Wagner aims to ride lawnmower into voters’ hearts

Pennsylvania's GOP gubernatorial candidate comes to Philadelphia to show he's a cut above Democrats.

Listen 4:06
Scott Wagner in Malcolm X Park post-cleanup, accompanied by a contractor, supporter and lawnmower. (Photo by Wagner Campaign)

Scott Wagner in Malcolm X Park post-cleanup, accompanied by a contractor, supporter and lawnmower. (Photo by Wagner Campaign)

This week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner focused some of his energy on an unlikely target: grass.

Specifically, the lawn of a park in West Philadelphia, which Wagner — very publicly — paid to have cut after noticing it was overgrown.

Wagner began his beautification efforts upon discovering Malcolm X Park at a campaign event, just a few days after resigning from his position as a York County senator to focus on his gubernatorial bid.

Seeing what he called a “disgusting” area strewn with trash, he got on Facebook Live.

“I’m shocked,” he said in the video posted to his campaign page. “The grass hasn’t been mowed. This could be a beautiful park.”

He gave Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney an ultimatum: Clean up the park within four days, or Wagner would return with a mower and crew to do the job himself.

That was Saturday.

The city started cutting the grass Monday. A spokesman for the mayor said it was scheduled maintenance.

Two days after that, Wagner was back in Philly. And back on Facebook.

“Well I’m here,” he said in a second video. “It’s Wednesday morning, and some mowing has taken place, but it’s still pretty disgusting.”

The former state senator said when he and four contract workers he employs at his trash company got to the park that day, two city employees were already cleaning up.

He sent them packing.

“I mean it was impossible,” he said. “I walked over to the mower, and the mower was like, probably, it looked like something that was 25 years old.  I told the guys, ‘We’re going to mow this.’ I said, ‘You guys just don’t have good equipment.’ ”

Kenney’s office contests much of this.

Spokesman Mike Dunn said city workers cleaned up almost all of the park through Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because they had to work around families who were using it.

Maintaining that the city’s equipment was fine, he criticized Wagner for putting employees “in a very awkward situation” by asking them to leave for what he called “a publicity stunt.”

Wagner’s a proud fiscal conservative — one who has repeatedly criticized Gov. Tom Wolf for spending carelessly.

“Pennsylvania does not have a revenue problem, it has spending and mismanagement problem,” he said in his recent resignation speech — a sentiment that’s been a refrain throughout his tenure in Harrisburg.

All told, he said, the park cleanup took about seven hours — not counting what the city had already done — and involved his team making the more than two-hour journey from York to Philly and back.

Asked whether that was a waste of time, he was indignant.

“No, it wasn’t, because it was a complete half-assed job,” he said of the city’s work. “I would be ashamed — if I was Mayor Kenney. They should be ashamed. No, it wasn’t a waste of time.”

There is also a perhaps-unexpected policy component to this.

In a pointed comment, the mayor’s office said Philadelphia’s contentious beverage tax — which Wagner opposes — is intended, in part, to create more money for city parks.

Wagner’s response?

“The money’s flowing in. I want to know … what they’re doing with the money,” he said. “We might find out they’re getting more money than they need.”

Dunn said, specifically, $2 million annually from the tax has been slated for 40 new positions in the Parks and Recreation Department, which would be the key improvement.

But back to Malcolm X Park itself — Gregory Spearman, the 60th Ward leader who represents the park and surrounding neighborhoods, said the whole thing hasn’t been high on his priority list.

“I live down the street,” he said when asked about potential neglect by the city. “The park is usually OK.”

At the end of the day, he said he’s not one to turn down a free lawn mowing.

He was a little suspicious of Wagner’s political ends, noting, “I do have an issue with people bringing notice to it. It starts to make me think, we’ll what are your motives?”

But, he added, it’s a rare thing for a Republican to even be in West Philly.

“Republicans — I haven’t seen a Republican initiative,” he said. “Period.”

As for Wagner? He said he hopes this sets a tone for the rest of his campaign.

“I did it. It’s something I did. I said I would do it, I did it. And it’s done right, and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Wagner will face off against Wolf, a Democrat, in November.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal