State Sen. Scott Wagner, Republican frontrunner in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest has established a reputation as a brash and aggressive outsider bent on bringing a CEO’s efficiency to Harrisburg. Wagner, who owns and operates a $70 million dollar-a-year trash collection empire, styles himself in the image of President Donald Trump, insisting “he wants to make Pennsylvania greater again.”
The 62-year-old self described “serial entrepreneur,” who told reporters he bought 20,000 Trump lawn signs in the summer of 2016, opened his business at just 20 years old with nothing more that a high school diploma. It is this record Wagner argues lends him the credibility to speak to issues — like the skilled labor shortage and over enrollment in college —and be taken seriously in a way that escapes many of the former bankers and lawyers who fill out the ranks of the Republican party.
“Everybody talks about creating more jobs and how we need to bring more jobs back to Pennsylvania. Well here’s a fact, Pennsylvania has at least 200 hundred thousand skilled labor positions that are currently open across the state,” Wagner told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I’m talking about plumbers, electricians, carpenters, pipefitters, you know the trades. Our challenge is we need to find the people to fill those positions. The cornerstone of my campaign is going to be an intense focus on education and the education system. We need to retool and reinvent the current education system.”
Wagner’s focus on the challenges facing middle-class Pennsylvanians combined with more traditional anti-regulation, pro-business Republican rhetoric gave him the edge as a write-in candidate for state Senate in York County. Trump beat out former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the county by almost 30 points in the 2016 presidential election.
After decades of political contributions did little to stem the tide of mounting government regulations and a growing budget deficit, Wagner, who describes himself as a “ATM machine” for politicians, decided to involve himself directly in the process.
In a move right out of Trump’s playbook, Wagner described the paperwork required to run his multiple businesses to illustrate the extent of government overreach in the state.
“When I started my business, I had five regulations that I had to comply with in a manila folder and it closed. Today, the binder is three and a half inches thick, and its over 100 pages of regulation,” he said.
Wagner’s time in the Pennsylvania Senate has not been without controversy. He quickly established a reputation as an aggressive newcomer, launching a campaign to oust GOP Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi six months into his tenure. He was able to unite his Republican colleagues against Pileggi by casting him as soft on unions — a charge difficult to level against Wagner. The business owner has a record of vigorously campaigning against the interests of union bosses, a group he’s familiar with due to his long career in waste management.
He assumed control of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee (SRCC); the same group that previously dogged his campaign with attack ads. Having successfully upended the political establishment in Harrisburg, Wagner presided over a party that’s reclaimed three Democratic seats — sealing the party’s first veto proof majority in the Senate in over seventy years.
“In my four decades of being involved in Pennsylvania government, I can’t remember anything that even closely resembles Scott Wagner and what he’s done politically,” GOP political consultant Charlie Gerow told Philadelphia Magazine. “There certainly have been wealthy guys who entered into the process, and there have certainly been folks who have attempted to do what Scott Wagner is doing. But no one has had the staying power that he has.”
While the political upstart has proven himself more than capable of building a caucus, his aggressive brand of politics alienated certain constituencies. He’s come under attack from the Christian right for endorsing and reviving a long-stalled anti-LGBT discrimination bill.
The 2016 bill, which increased anti-discrimination workplace and housing protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians, was met with opposition from Christian conservatives who believed it could be used to force employers to allow for transgender employees to use the bathroom of your choice — a charge Wagner flatly denies.
“I do not have a third bathroom agenda. I would never sign a third bathroom bill if it came across my desk. It’s pure and simple, we need to tighten up the anti discrimination laws. This bill has nothing to do with bathrooms; it’s a complete mischaracterization. pure and simple,” Wagner said of the backlash.
Wagner also said he wants to tackle the state’s opioid epidemic.
The tide of overdose and the resulting misery swept into Pennsylvania the same way it did in many economically depressed states that Trump won in 2016. As an employer managing scores of trucks drivers, Wagner had a front row seat as the opioid problem became an epidemic.
He said he first noticed something was wrong in the early 2000s, almost a decade before over prescription became the hot button political issue it is today.
“My experience with the drug crisis started back in the 2000s. We work in a labor intensive industry so we have a lot of sprains and strains. For pain, the doctors were prescribing 30 day prescriptions for Vicodin and Oxycodone back in the early 2000s,” Wagner explained. “So why does somebody with a sprained ankle or strained back need to walk out with a 30 day prescription, I saw this. We went to the med centers; we talked as a company; as an employer, we were proactive with our doctors. We asked doctors to prescribe over the counter, Motrin, Tylenol, stuff like that.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency Wednesday in response to surging drug overdose deaths in the state.
Wagner initially praised the move, but after reading the declaration in full, he criticized it because he believes it compromises Pennsylvanians’ second amendment rights. Licensed citizens are prohibited from openly carrying firearms in public as long as the 90-day declaration is in effect. Wagner believes the ban could have been avoided with a bill he introduced in the Senate.
“Somebody in the governor’s office didn’t do their homework pure and simple,” Wagner said.
He’s faced backlash from some Pennsylvania editorial boards, who argue addressing the opioid epidemic should take precedent over second amendment concerns. Wagner argues that criticism presupposes a false choice.
He believes his Senate bill would address the crisis while preserving second amendment protections and maintains that any suggestion that he doesn’t care about the plight of opioid addicts doesn’t square with his record on the issue.
After witnessing the effects of opioid addiction in his employees for more than a decade, Wagner travelled to Harrisburg in 2012 to meet with the Department of Labor to sound the alarm. He said his visit was met with apathy.
“We met with at least ten or twelve people from the department [of Labor] and we never heard back from anyone. They didn’t care. They never got back to us,” he said.
After attending a panel discussion on opioid addiction in the summer of 2014, Wagner knew he had to do something. On the ride home from the event, he agreed to launch the York County Heroin Task Force with the help of the York County coroner and the assistant district attorney. To date, the task force has held over 100 town hall meetings, where they’ve heard from doctors, addicts, addicts’ parents and educators.
Wagner took what he heard at those meetings and translated it into policy, sponsoring legislation that established a prescription drug database designed to prevent addicts from obtaining opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors.
To his surprise, he said he still encountered people who refused to acknowledge the scale and scope of the problem even as late as 2014. This point was driven home during a meeting with a group of high school principals. Wagner asked the principals what kind of drug activity they were seeing in their schools, and they denied there was any evidence of drug activity at all. The claim drove the straight-talking Wagner to educate the principals on what they were dealing with.
“I asked them ‘what are you currently seeing or hearing in your schools with drugs?’ They all said to me ‘we’re not really hearing anything.’ I said you have got to be kidding me. So I made a statement that I could go to any one of your schools and give a kid cash, and I could give them twenty minutes and they’d come out with heroine,” Wagner said.
Wagner’s response did not go over well with the educators, some of whom still refuse to speak to him.
While he has concerned himself primarily with on-the-ground pragmatic solutions to address the scourge of opioid addiction, Wagner has not thought much about holding drug companies responsible for their role in the crisis. He said he does not yet know whether he would advocate for joining the group of state attorneys general currently working on bringing a major class action suit against drug manufacturers in much the same way tobacco companies were held to account in the 1990s.
The blue collar business mogul is currently leading the Republican field. He won 40-78 votes cast in a straw poll of GOP state committee members from five southeastern counties that typically cast the deciding votes in Pennsylvania elections.
An early candidate who launched his campaign before any other Republican challengers, Wagner is eager to get to Harrisburg and start changing things.
“We don’t have a lot of time because Pennsylvania is a state with a pension crisis, school taxes going up and everything going on. We’re bankrupt, and we just don’t know. We need to look in the mirror and come to the realization we’re bankrupt, and we gotta do something about it,” he said.
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