Political Hay

Scott Wagner Beats the GOP Establishment

CAP and a Pennsylvania write-in revolt.

By 3.20.14

Scott Wagner (from scottwagnerforsenate.com)
Send to Kindle

“The inmates are in control of the asylum.”
Pennsylvania State Senator-elect Scott Wagner

First, it was a Florida congressional race. Now? A Pennsylvania special election for the state Senate. The Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania scores a major win — and yes, the winner says he heard about Obamacare. Scott Wagner is a Pennsylvania state Senator this morning. It wasn’t supposed to happen.

In a stunning upset, the York County businessman, taking a stand against the state’s political establishment of both parties, made state history by winning a special election for the Pennsylvania state Senate — in a write-in landslide, defeating both the Republican and Democrat nominees.

Wagner captured 48 percent of the vote. His Republican opponent, a state representative with the backing of the local and state GOP, received 27 percent; the Democrat 26 percent.

The election was set in motion by the resignation of a sitting Republican senator. The GOP establishment, in this case both in York County (located in the heart of central Pennsylvania) and in Harrisburg, decided to back state Representative Ron Miller. With the Pennsylvania primary already scheduled for May 20, it was assumed that Wagner would face off with Miller in the primary. Out of the blue, the state GOP conspired to hold a special election on March 18, the winner to take the seat immediately. Miller was quickly endorsed and an incensed Wagner was out. He could still run in the May primary, but would then be up against a sitting senator in the GOP leaning district. The only way Wagner could participate in the March election was as a write-in candidate. In other words, Wagner was supposed to be out — quite deliberately targeted by the Forces That Be.

There is a story here, and yes it has national implications.

Let’s go back to another story about Scott Wagner and the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, written in this space back there in July of 2012. Titled “Pennsylvania’s Capitalist Revolt,” we recorded the sorry state of Pennsylvania politics. Two former Speakers of the statehouse — a post once held by Benjamin Franklin — were in jail on corruption charges, literally sharing a cell. A former state Senate Democratic Leader was also in the slammer — but with a $330,000 a year pension. Then there was the “Iron Triangle," the career politicians, the lobbyists, and the public employee unions that were increasingly seen as simply looting the state treasury. A few years before this, in 2005, literally in the dead of night (2 a.m.), the legislature had passed a pay raise for itself (without any hearings in advance) that ranged from a low of 16 percent on up to 34 percent, depending on the legislator’s length of service. There was an explosion at this, with legislative leaders losing seats in the next election.

As we noted in 2012, a group of Pennsylvania citizens who were so thoroughly disgusted — outraged is a better word — came together to form the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, CAP, as it is known. Predating the Tea Party by four years and unconnected with it, the new reform group sought to get citizens involved in the system and began targeting legislators across the state. Led by a Republican businessman named John Kennedy, who had served two terms in the House and voluntarily departed, the group included businessman Scott Wagner. At the time we wrote this of Wagner:

CAP, to the surprise — and anger — of its critics, is getting the job done. In fact, the reason the three-year old group has critics in the first place is that it has made an impact.

To start they have had Scott R. Wagner.

Scott Wagner is a capitalist. An enthusiastic entrepreneur. A job creator.

This is the kind of guy who has been at the center of the storm over President Obama's gaffe-that-really-wasn't-a-gaffe about small business owners not creating their own business — the "someone else did that" routine.

Wagner begs to differ. After allowing that he respects the office of the presidency, Wagner pulls no punches whether the topic is the President, state government, or the 13 attorneys.

The 13 attorneys? What's up with that?

You guessed it. Here is a man who founded his first business when he was 20, turning his passion for skiing into a ski shop. Working night and day, he began adding rental properties and Laundromats. By 1985 he began a waste company, developed it in 12 years, sold it — and had so much fun he did it again, starting in 2000.

In 2000, Wagner began Penn Waste. Contrary to the impression left by President Obama, Mr. Wagner has built his business into a considerable success without the President's input. Respectfully, he calls Barack Obama "totally clueless," the presidential socializing profits routine leaving Wagner feeling "insulted." Wagner notes crisply that it was he who has "borrowed, leveraged and worked 100 hour work weeks" to build a company that now employs 300 people as it provides waste disposal services with 100 trucks in six Pennsylvania counties. All told, Scott Wagner is involved in 9 different businesses, directly or indirectly employing over a thousand people.

And the 13 attorneys.

By now you can imagine. Scott Wagner is awash in government regulations — and he needs to retain 13 outside attorneys just to figure out how to satisfy bureaucrats he says make a profession not of helping entrepreneurs but of finding something they are doing wrong. Then fining them for it. And by the way, put Scott down as highly skeptical that bureaucrats are even capable of holding a job in the private sector.

In other words, Scott Wagner was one frustrated Pennsylvanian. Fed up.

CAP was his kind of deal.

To talk to Scott Wagner in the wake of all this is to realize the sheer anger that is in fact rolling across not only Pennsylvania but all of America. All these state legislators want to do, scorns Wagner, is get elected — and re-elected. That's it, that's the agenda. Why? Because the legislature, says Kennedy, has become the embodiment of Ben Franklin's warning about people in a position of power who can profit from that power wanting, endlessly, to retain that power.

Thirteen attorneys working for Scott Wagner are thirteen too many.

For the first time in some five decades of Pennsylvania politics, CAP is asking the question once posed by Ronald Reagan:

"If not us, who? If not now, when?"

With this in the background, one can only imagine the wave of incensed anger that swept through Wagner and a lot of York County residents when they realized some fancy footwork behind the scenes by the state’s GOP establishment had effectively denied Wagner a place on the ballot for the state Senate special election. There was little time for Wagner to make his case to the local GOP committee members who would nominate the candidate. So Wagner was thought to be out as a candidate for the special election. The expectation, of course, was that Wagner was done for, his only recourse the impossibility of a write-in. He would stay as a primary candidate, but with Miller presumably elected to the Senate in the March special, that too was now an uphill battle.

Scott Wagner has built his business from scratch. He knew something about a challenge. And so, it turned out, did a lot of his fellow citizens who were enraged at the game played with the Senate nomination process. Wagner refused to throw in the towel. And while he would stay in the May 20 primary, he would now mount the uphill write-in campaign. He would treat the race just as he treated his business, coming up with what he told The American Spectator was a “rock solid plan” for the campaign, “doing everything by the book.” Suddenly he found the political guns of the state’s GOP establishment trained on him. As the Harrisburg Patriot-News recorded:

Ads that were run cast Wagner as a bully and his trash hauling company, York-based Penn Waste, an environmental violator…. The attacks against him angered Wagner. He was astonished that his business-friendly Republican Party would go after a job creator like himself.

The ads — $350,000 worth of them engineered by GOP state Senate President Joe Scarnati and GOP state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi — were sponsored by the state Senate’s Republican Caucus. Former Governor Tom Ridge, now a Washington lobbyist, suddenly appeared to campaign for Miller. A man of means, Wagner fired back with both barrels. The air waves quickly filled with Wagner ads charging that the GOP had sold out to “Philadelphia politicians.” Being associated with the state’s largest city has always been a negative in other parts of the state — and the fact that a major player in funding the anti-Wagner ads — Pileggi — represents the Philadelphia area quickly gave Wagner a face and a name to match to the etablishment’s shenanigans.

While he kept his name on the primary ballot, Wagner turned his guns on the March special election and began firing. He went after the legislature for “high salaries, lavish pensions, automatic pay raises and excessive per diems” that “are just a few examples of why we have the most expensive legislature in the country.” He was an unapologetic supporter of the Second Amendment. Pennsylvania, he told voters, needed to create more private sector jobs — and fewer government jobs. He said it was time to control property taxes. And he was pro-life.

Wagner’s resounding 48 percent write-in victory has sent shock waves through the state and local GOP establishment. Last night he compared the state’s Harrisburg politicians to a country club, telling the Spectator that “there are country clubs that just don’t let people in” — and that in this case what was at issue was a “political club.” His victory makes him a Senator immediately and an overwhelming favorite for the May primary, not to mention the November election. Wagner has now crashed his way through the gates of the Harrisburg clubhouse, set to join the Senate Republican Caucus that had spent over a quarter of a million dollars to defeat him. As of last night, he said he has not received a congratulatory call from Pennsylvania state GOP Chair Rob Gleason.

Why is the Wagner victory important? Two reasons.

First, nationally, coming as it does on the heels of the upset victory of David Jolly in the recent Florida congressional special election, the nature of the Pennsylvania election reveals yet again an electorate that is in full revolt against the political establishment. While this was a race for the state senate, Wagner confirms that he did indeed hear from voters angry over Obamacare. One man told Wagner he had bladder cancer and before Obamacare was paying “$100 a pop” for his cancer medication. Now? The cost has shot up to “$600 a pop.”

Second, the issue of the infiltration of the Republican Party by those at odds with core GOP principles of limited government played a central role in the flat-out defeat of the establishment party's favored candidate. A double digit defeat by a conservative reform write-in candidate (and it is important to note again that CAP is both unconnected with the Tea Party and pre-dates it by several years) who was targeted with a $350,000 negative ad campaign sponsored by the GOP is, to borrow from Thomas Jefferson, a fire-bell in the night that the reform movement inside the party continues to gain in serious fashion.

One of the charges made frequently these days at the national level is that the GOP establishment is in fact in bed with the liberal world view. This line goes all the way back to at least Ronald Reagan’s charge that some GOP officials were “fraternal order” Republicans and, before that, the Barry Goldwater statement the GOP was filled with those favoring “a dime store New Deal.”

As the Pennsylvania state Senate election kicked into high gear, GOP reformers discovered that Senate Majority Leader Pileggi had a campaign fund of $1.3 million, thirty percent of which came from individuals and 70 percent from PACS. The kicker? Half of those PACS were union PACS

This, of course, became an instant symbol of just why a state with a Republican governor (Tom Corbett), a Republican House, and a Republican Senate was stymied when it came to a host of nominally GOP issues from the lavish legislative salaries, pensions and per diems to public employee pensions, right-to-work, abolishing the unionized system of “state stores” in favor of a private system, and more.

Wagner would spend his time introducing himself as a businessman, not a politician, then launch into one tale after another of outrage from state legislators receiving bloated pensions (one of his favorites was a Philadelphia legislator who was receiving a $23,000-plus a month pension) or the state pension system itself, some $47 billion in the red. Senate Republicans are “scared of me,” said the candidate. He wasn’t going to “blow up the system” — but he was intent on reforming it. Said Wagner after his win? There are 253 legislators (203 House members and 50 Senators) in Harrisburg. “There are 2,600 staffers” for these 253 legislators, he said, incredulous.

All of this has made Wagner decidedly unpopular with legislative leaders. But he has clearly touched a raw nerve with Pennsylvania voters.

So too is CAP unpopular with the GOP leadership. The recent decision of Republican House Speaker Sam Smith to retire occasioned a blistering three-page letter to CAP Executive Director Leo Knepper. Among other things the Speaker wrote that CAP

has shown zero understanding or comprehension of how the legislative process actually works. …Your purist views are like those dictators possess. To the anonymous rich guys hiding under your cap, please note — this is a republic, where no one dictates and governing requires debate, understanding and respect for the other points of view brought to the arena of ideas.”

Ouch.

The problem here, of course, is that this response (the swipe at “anonymous rich guys” in particular is odd indeed coming from a legislator who supposedly celebrates free enterprise and the Fourth Amendment right to privacy) is not dissimilar to the kind of thinking that comes from U.S. House Speaker Boehner. For a career legislator who surely had a hand in producing all that pension debt not to mention the rich pensions being carted into retirement by various legislators, Smith’s letter underscores the problem. It is precisely the kind of response that just elected Scott Wagner. It is exactly the kind of thinking that Ronald Reagan use to scorn as coming from “fraternal order” Republicans.

Is there more coming here in Pennsylvania? Wagner said on Tuesday night that it was probably best for there to be a “72-hour cooling-off period” for all involved.

But yes. If Senator Scott Wagner and the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania have their way, the answer is yes, there is more to come. Kennedy reports that both money and interest in the group are rising in the wake of the write-in upset, with potential candidates inspired by Wagner’s victory.

More to the point, if the tide of revolt rising across the nation has now swept a conservative to a write-in victory in an obscure Pennsylvania state Senate race with 48 percent of the vote? This can easily mean the elections of 2014 are going to be a big deal.

The move is on to take the asylum back from the inmates.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.