Wagner transitions from write-in opposition to GOP frontman
PITTSBURGH — About four years after having to overcome negative ads from his own party to win a state Senate seat, Scott Wagner was first to speak at a major GOP committee dinner as the party's endorsed candidate for the state's highest office.
Aboard a chartered plane from Harrisburg on his way to the Republican Committee for Allegheny County's annual Lincoln Day Dinner, Wagner said he started building relationships with Republicans statewide after his historic 2014 write-in campaign.
The Spring Garden Township resident and owner of Penn Waste was forced to run as a write-in after the state party endorsed then-Rep. Ron Miller, and Wagner won despite the party funding numerous negative ads urging York County residents not to vote for the "millionaire trashman."
In February, that same state party that tried to keep him out of the state Senate endorsed Wagner's bid for governor.
Asked about this relatively sudden turnaround — was it more the state GOP establishment types coming around to his way of thinking or him softening some of his stances to align with theirs? — Wagner denied that either side has really changed much.
"People have just gotten to know me, and, as I've had the opportunity to build relationships, we realized we all care about the same things," he said.
Political analyst G. Terry Madonna agreed with Wagner's assessment, to an extent.
Madonna said the state Legislature's Republican members are, by and large, the most conservative group in modern Pennsylvania history — which better fits Wagner's agenda — but that transformation was already occurring before his election.
Meanwhile, Wagner was able to quickly gain influence among Republicans statewide by heading the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and helping the GOP earn a supermajority in that chamber, Madonna said.
Madonna noted that Wagner's biggest challenge now, oddly enough, is convincing voters that he's still a political outsider despite his four years in Harrisburg.
While the party as a whole may have already been largely in line with Wagner's beliefs before he was elected, certain state GOP officials still have differing views.
When he first took office, Wagner immediately took aim at one such official — Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, of Delaware County.
Wagner called for Pileggi to step down as leader because of, among other issues, his willingness to accept public-sector union donations and refusal to bring "paycheck protection" legislation up for vote.
Pileggi was soon ousted, and the Senate has been able to push through paycheck protection bills — designed to prevent public-sector unions from automatically deducting dues from their members — though the House hasn't concurred.
A certain dichotomy of Wagner then and now could be noted in his response to a recent "attack mailer" that criticized Republicans — six senators and 22 House members — who voted against that bill.
The "Harrisburg's Least Wanted" mailer was sent by Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that supports conservatives and a group Wagner initially donated to when it began in 2009.
Two men on Wagner's campaign team simultaneously held positions in Citizens Alliance, but after the mailer, Wagner said he accepted both of their resignations, touting the need for all Republicans to come together to defeat Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Madonna said onlookers can certainly note the change in Wagner, but his message of party unity just makes sense.
"He doesn't benefit by alienating Republicans," he said. "He's got one path to take down Wolf, and he's not going to get there going to war with his own party."
Indeed, Wagner's message closely resembles the one preached at the Allegheny County dinner Thursday, March 8, by state GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio, who rode on the plane with Wagner from Harrisburg.
"Republicans are on their heels in some states but not in Pennsylvania because we're unified," DiGiorgio said to the crowd of about 500. "We've got enough opponents on the other side (Democrats)."
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.