Thomas Fitzgerald: Wagner could be a western presence in Pa. governor's race

Imagine a wall map of Pennsylvania, stuck with eight red pins representing the home towns of the declared candidates in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. All the markers are clustered in the eastern half of the state.

The western front is wide open.

No wonder former state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Pittsburgh is considering getting in the scramble for the nomination to take on Gov. Corbett.

"I'm still in an analytical mode," Wagner said in a recent interview, adding that he would decide whether to run "very soon." He is looking at turnout patterns and possible endorsements, and trying to figure out if he can raise enough money to be competitive.

With a herd of candidates dividing the eastern vote, Wagner could jolt the race. Western candidates who can consolidate that base often do well in statewide campaigns because voters in the region have tended to show up at the polls in higher proportion - and they are loyal to fellow westerners. In primaries, candidates are listed on the ballot with their county of residence.

Allyson Schwartz and Rob McCord are from Montgomery County. Tom Wolf is from York County, and Katie McGinty hails from Chester County. Ed Pawlowski is mayor of Allentown, in Lehigh County; John Hanger lives in Dauphin County; Max Myers is from Cumberland County; and Jo Ellen Litz lives in Lebanon County.

All were working the Radisson Hotel lobby at the Valley Forge Casino & Resort last Friday before the meeting of the Democratic State Committee. Wagner was there too, smiling and serene - though he did not disclose his plans.

At least the Democrats showed. Corbett skipped the Republican fall meeting last month to attend a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. That raised some eyebrows, considering his abysmal polling numbers - including a Franklin and Marshall College Poll that found just 38 percent of his fellow Republicans supporting his reelection. (Come to think of it, though, TV shots of Corbett sitting behind home plate at PNC Park probably helped his image. The Pirates just made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.)

GOP leaders are actually feeling more sanguine these days about Corbett, whose name always seems to be modified by the phrase "vulnerable incumbent." The main reason: Democrats. The would-be challengers surely will exhaust themselves tearing each other apart, while Corbett continues to stockpile campaign cash, these Republicans say.

That's why Montgomery County Democratic Chairman Marcel Groen welcomed party activists to the meeting Friday, with a warning to the declared candidates to keep it positive.

"What you don't have a right to do is to tear anybody else down," Groen said to cheers. "This is not fratricide. It's about beating the other side."

Wagner, 65, brings more government experience to the table than any of the current Democratic candidates, though it's an open question whether voters value career politicians these days. He was president of the Pittsburgh City Council, a state senator for 12 years, and the auditor general for eight. Wagner's been around the block, and has proved he can win statewide.

In his 2008 reelection for auditor general, Wagner won 3.3 million votes, more than anyone else on the Pennsylvania ballot, including then-Sen. Barack Obama; Corbett, reelected as attorney general that year; and McCord, who is in the Democratic demolition derby.

Of course, a campaign for governor is an order of magnitude or two different from a row office race.

Wagner has the classic profile for Democratic success in the west: he is pro-gun and antiabortion, and has deep ties with organized labor. (The party as a whole has moved to the left.) Wagner also is a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, and he's a likable person who is acknowledged to have done a good job as auditor.

He's also had some big losses and risks being tagged a perennial candidate, one who puts his name forward for every opportunity. He lost the race for mayor of Pittsburgh in 1993, a 2002 bid for lieutenant governor, and the 2010 primary for governor, won by fellow westerner Dan Onorato, who was Allegheny County executive. This year, Wagner lost in the Democratic primary for mayor of his home city despite strong backing from business interests.

"I have won more races than I have lost, and I've won some pretty big races in Pennsylvania," Wagner pointed out.

He also has had trouble raising money in his career. Wolf has said he would contribute $10 million from his own fortune to his campaign, and Schwartz and McCord are prolific fund-raisers.

"I won't be number one, but that's OK," Wagner said. "I think people know me and have a confidence in my performance as a fiscal watchdog."

 


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent