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Is Scott Wagner using his wallet to shape the Legislature?

Written by Ed Mahon/York Daily Record | Dec 22, 2016 7:53 AM
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State Sen. Scott Wagner addresses the crowd during a Veterans Day breakfast held at the York Expo Center in November. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

(York) -- In the spring, Scott Wagner sent out a mass email criticizing Jon Ritchie, a Cumberland County Republican and state Senate candidate, for taking money from the state's largest teachers union. In September and October, Wagner gave more than $400,000 of his own money to defeat an incumbent Democratic state senator in Erie County.

The two races demonstrate how Wagner, a York County Republican state senator, has influenced politics statewide and has helped create a state Senate that's more conservative on spending and tax issues.

When the new legislative session begins in January, Republicans will have their largest majority in the Pennsylvania state Senate in almost 70 years. They will control 34 of 50 seats.

Some of those state senators won their seats with significant help from Wagner, a frequent critic of public sector unions and the power they have in government. The wealthy businessman has already said he plans to run for governor in 2018, and he intends to write "a significant seven figure check" to his campaign.

The owner and president of Penn Waste Inc. has already put a lot of his money into politics. A YDR analysis of Department of State records found that Wagner has personally given more than $3.2 million in direct contributions or loans to elect state lawmakers, judges and other candidates in Pennsylvania since 2007. The analysis is based on individual contributions of $1,000 or more.

WATCH: STATE SEN. SCOTT WAGNER VIDEOSWatch: Scott Wagner's top 5 campaign contributions | 2:00

Ed Mahon lists Scott Wagner's top 5 campaign contributions and explains what that means for his run for governor. Sean Heisey, York Daily Record

In some cases, Wagner's role in a race is greater than just his personal contributions suggest, because he has had leadership positions with statewide committees that spend money on races.

For Rogette Harris, chairwoman of the Dauphin County Democratic Committee, it looks like Wagner is already laying the groundwork to have a potential Wagner administration work with a friendly General Assembly.

Wagner has been part of larger statewide effort to elect Republicans who are more conservative on fiscal issues and more willing to pass legislation that unions oppose. He's contributed more than $190,000 to the committee of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which has helped fund challenges to incumbent Republicans.

Leo Knepper, executive director of the group, said Republicans in the Legislature now, generally, are "less willing to cut deals to get something in their district" and "more interested in kind of the bigger picture."

And Wagner's money has helped unseat Democratic incumbents in recent years, including in a 2014 southwestern Pennsylvania race and a 2016 race for parts of Dauphin County.

"It's not just that he spent a lot of money," said Charlie Gerow, a GOP consultant in Harrisburg. "He spent it wisely and well."

The race for the 31st state Senate seat, which covers parts of York and Cumberland counties, and the Erie County race are case studies of how Wagner has operated across the state.

The 31st state Senate race shows how Wagner influenced a primary race, without a lot of money, while clashing with unions and politicians they support.

Search through a database of all of Scott Wagner's political contributions and loans

Erie County's 49th state Senate race shows how Wagner has used his personal wealth to help flip Democratic seats. Wagner and a committee he leads and funds, Reform PA PAC, were the largest contributors in that race.

Wagner declined an interview request for this story, saying in a statement that his contributions speak for themselves.

Clashing with Republicans

Mike Regan, a former state representative and former U.S. marshal, will be sworn into office Jan. 3.Ed Mahon

Four years ago, Mike Regan wasn't Wagner's first choice.

At the time, Regan was one of five Republicans running for a state House seat for parts of York and Cumberland counties.

Wagner gave $21,500 to the campaign of Daniel Johnson, a hotel manager. Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania backed Johnson, too, with mailers that promoted him.

But Regan, a former U.S. marshal and former deputy inspector general for the state, won the 2012 House race.

In 2016, when there was an opening to replace retiring Republican state Sen. Pat Vance for the 31st Senate seat, Wagner backed Regan, giving $10,000 to his campaign in April. In a mass email, Wagner said Regan was the only candidate in the race who "can hit the ground running to assist my efforts to reform Harrisburg."

While it can be difficult to draw bright lines between lawmakers' voting records, and Vance had votes that you would put in the conservative column, Regan represents a conservative shift on money issues.

Regan voted against the 2013 transportation bill, which approved billions in new funding for roads and bridges while raising a gas tax and increasing motorist fees. Vance voted for the bill, which was also backed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.

In June 2015, Regan voted in favor of legislation that would have required school districts to lay off teachers based on performance ratings, not just seniority. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, opposed the bill. So did Vance, and it was eventually vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May 2016.

Four years ago, Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania ran ads and sent out mail against Vance, although the group wasn't involved in this year's race, Knepper said.

In the 2016 primary, Vance backed Ritchie, a broadcaster and former NFL football player who had never run for political office. Her campaign committee gave $46,000 to Ritchie's campaign ahead of the primary, plus some money afterward.

Regan's campaign criticized Ritchie for his support from unions and connected him to the Democratic governor.

"Ritchie's biggest supporters are the same liberal union bosses blocking pension reform," an ad from Regan said, as Wolf's and Ritchie's image flashed on the screen. The ad called him a "union loving, so-called outsider."

In a mass email a week before the April primary, Wagner criticized Ritchie for being endorsed by two large labor organizations: the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers; and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

At that point, a Pennsylvania State Education Association committee had given $25,000 to Ritchie's campaign.

"Pennsylvania DOES NOT need another Republican in the PA State Legislature that has taken public sector union contributions and been endorsed by these same unions," Wagner said in the mass email.

Vance criticized Wagner's role in the race.

"It's kind of, um, arrogant to think that he should make the decision when he doesn't even live here," Vance told WHTM-TV at the time. She also said Wagner "likes people who are controllable, and I've always been pretty independent."

Regan scored a large victory in the primary, winning more than 52 percent of the vote. Ritchie was the next closest candidate with less than 31 percent of the vote.

Regan won in November. In an interview at his new office in the Capitol, Regan said he doesn't feel indebted to Wagner.

"He's someone who I respect tremendously. ...But, you know, I'm a retired U.S. marshal. And I'm 55 years old. There's nobody who's gonna push me around," Regan said.

Regan said Wagner and he agree on many issues, but pointed to the minimum wage as an area where they disagree. Last session, Wagner proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.75 an hour. Regan is opposed to that.

Regan said that while he is conservative, he doesn't like to be pigeonholed. He pointed to his support for medical marijuana as something Vance opposed and something you might not expect from a former U.S. marshal.

Flipping Democratic seats

Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said a combination of things have led to the increased Republican majority in the Senate, including redrawn legislative districts and favorable national trends. But he said Republicans deserve credit for successes in competitive races.

The 49th state Senate race in Erie County is one of the clearest examples of how Wagner and his money contributed to those successes.

Wagner personally contributed more than $400,000 to the campaign of Republican Dan Laughlin, an owner of a residential building company who had never run for office.

Laughlin's campaign committee also reported receiving $188,670 worth of contributions from Reform PA. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee, on which Wagner had a leadership position, also contributed to the race.

The money has brought criticism.

"If one person is putting that kind of money into a campaign, then the fairness has gone out the window," said Bill Cole, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. He said Wagner will "pretty much call the shots" for Laughlin.

Wagner disputed that idea on election night, when he spoke at Laughlin's victory celebration in Erie.

"There have been comments ... 'What's Dan going to owe me? Or owe Harrisburg'?" Wagner said in a speech that was recorded on Facebook Live. "And I'm here to tell you something tonight: Dan owes me nothing. The only people that Dan owes are the people from Erie who elected him."

Pretty much all the money from Wagner and Reform PA came in September and October.

In August, internal polling showed that Laughlin was 28 points down in the race, Laughlin said. The media advisers told him he had enough money for about 10 days of TV ads.

"So we took a gamble, and we ran the ads," Laughlin said.

The ads introduced Laughlin to voters and criticized Democratic incumbent Sean Wiley for backing a gas-tax increase as part of the 2013 transportation bill, Laughlin said. The internal polling then showed Laughlin up by one point, he said.

Laughlin said that's when Wagner and other Republican leaders became interested in the race. Laughlin said he doesn't owe Wagner any money and will not owe him any votes.

"I made that very clear before any of these Senate people weighed in on my race," Laughlin said.

Laughlin will be sworn into office Jan. 3. Laughlin said his "job one" is to address funding for the Erie School District.

"It's headed for bankruptcy if we don't do something about that," Laughlin said.

He said he didn't have a position yet on two proposals that Wagner has backed heavily: "paycheck protection," the legislation to limit how unions collect money from employee paychecks; and "right-to-work" legislation, which would ban companies from requiring employees to belong to a union or pay dues.

Other priorities of Laughlin's line up more with Wagner. His campaign blamed Wolf for the 2015-16 state budget impasse, criticized proposed tax increases and said the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

"The Pennsylvania budget is about 1,000 pages long ... and I've started to look through it," Laughlin said. "I believe that there'll be money in there that we can save, and I want to do that first."

About the data 

The York Daily Record/Sunday News created a searchable database covering campaign contributions of $1,000 or higher from Scott Wagner since 2007, based on Pennsylvania Department of State records as of Dec. 20, 2016. Amounts include direct money and "in-kind" contributions of valuable items donated to a campaign.

Contributions to federal races and most local ones, as well as individual contributions below $1,000, were not included in the database. 

 

 

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