Parachuting into politics. It’s a phrase that state lawmaker Scott Wagner uses to explain what he’s up to these days.
“You’ve got to understand,” says Wagner, who recently got elected to the state Senate as a write-in in a special election. “I just got parachuted in here really four weeks ago, and this has been … I have a lot to learn.”
Wagner is the Legislature’s newest member. He arrived as an outsider in the Senate Republican caucus… after he won a special election to finish out the term of a GOP senator who resigned for another job.
When it comes to legislative politics, Wagner is the break-out story of the year, so far. The York County businessman comes off as gruff and refreshingly candid. He was definitely not the chosen one for his party. But he bucked the county’s party elders and the governor and won the seat as a write-in candidate – despite the TV attack ads paid for by the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee.
Ask Wagner whether he’s bitter toward his Republican colleagues after all that, and his reply exemplifies how his style is little different from the average backbencher’s:
“Bottom line is we beat ’em, so, I mean, once you stab your opponent in the neck and they bleed to death,- you don’t keep stabbing them.”
Now, with Tuesday’s primary nearly here, Wagner’s up for election again. This time, he’ll be competing to keep his seat for the next legislative term starting in 2015. After his showing in the special election, he’s expected to win easily.
But what remains to be seen is how a trucking and trash hauling company executive who campaigned against career politicians and the “big Pennsylvania political machine” will fare in the rather staid environment of the state Senate.
“You have to come in diplomatically,” Wagner said. “I’m not coming into the Capitol with grenades strapped all over my vest. You know, my staff is going to spend a lot of time briefing me on the lay of the land up here.”
But know that Wagner’s version of “coming in diplomatically” includes proposing that the portraits of past legislative leaders who were convicted of crimes be taken down from the walls of the Capitol.
What’s at stake Tuesday
As far as how Wagner’s colleagues will do in Tuesday’s primary, here’s what else is at stake:
All House members are up for election in Tuesday’s primary, but nearly half are unopposed. The 203-seat state House is likely to remain firmly in GOP control. The party has 111 seats; while the Democrats number 92.
Fifteen of the 50 Senate seats are up for grabs. Republicans control the chamber just 27 to 23. Democrats hold out hope that they could pick up a couple seats and keep the majority party on edge.
What’s unusual about this election year is that new district boundaries will be taking effect. This happens every 10 years to reflect population shifts based on Census data. But the changeover was delayed in Pennsylvania thanks to years of court wrangling over the map drafted by the legislature’s Republican majorities.
As a result, millions of Pennsylvania voters will find themselves in new districts. And it turns out some found out about their new districts from incumbent lawmakers who sent newsletters, birthday messages, and robocalls to voters shifted into new boundaries just about to take effect. The money being used to do all that comes from the Legislature – which is to say, your Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars.
Campaigning on public’s dime?
Gene Stilp is a sort of professional activist whose obsession is legislative malfeasance. He was a leader of the protest against the “midnight pay raises” legislators voted themselves in 2005. He’s also a candidate for the House, running as a Democrat. Stilp says incumbents shouldn’t be able to do this kind of voter outreach on the taxpayer’s dime.
“They’re campaigning with this money,” Stilp said. “People are sitting in jail in the Bonusgate cases right now for using taxpayer money to campaign. This is the same thing.”
Bonusgate is the catch-all term used for the rash of cases from 2007 through 2012 involving lawmakers charged – and in some cases, convicted – of using legislative resources for political purposes.
And new concerns about corruption are in ample supply this term. Among Philadelphia’s legislative delegation, two lawmakers, State Senator Leanna Washington and State Representative J.P. Miranda, are seeking re-election while facing criminal corruption charges.
Plus, four other Philadlephia state representatives were named in news accounts as having taken cash in a sting operation run by the state Attorney General’s office. That investigation was dropped without indictments after Democrat Kathleen Kane took over the office. Only one of those four lawmakers faces an opponent in Tuesday’s primary.