Scott Wagner
Scott Wagner

York County's Sen. Scott Wagner doesn't regret a statement he made comparing unions to Adolf Hitler and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, he said Thursday, he could also add Joseph Stalin and Moammar Gadhafi to that list.

The Spring Garden Township Republican said he'd apologize to anyone he offended with the remark made Wednesday on the Senate floor, but he won't retract it.

The statement was about power and control, he said, and it's true because those concepts are something Pennsylvania unions exercise every day through their ongoing control of all of the politicians in Harrisburg.

All, that is, except for him, he said, because he's a successful businessman and doesn't need their money.

The remark: Wagner made the remark during discussion about so-called "paycheck protection" reform, under which government employers wouldn't be able to automatically withdraw dues from union members' paychecks.

"The unions are about power and control. And there are two things that I continue to remember about power and control," Wagner said on the floor. "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."

Asked to explain the comment on Thursday, Wagner said "paycheck protection" is needed before pension reform and property tax reform can be passed in the state legislature.

Why? Because if union members don't automatically withdraw union dues, many union members will stop paying their dues. When they stop paying union dues, teachers unions and others will have less money to throw at politicians and influence their votes against property tax reform and pension reform, he said.

The unions are using his Wednesday comments as a "smoke bomb" to distract people from the real issue he's exposing, he said. Taxpayers would be upset if they knew "how much teachers are really making," he said.

Uproar: York County voters cited Wagner's direct communication style as one of the attributes that won their votes in his historic write-in victory in March, but the outspoken businessman ruffled some feathers Wednesday.

He doesn't intend to stop speaking his mind, he said, encouraging voters to vote him out of office in November if they disagree. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the write-in campaign, Wagner repeatedly (as he did on Thursday) explains that he doesn't need the senator gig because he's already got a successful day job. He's president and owner of Penn Waste trash hauling and recycling service.

But he said it's that fearlessness that makes him a good senator.

"As abrasive as I am, maybe I'm the catalyst to get some of this (reform) done," he said.

Reaction: While York's Republican establishment vowed to support Wagner after a historic special election win in March, tensions remain over years of Wagner's financial support for tea party challengers to GOP incumbents.

Bob Wilson, who chairs the York County Republican Party, said Wagner's comments "do not reflect the feelings of the York County Republican Party or any other elected official in York County."

"The senator's comments do not speak for any of us," he said. "Sen. Wagner is obviously speaking for himself."

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Party of York County chair Bob Kefauver called Wagner's comments "ugly and irresponsible."

"The hypocrisy found in his remarks is staggering given that he later spoke at a rally whose organizers have direct ties to the power-seeking, control-grabbing billionaire Koch Brothers," Kefauver said, referencing a rally at which Wagner spoke after making the comments on the Senate floor. "What Scott Wagner is really saying is that he finds it acceptable to deny working families a voice in Harrisburg so that he and his fellow corporate enablers may more easily continue the assault on living wages, quality public education and affordable healthcare."

Democrat Linda Small, who's running against Wagner in the general election, said Wagner's remarks were "deep-down disturbing" for trying to equate organizations that help working families with the "moral depravity" of Hitler and Putin.

"Scott Wagner can't solve our problems by demonizing unions," Small said. "Unions did not cause the recession. They didn't cause the property tax problem. They are not our enemy. Unions are the voice of working families and they're partners with business in an economy that works for all of us when things are working correctly."

Small said it should be made clear that no one is forced to join a union, though that assertion is implied by union opponents. The issue being discussed Wednesday was deduction of union dues from employee paychecks, which is negotiated between the employer and the union.

"Senator Wagner has joined an attack on working people that he should be representing, not attacking," she said. "When you demonize, you're not able to attack the real issues."

But for unions, there would be no weekends, overtime pay, or child labor laws, she said.

"Those are things that unions fight for and if we have the unions busted, we no longer have anyone fighting for our rights."

Herb Garber is recording secretary of Teamsters Local 776, which represents more than 8,500 union workers in five counties, including hundreds of York County employees. He's also a Republican, disappointed in the words coming from within the party that is also the chosen voter affiliation of 2,900 of those 8,500 union workers, he said.

"He's obviously got an anti-union agenda and he thinks that gives him liberty to say extremely derogatory things about working men and women," Garber said. "If anything, taking an anti-union position is about exercising power and control over working families."

Garber said it's wrong to bastardize the ability of working men and woman to join together to be able to have their voices heard.

"To categorize that as a derogatory thing is un-American," he said. "It's very offensive. It's obviously of a great deal of concern to people who believe that unions are an important part of our society."

— Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.