From trashman to governor? GOP hopeful Scott Wagner wants to be Pa. ‘cleanup guy’
Angela Couloumbis & Liz Navratil
May 6, 2018
It’s early on a Sunday evening in a cramped banquet room above a neighborhood bar near Harrisburg. State Sen. Scott Wagner sits at a table, nursing a Coors Light and punching numbers into his cellphone as a small crowd chatters around him.
Soon, it’s showtime, and Wagner — Republican senator, millionaire businessman, and the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor — rises and strides to the front of the room to address a group decidedly in his corner: fiscal conservatives who believe in good jobs, fewer taxes, and a government that stays out of the way.
Those numbers he was punching into his phone? He tells the crowd it’s the total amount of extra money Pennsylvanians will see in their paychecks thanks to President Trump’s tax cuts. As he speaks, Wagner jumps from topic to topic: The natural gas pipeline. Beefing up the state’s skilled labor workforce. Zero-based budgeting.
It is quintessential Wagner: moving from 0 to 60 on the emotion speedometer in less than a minute, a quality reminiscent of former Gov. Ed Rendell, whose flashes of temper became legend.
That rage is a trait for which Wagner is either reviled or revered, and one that he has put on unabashed display during a short yet dramatic political career.
“I live by this motto: ‘Don’t do as I say, do as I do,’” Wagner said in an interview. “I’m willing to get my hands dirty. … I mean, I do it over here at the Capitol. If I walk in one of the bathrooms [and] somebody threw a paper towel or something on the floor, I pick it up. I wash my hands after.”
The president of a York County-based waste-hauling company, Wagner wants to be Harrisburg’s “cleanup guy.” He advocates for smaller government and limited spending, and argues that public-sector unions have too much influence.
Wagner holds himself out as the polar opposite of Wolf, who earned multiple degrees from elite schools and who rarely departs from his professorial demeanor. Wagner grew up on a farm, shoveled horse manure at age 10 — for a $5 weekly wage, he says — and skipped a college degree to launch what today is a $75 million waste-hauling business that holds scores of municipal contracts.
Where Wolf is quiet and thoughtful, Wagner is brash and unpredictable, often drawing comparisons to Trump, whom Wagner once jokingly referred to as “a mini-Wagner.”
Can he beat Wolf?
“With him, anything can happen,” said Kennedy.
Despite opposition from major Republican players, Wagner won a 2014 special election as a write-in. That November, he was elected to serve a full four-year term.
The establishment took notice. No sooner had Wagner arrived in the Capitol than he was given a plum: running the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, a position that gave him sway in choosing candidates and propping up their campaigns with cash — sometimes his own.
Under his watch, Republicans grew their majority in the Senate from 31 to 34 seats in the 50-seat chamber — their largest majority in more than a half-century. Some new senators he helped elect are more conservative than the norm in a body known for being ideologically temperate.
But his main focus has always been taxpayer money: how state government (too big!) spends too much of it, and public sector unions (too powerful!) demand too much of it. How he expresses those views sometimes commands as much attention as the opinions themselves.
“He may be a bull in a china shop at times, but that’s part of his charm and part of why he is successful,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), who considers Wagner a friend. “You need members like that to challenge the status quo.”
Still, there is a side to Wagner that relishes getting under people’s skin. It is no accident that he set up his campaign office directly across from the state Capitol. It was, an aide said, so Wolf would have to look at a large sign with Wagner’s name on it every time he leaves work.
And, as Wagner likes to point out, he didn’t create Harrisburg’s financial problems, namely, its deep pension debt — what’s left unsaid is that the GOP-controlled legislature had a big hand in that. He just wants to be the one who cleans it up.
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