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The Scott Wagner 'phenomenon'

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Sen. Scott Wagner

HARRISBURG

Is a news conference held in a public building by a public official a public event? Or is it held for the media, whose responsibility is to report any news to the public?

The question surfaced as a result of an event unique in recent history — a state senator showing up at news conferences and dominating the question-and-answer session after the speaker's presentation.

It happened again last week when Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, came to a news conference held by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a York Democrat, on a preliminary audit of the Department of Health and Human Services' ChildLine. DePasquale found there were 42,000 calls that went unanswered or were dropped.

Keep in mind that Wagner, a self-made millionaire with numerous companies, including waste disposal, is a very likely candidate for governor in 2018.

Also keep in mind that DePasquale might run in the Democrats' primary for governor in 2018 if incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf doesn't run.

Wagner peppered DePasquale and Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas with questions. He takes the perspective of a CEO, sometimes quizzical, sometimes reproachful and often demanding in a search for answers.

A lobbyist later privately called it the “Wagner phenomenon.”

Critics say he's showboating at the news conferences, but his stated approach is to soak up everything possible about state government as a CEO might do with events affecting his business. Wagner has attended numerous committees, of which he's not a member, to copiously take notes. His critique of a meeting might show up in a long email to those who sign up.

Some reporters, even press secretaries, think news conferences should be limited to the media. With dozens of protesters lined up outside the Capitol Media Center, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett required people to show media ID to get into his Budget Secretary Charles Zogby's first news conference.

Corbett screened other news conferences.

There's a decent reason: It could quickly devolve into chaos with screeching protesters. The governor's message to the public might not get out in its entirety. Gubernatorial press secretaries don't want the boss to get baited into a shouting match.

There are times in the Capitol Rotunda where visitors or activists take most of the seats available for reporters. Reporters, after all, have a job to do. But state senators are in a different category. They are gathering information for their constituents. Another public official would have a hard time keeping a senator out.

Here's a different viewpoint: A senator like Wagner could make news at one of these events. Suppose Wolf showed up to ask questions at a Republican leadership event? Or House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, decided to attend a Democratic Caucus event and ask questions?

In Pennsylvania's highly partisan Legislature, it could get quickly out of hand if taken to extremes. But in the meantime, public discourse might give us something we're not expecting: We might learn something.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).

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