HARRISBURG — Scott Wagner is 62 years old. He grew up on a farm in south-central Pennsylvania, but right now he’s looking at perhaps the biggest cow he’s ever seen.
“There’s a big porker there! Look at that: 1,500, 2,000 pounds — holy moly!” he exclaims as he makes the rounds at the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show.
Then, Wagner, a York County Republican state senator running for governor, points to the next cow, the one dropping a cow pie onto the hay. “There’s a lot of that in Harrisburg,” he jokes.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show is many things: said to be the largest indoor agricultural exposition in the country, and home to a half-ton butter sculpture that draws a mix of awe and bemusement. It also has long been a political consultant’s dream for retail politicking — the place aspiring legislators, U.S. senators, and governors put on their regular-folks attire and make sure to pay homage to this Keystone State staple.
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat up for reelection in November, started the festivities last Saturday, and the Republicans running to challenge him also swung through. GOP candidates Paul Mango, a business consultant, and Laura Ellsworth, a lawyer, both from the Pittsburgh area, enjoyed one of the show’s famous milkshakes.
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is also running, but no one has generated as much early buzz in Pennsylvania’s 2018 elections as Wagner, the millionaire owner of a waste-management company who declared his candidacy for governor a full year ago, less than three years after winning a special Senate election on a historic write-in campaign.
He’s not shied away from descriptions that he’s a mini-Trump (though he’d say it was the other way around) and he’s likely to be energized by one historic lesson from 2016: Trump captured the state without winning its two most populous regions — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
So as he wandered the grounds for a few hours here on Sunday, Wagner, wearing a gray campaign vest and blue jeans, posed for photos and listened to a cross-section of exhibitors and attendees who could represent key constituents that he, and his GOP rivals, will battle for in the May primary.
He talked with two mushroom harvesters from western Chester County who say immigrants, many from Mexico, are crucial to their $500 million industry. “There’s a misperception,” Wagner said, that mushroom growers “employ a lot of illegal people.”
(Federal immigration authorities raided a Kennett Square mushroom farm last spring, fueling anxiety among immigrant workers.)
“It’s not accurate,” Wagner added, acknowledging that some are citizens, others have green cards, and most earn decent paychecks and pay taxes.
“We are no longer just a black and white society,” Wagner says. “People that are growing up here, a lot of people in America that are raising families — they’re not going into mushroom fields or mushroom barns; they’re not going into asparagus and broccoli fields, tomato fields, and the apple orchards.”
Next up, he mingled with a family of farmers from Washington County, southwest of Pittsburgh on the Ohio border, then an energy worker who complained about the state’s suspension of construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 shale pipeline. Wagner said the standstill is unacceptable.
“Have you seen my commercials?” he asked. They hadn’t. (Though one passerby shouted out that he had.)
“I’m on TV. I think we can do a lot better in Pennsylvania,” Wagner said.
He asked about their interactions with the state Department of Environmental Protection. They reported that DEP “hasn’t been that bad” but added that “some of the permit stuff is ridiculous.”
“That’s what we’re going to work on,” replied Wagner, who said state bureaucrats are holding up approval of a new fueling system at Penn Waste, his trash-hauling company. He said he bets they’re also probably sitting on hundreds of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling permits.
Wagner and State Rep. Dave Zimmerman (R., Lancaster), who sits on the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, made a quick stop at an apple stand. Thanks to poor vigilance by the state, Zimmerman said, invasive species are devastating apple orchards, and it’s only a matter of time before they make their way to Wagner’s home county of York.
Wagner pointed to a photo of a Golden Delicious ruined by a brown stink bug (“those things are a pain in the ass”), and then it was off to meet the state honey queen. The senator said he’s good for a few teaspoons of honey every day, and he and his wife, Tracy, posed for a picture with the honey queen.
A trivia game nearby asked contestants which meat is the most widely eaten in the world. (Answer: chicken.)
Wagner started to head toward a barn full of lambs and pigs, but suddenly stopped in his tracks and turned to a reporter. He’d been thinking about the Mango campaign’s charge that Wagner missed more votes than any other senator between 2015 and 2017.
Wagner explained that much of that stemmed from a long-scheduled international business trip, and spun this as an example of his inquiring mind. “Why would I come to the Farm Show? … One of the problems in Harrisburg is, a lot of the people that are elected, they live under that dome. It’s a bubble,” he said. “This is all about learning.”
(And there seem to have been lessons on the trail. Over the course of a few hours, Wagner didn’t spill forth with any sort of the blunt comments or reactions that earned him headlines earlier in the campaign, like calling the liberal billionaire George Soros a “Hungarian Jew” who has “hatred for America,” or clashing with Democratic trackers filming him at campaign events.)
Next it was off to meet a farmer from Westmoreland County who was tending to a lamb named Tubby. Federal regulations are killing family farms, she said.
“We need a governor who understands, this regulation is choking us, and driving businesses out of business,” Wagner said.
He made his way through a maze of swine (“Ham and bacon laying there, just so you know”), spotted the gigantic cow, and caught up with a half-dozen students who participate in livestock clubs.
“What’s the difference between a pig and a hog?” Wagner asked the kids, including at least one in the Manatawna-Saul 4-H club, associated with W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia’s Roxborough section. The magnet school helps kids learn how to raise beef cattle, lambs, and pigs.
One replied: “There’s a difference?”
Some of the kids wrote letters to Wagner a few weeks ago, asking if he’d be interested in buying their lambs. “These are lambs that these kids raised from the time they were born,” the club supervisor, Scott Moser, explained.
“It’s an emotional bond” between student and lamb, added Wagner’s wife, Tracy. The lambs here were likely headed for the slaughterhouse.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” Wagner told 10-year-old Marcos, who brought his 9-month-old lamb, Apollo, to the Farm Show. “I’m going to give you a check for $500, and you can give it to the club.”
It was a deal, even if Marcos couldn’t cast a ballot. And then, the candidate was off into the Farm Show crowd, for private meetings to talk politics — somewhere near the rodeo show.