidates, Wagner had the money to get his message to voters through highway billboards and television commercials. That helped him fend off attack ads funded by the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
Wagner made history when he scored a resounding 20-point or so win. That was just the start, as Wagner won the May primary with nearly 85 percent of the vote and cruised in Tuesday’s general election with almost 65 percent of the vote.
That means Wagner’s in Harrisburg for the next four years — even more time for him to rattle the crew of “career politicians” he called out on the campaign trail.
Not that he hadn’t already started. One of his first acts since taking office this spring was to condemn the portraits of felonious legislative leaders from the past. Eventually, his clamoring led to the addition of plaques that detailed past corruption.
“It’s a very small thing,” Taylor said, “but by starting with the most extreme and indefensible example of the way that Harrisburg is broken, he made his point and he prevailed.”
Whether Wagner’s style leads to lasting institutional change will only be seen with time, said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg.
“The Senate as a body is probably still trying to figure out what to do with Scott Wagner,” he said. “Clearly, his need for the job is nonexistent, which has freed him to speak rather bluntly and plainly in a way that we’ve not seen around here before.”
Words haunt Wagner, but criticism won’t stop him from challenging unions
Since he was elected, Wagner has been told he says what’s on everybody’s mind, even if most people are afraid to say it. That hasn’t always helped him.
Wagner found himself at the center of public scrutiny in June after making remarks on the Senate floor comparing unions with dictators and heavy-handed leaders from the past and present.
“The unions are about power and control,” Wagner said then, arguing for legislation that would prohibit the state from collection dues for public-sector unions. “And there are two things that I continue to remember about power and control. There was a gentleman by the name of Hitler. He was about power and control. There’s a gentleman by the name of Putin, who’s across the ocean, that’s about power and control.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the powerful teachers union, quickly derided the remarks, which haven’t faded from memory even as summer shifted into fall. The statement prompted a scathing, late October ad from the Building A Better PA political action committee, which draws its funding from labor unions.
Wayne Miller, the chairman of the PAC, didn’t return a message seeking comment about Wagner. The senator has called the statement an “unfortunate analogy,” but said this week it’s in the past to him.
“I’ll hear about it for the rest of my life. People don’t have anything better to do,” Wagner said.
Though Wagner has taken heat over his criticism of unions and their influence in Harrisburg politics, he isn’t about to back off his pursuit of what he sees as necessary reforms that could have a huge impact on organized labor.
Wagner has championed so-called paycheck protection legislation that would force public-sector unions to collect their own dues. He takes issue that unions can use money collected via the state payroll system for political purposes — a touchy subject in Harrisburg, where several lawmakers and legislative staffers ended up behind bars for mixing public resources with political campaigns.
Upset the legislation hadn’t gone to a vote, Wagner in September penned a letter to Pileggi, accusing him of protecting unions and blocking legislation many GOP senators supported. Wagner called for new leadership, and Pileggi is expected to face a challenge next week, according to the Associated Press.
Wagner got his wish about paycheck protection in October, introducing an amendment to another bill that would have instituted the legislation for public school district employees. It failed, but Wagner saw getting it to a vote as a win and said the proposal will eventually make a return.
Most of Wagner’s ire toward labor organizations has been directed toward the PSEA,which represents more than 180,000 employees. The senator believes the union has turned schools into political battlegrounds, but PSEA spokesman David Broderic said the organization doesn’t understand Wagner’s fascination.
“It is puzzling to us that someone make as his singular focus attacking the people who teach our students and care for them all day, every day in our public schools,” Broderic said.
Others laud Wagner for refusing to cozy up with labor groups. Bob Guzzardi, a conservative activist and one-time gubernatorial hopeful, said Wagner “offers a lot of hope and potential.”
At the same time, Guzzardi thinks Wagner could take even more conservative stances, especially when considering state spending and legislation authorizing debt. He has also taken issue with Wagner’s support of appropriations bills that funded universities such as Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania.
Keeping spending in line with revenues will be even more important with Wolf taking office, Guzzardi said. The governor-elect has plans to pour more state funding into education, institute a severance tax on natural gas drilling and shift more of the income tax burden to higher earners.
“We are relying on the General Assembly to check that expansion of government and that reckless spending, and it depends on guys like Scott Wagner,” Guzzardi said. “Scott Wagner knows what to do based on his experience and character. The question is why doesn’t he do it?”
Thick skin, and an ability to get the job done
For his part, Wagner said he has thick skin. Not that he needs to worry as much about political jabs now that election season is behind him. He’s relieved he can just focus on the job at hand.
But as Monday’s search for an airplane proved, Wagner certainly isn’t afraid to pick up extra assignments. As Wagner leaned against a counter, his phone pressed to his ear, his campaign manager, Amanda Davidson, said it was the type of moment that’s come to define working for the senator.
“He’s used to making things work out,” she said.
The task forced Wagner to stay at the airport while his driver returned his staff and Shorb back to York County. As the van pulled into the Penn Waste parking lot, an update arrived: Wagner had secured the metaphorical donkey — a replacement plane for Cawley.
It was another reminder the efficiency-minded Wagner has made himself a key Republican cog in Harrisburg in a short time, but those that know him well weren’t shocked he made it happen.
“I’d be surprised,” Shorb said, “if he didn’t get them a plane.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.