Scott Wagner swings for reform (if not higher office)
Take a baseball bat, a dose of Donald Trump and a healthy disdain for Gov. Tom Wolf and you have Scott Wagner, the independently wealthy Republican businessman who's setting a new tone in the Pennsylvania Senate.
He's brash. He's blunt. And he pulls no punches. Wagner has Trump's populist streak. He might one day tap the same type of voter anger in a governor's race that Trump has in the GOP presidential primaries. Republican insiders say there's little doubt Wagner is running for governor in 2018.
The baseball bat is almost legendary. On his way into the Senate in 2014, Wagner threatened to use one to straighten out Senate GOP leadership. Sans a Louisville Slugger, he helped push out a liberal GOP leader. He's openly called out RINOs (Republicans In Name Only.) He grills witnesses at Senate hearings. He doesn't tolerate non-answers.
To his critics, Wagner is a union-hating, right-wing ideologue and bully. At a Press Club luncheon in June, he didn't deny being part bully and he thinks public-sector unions are a huge part of the problem. He is conservative but not an ideologue. Everything is approached from a business standpoint. Wagner flies around the state in a helicopter he pilots.
Teachers' benefits are high on his list of state problems, particularly those of Philadelphia teachers, whom he says pay nothing toward their own health care. He used his own resources to arrange a loan to a financially strapped charter school in his Senate district.
The comparison to Trump comes from using his personal wealth to fund candidates and, obviously, his business acumen. Not many freshmen senators get to run the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. He's already a power in the caucus.
“I'm just a garbage man without a college degree,” Wagner once stated. Right. One who bought one truck, then another and now owns Penn Waste. He owns multiple companies. He's said on several occasions, “I don't need this (senator's) job.” And he doesn't.
Wagner has shown up at the meetings of committees of which he's not a member and taken notes. He sat down in the reporters' seats at a news conference and asked a question. He sends out long missives via email to an e-list, railing about Wolf and state spending.
I sat down with Wagner recently as the appropriations committees looked into Wolf's use of money in prior-year accounts for billions that he spent during a six-month budget impasse. Wagner brings up how Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's audit of Pittsburgh Public Schools in December found a $129 million surplus, despite claims of heading toward insolvency.
Wagner is concerned that a multitude of state accounts might be holding cash from past years. Before a cent of money is raised in taxes, as Wolf proposes, every dime must be accounted for, Wagner said.
“This is big,” he says. “It's like an octopus on steroids.”
The real irony is that Wolf, a liberal Democrat and businessman, and Wagner both hail from York County. Is there something in the water there causing this phenomenon?
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).