Scott Wagner spends the 35-minute drive from York to Harrisburg every morning sitting at a sprawling desk he’s had bolted into the back of a customized Mercedes passenger van. A whiteboard stretches across the back windows to sketch out mid-traffic ideas; pens and office odds and ends are stowed safely in lipped trays to prevent rolling. Wagner answers emails, drafts op-eds, takes calls and schedules his day as the van hurtles towards the state capital.
The takeaway: The GOP state senator and candidate for governor wouldn’t be caught dead wasting taxpayer dollars while idling in traffic.
This mid-commute pencil-pushing while his colleagues are still gearing up for the workday is just one component of the maverick image crafted by one of Harrisburg’s most Trumpian figures – a self-made millionaire and junior legislator who has used the president’s unlikely rise as a template for his own efforts to catapult himself into the governor’s mansion.
“I would look at my role as the change agent up here,” Wagner said in a February interview with City&State PA. “Some call me a disruptor. That’s OK, if that’s what it takes to get things done. But I’m here to change things and to see that things get done differently.”
“Differently” might be putting it lightly. Wagner tussled with a campaign tracker who had infiltrated and filmed a private event, muttering “you’re about to see your senator in action” as he advanced on the man. When HBO’s John Oliver mocked Wagner’s unfounded assertion that climate change could be caused by human body heat, the senator recorded an impromptu video thanking the talk show host.
“I’m sure all your super liberal viewers got a good laugh at all of us here in flyover country, in Pennsylvania,” he said, a “Wagner for Governor” sign crookedly taped behind him. “But I just want to thank you for putting my picture and my name on national television … You probably saved me a million dollars in advertising.”
The gubernatorial election, meanwhile, is over a year away.
It can be hard to tell where the “real” Wagner ends and the showmanship begins. Does Wagner actually use the impressive office he’s constructed inside of a van or does he just want people to think he does? Do people actually call him a disruptor or is that how he wants to style himself? Are his antics a grand campaign strategy or simply outbursts?
A lot is riding on the answers to these questions, for both the senator and Pennsylvanians.
In January, Wagner became the first Republican to jump into the race against Gov. Tom Wolf. Part of the rationale for his early candidacy was to intimidate potential GOP rivals and ride a surging pro-Trump wave that would, surely, benefit a doppelganger such as himself.
The comparisons between Wagner and the president are natural: Both are shoot-from-the-hip businessmen, self-proclaimed disruptors serving a pupu platter of political beliefs that have at times defied their party, like Wagner’s support for some progressive criminal justice reform measures, a minimum wage hike and LGBT protections.
Far from inheriting wealth, the senator clawed his way to success in the private sector from a fairly modest childhood on a farm in York County. His mother gave horseback riding lessons; his father worked in construction, eventually working his way up to a supervisory role. Wagner hated school, earning himself “straight Es” and dismissing after-school activities like sports. He preferred rushing home to work on his family’s farm where he earned a modest allowance, and on neighbors’ farms to which he would drive an old Jeep when he was as young as 12 or 13, to earn spending money. He never attended college.
Wagner started his first business when he was 20, buying real estate around the same time. Back then he hustled, doing both the blue-collar and white-collar work required to get his ventures off the ground. He has bought and sold a number of companies, making his fortune largely in waste management. Today he owns Penn Waste, Inc. and KBS Trucking, employing, he says, 600 people.
From the very beginning, the nagging necessities of paperwork and regulation have been a thorn in Wagner’s side. The thorn in his side. He says he used to be able to fit all the necessary paperwork for his businesses into a thin folder that has grown over the years into a binder 3 inches thick. And yes, he measured its thickness.
“That’s why I’m so politically active,” Wagner said. “Because it’s either just, let government continue to choke you ... if someone’s going to choke you, I’m gonna fight back, get ’em off of me.”
Throughout his decades as an entrepreneur, Wagner was a consistent patron of Republican candidates across the state and nationwide, influencing elections large and small, mainly to take on the issue of over-regulation. But it wasn’t until his home district’s state Senate seat came up for a special election in 2014 that Wagner decided to stop standing on the sidelines.
He would run and, miraculously, win as a write-in candidate with his own party aligned against him. In the run-up to that election, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee (SRCC) ran foreboding ads like “Garbage Man,” a spot that baldly accused him of suing an “elderly widow” for $600 over supposedly unpaid services.
“Candidly, I did not have a good start and a good relationship with the Senate majority leader,” Wagner admits, referring to a terse relationship with former Sen. Dominic Pileggi. “ The guy spent half a million dollars trying to beat me and keep me from coming to Harrisburg. He’s not there anymore.”
But after his election, Wagner helped a few Republicans win Senate seats with money from his personal fortune, which some place as high as $20 million (Wagner disputes this figure). The onetime Republican pariah would be improbably selected as chair of the SRCC just a year after the committee had tried to torpedo his candidacy.
Pennsylvania Republicans lassoed in even more seats during Wagner’s tenure as chair, laying claim to 34 of 50 seats in the Senate.
“We have a supermajority we haven’t had in a long time, almost 70 years,” Wagner said. “ People are starting to realize that maybe I’m not as crazy as people think I am. ”
To say the least, Wagner's is an unlikely political ascent, a kind of proto-Trump success story. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall, says he can’t remember a time during his 40-year career when such a new recruit was given such a prominent position in such a short time.
“He’s literally been taken into their caucus,” Madonna said. “Despite the fact that when he ran you would’ve thought that he would have some difficulties with the leadership, they embraced him.”
With his track record, it’s hard to say there is no method to Wagner’s madness. But there’s also plenty of questionable behavior.
He once boasted during the presidential election that he would buy 20,000 Trump lawn signs with his own campaign funds to distribute to anyone in his district who couldn’t get their own. In his first gubernatorial campaign video, as he tells his rags-to-riches story, Wagner informs viewers that he still finds time to scrub toilets at the waste management business that made him rich – this from the same man so busy he works from a special desk while rumbling down the PA Turnpike.
In December of last year, Wagner referenced the retired public employees that voiced opposition to pension reform as being part of the “greediest generation” ever. At one point, he compared government unions to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin, saying during a Senate debate that all three were obsessed with “power and control.” In March, he took heat for speculating that global warming may be caused by the Earth moving closer to the sun or the collective body temperature of all humans that earned him ridicule from Oliver and elsewhere.
Then there’s the parable (cribbed from an oft-misattributed fable) that was long posted outside Wagner’s Senate office.
Every morning on the savanna, a sign explains, gazelles wake up and start running so they don’t get eaten; lions wake up and start running so they don’t starve. “This is how the private sector operates,” it reads. “Harrisburg should consider adopting this concept.”
The sign concludes with a quote from Wagner – “I eat lunch every day” – intended to telegraph to passersby that the state senator, ever the lion, is outpacing the gazelles in the Capitol.
“ Speed is nonexistent [in Harrisburg,]” Wagner said, in an interview. “This is sort of like watching molasses or syrup in a freezer. So, I have a microwave in my office. I stuck the syrup in the microwave and I made it hot. That’s made some people uncomfortable.”
Indeed, his bipartisan excoriation of the sluggish pace of capital formalities is divisive, to say the least.
Brandon Cwalina, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, called him “the very worst of Harrisburg,” referring to Wagner as a closet Harrisburg insider, a play on Wagner’s new-sheriff-in-town affect.
For David Broderic, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), opined that Wagner’s views on unions would have a toxic effect should he make the leap from lawmaker to governor.
“To have someone criticizing our members simply because they belong to a union is, for lack of a better word, shocking,” Broderic said. “I think if any of the rhetoric that Wagner and others express would actually become a reality, it would make it much harder for educators to do the important job that they do.”
But Sen. Daylin Leach, (D-Montgomery, Delaware), sees Wagner’s early eagerness to insert himself directly into the melee as a key to his swift ascent.
“He seems to have no concerns about directly going after members of his own party when they don’t agree with him ideologically,” Leach said. “And that is unusual in the Senate. When you take that and couple it with what seems to be unlimited resources, you have someone who can play a very outsized role within their own caucus.”
Of course, Wagner has his fans, too. One person Wagner has helped get elected during his reign at the SRCC is Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver), who co-signs his vision of laboring to fix a broken government.
Because of poor communication between departments, “we have got layer upon layer of bureaucracy and it’s just … we’re mired in it,” Bartolotta said. “And Wagner, as brash as he is – he’s the guy with the sickle and he’s just gonna come in and cut away the unnecessary means. He’s literally a guy who walks around the Capitol and shuts off light switches.”
This is, again, the perception that Wagner wants voters to know about, no matter how tortured the analogy. The microwave cooking the molasses, the lion on the horizon, the penny-pincher turning off the lights, the tactician with the mobile command center. The man with the sickle.
State government, with its grinding policy assembly processes, is by nature slow. But business is fast, business is about delivering on time. And Wagner is all business. But Wagner’s own attempt to take on Wolf in the impending gubernatorial fight lays bare some of the contradictions between Wagner’s image and reality that went relatively unnoticed when he was just a bomb-throwing senator.
As someone who has navigated red tape firsthand as a business owner, Wagner first went to Harrisburg to dismantle a bureaucratic system from the inside, only to find it harder than expected.
”As a senator, there are many ways in which I have no influence,” Wagner said. “ People think that I do. But honestly, I don’t have enough influence to get things done like bang-bang- bang. ”
To Eric Epstein, a Capitol-watcher who manages RockTheCapital.com, a government accountability site, Wagner’s rhetorical style is nothing more than a front: “Being bombastic and a demagogue and stirring things up is Mr. Wagner’s profile and persona,” he said. “That’s not a recipe for getting things done. He is not associated with one piece of landmark legislation.”
In 2013-2014, Wagner was not the chief sponsor of any bill. Wagner introduced eight bills, an ideological mixed bag, as chief sponsor in the 2015-2016 cycle, however. Among them: a “clean slate” bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.75 by this July; a bill to seal the criminal records of those nabbed for low-level offenses; and a bill to strike a public official’s attendance at receptions as an item of value in lobbying disclosure forms.
This March, Wagner again introduced his “clean slate” bill, which enjoys extensive public support and co-sponsorships from legislators across the aisle. But to date, he has only seen one of his bills became law, a cryptic piece of legislation about condominium classification, signed into law last November.
In fact, his biggest – and most controversial – accomplishment thus far has little to do with writing legislation at all. Last December, Wagner led a last-minute block on a bill to appropriate emergency funding for three unemployment call centers that would have saved the jobs of 521 employees of the Department of Labor & Industry. Wagner said he had concerns over whether money was being spent efficiently and blamed Wolf for the closures.
“I dug my foot in yesterday,” Wagner told the York Dispatch afterward. “They didn’t get the job done and need to be held accountable. Let them close.”
The move sent Wagner’s future opponent scrambling to pick up the pieces. But much of the blame for the standoff fell to Wagner, who then sent envelopes with $150 to furloughed employees at one call center.
It all hardly amounts to an illustrious record as a lawmaker. In fact, by Wagner’s own telling, he’s running for governor, in part, because he was unable to get much done in the General Assembly. It’s an honest admission, but also a fact that is strangely at odds with the senator’s touted role as the capitol’s hyperproductive disruptor.
“ The power’s in the governor’s office,” Wagner says he has concluded after years as a legislator. “You need a strong leader at the top.”
Since announcing his candidacy in January, months before any rivals, Wagner has come out guns blazing against Wolf, a fellow York County businessman whom he calls “a failed, weak governor.” For a time, there was something substantive to these claims – Wolf’s agenda had been frustrated in the Legislature, his popularity was in the low 30s and he made Governing magazine’s list of “most vulnerable governors.”
And then Trump won the state. While critics, like Epstein, are unsparing in their critique of Wagner’s and Trump’s similarities, they are not blind to the upshot of these comparisons.
“Politics has become a reality show, which gives Scott Wagner the advantage,” Epstein said. “You know what they’re against, but they don’t propose any realistic solutions.”
Despite the occasional ‘unions-as-Hitler’ remark, Wagner, for his part, actually sees himself as a more diplomatic version of the president, to whom he has personally donated $50,000.
“You know, Donald Trump is Donald Trump,” Wagner says of Trump’s outbursts.
It’s still unclear if the Trump wave that Wagner has positioned himself to ride has already crested or if being aligned in spirit with an administration under multiple tightening investigations will hurt him in 2018.
Wagner was the first to throw his hat in the ring. But while Paul Mango, a wealthy Allegheny County businessman, has already joined the fray, other rumored Republicans –
Former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, Congressman Mike Kelly, state House Majority Leader Dave Reed and state House Speaker Mike Turzai, for instance – have thus far kept their powder dry. Now, with polls showing Wolf’s popularity rebounding, the question becomes whether they’ll run at all.
If the general election does turn out to be Wagner vs. Wolf, the difference between their governing styles, should he win, would be stark, he says.
“ I manage by walking around,” Wagner said, pointing to his personal relationships with the guards and cafeteria workers that staff the statehouse. “ Gov. Wolf is not a people person. He’s not warm and fuzzy … My style is very different: It’s about talking to the people that are actually doing the work. Gov. Wolf is in his office and he is delegating tasks out to a lot of people that have no skills to do the tasks. The difference is, I have spent my whole life in my businesses honing my leadership skills, my vision skills. Gov. Wolf has a very different style and I believe that I have stronger leadership skills than Gov. Wolf. ”
Wagner doesn’t wait for a follow-up question to emphasize his point, just in case it missed the mark the first time: “I mean, I’m a guy that wants to get things done. Period. And fast.”