Scott Wagner is winning.
It’s a Friday in August, and the York County businessman-turned-state-senator just sent out 600 paychecks to his employees. Penn Waste, his trash collection company, is poised to make $70 million this year. He’s the Republican favorite to take on Tom Wolf for governor in 2018. Oh, and the high-powered crowd at Villa Barolo, an Italian restaurant in Bucks County, is crazy about him.
He tells the room, which is packed with divorce attorneys, the president of a local business association, a member of Widener Law’s alumni board, Tea Party activists and politicians, that he doesn’t have to be governor. He’s a multimillionaire, after all: “I’m talking to a group that would understand this. I don’t need this job. I don’t need the money.” He’s running, he says, because he’s dismayed by the trajectory of this state: Industry regulation is slaughtering businesses. Government spending is through the roof. And Wolf doesn’t have what it takes to be governor — or, as Wagner refers to the position, Commonwealth “CEO.”
Wagner sees Pennsylvania as a kind of giant corporation: He describes companies and taxpaying residents as “customers” who should be wooed here. Government agencies, meanwhile, are company “divisions” that ought to act in an efficient, customer-friendly manner. And while Pennsylvania has a lot going for it, he says, it isn’t living up to its potential under Wolf. “If you were hiring me as a turnaround specialist and you were the board of directors, here is what I would tell you: You have a leadership problem,” he says. “We treat our current businesses like crap.” To make clear what’s at stake, he tells the audience the story of a Brazilian company that was on the verge of opening a second polypropylene plant. It ended up going to Texas instead, according to Wagner, because of Pennsylvania’s bad attitude toward business. “A $500 million investment!” he roars. “Can you imagine if you had in the governor’s office someone who is a serial entrepreneur, a serial investor and a super salesman?”
The crowd is hanging on Wagner’s every word. But he hasn’t even gotten to the most important part of his speech yet. Wagner’s closer — the cherry on top — is a two-minute ode to the President. He calls Donald Trump “courageous” and says he was “relieved” when Trump won. Even though Trump went to Washington with “zero relationships” — and though he “estimated the swamp was 60 feet deep, and it’s really 300 feet deep” — Wagner says, the man is closing deals. “Trump was elected on a Tuesday, and by the end of the week, he was questioning the price of Air Force One. And you know what? … Boeing lowered the price.”
In the days since Trump announced his bid for the presidency, many Republicans have either outright condemned him or awkwardly struggled to figure out what to do about him. Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey waited until an hour before polls closed to reveal that he was voting for Trump. This October, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told the New York Times that Trump could set the country “on the path to World War III.” Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent is one of a growing list of Republicans to announce that they won’t run for reelection in the Trump era.
Wagner has taken a different path entirely: In the summer of 2016, when many conservatives were skipping out on the Republican National Convention, Wagner told reporters he was buying 20,000 Trump lawn signs. To this day, he regularly compares himself to the President: “I want to make Pennsylvania greater again.”
There are more than a few uncanny similarities between the two men. They’re both big-talking, hard-charging businessmen with multiple marriages who bum-rushed their way into politics even though the Republican establishment did everything in its power to stop them. They both have a talent for political theater and a tendency to fly off the handle. And though Wagner’s favorite bogeyman isn’t immigrants or Muslims — labor unions and industry regulations are more his speed — he has been known to throw the darkest corners of the Republican base other cuts of red meat. He once called deep-pocketed Democratic donor George Soros a “Hungarian Jew” who harbors a “hatred for America.”
Just like Trump, Wagner is seemingly immune to the gaffes and controversies that used to vaporize politicians. His anti-Soros rant hasn’t slowed down his campaign — and neither has the fact that his daughter once asked for a protection-from-abuse order against him.
But if we’ve learned anything from the Trump presidency, it’s that success in business and success as a public servant are different things. After nearly four years in government, Wagner has amassed an immense amount of power in the state legislature. None of it, though, has translated into much in terms of public policy, which raises the question: Does running a business prepare you in any way to run a government?
“I have one call I may have to take. … It won’t take long.”
Wagner is sitting across from me in his campaign office in Harrisburg, juggling the duties of a gubernatorial candidate, senator and businessman. He’s wearing a suit that is neither ill-fitting nor particularly dapper. It’s perfectly utilitarian — exactly how you’d expect the 62-year-old boss of a trash empire to dress. Above him is a copy of The Empowered Man, a painting by right-wing artist Jon McNaughton, whose pieces regularly sell for six figures. It depicts President Obama wincing at a young blond man who is proudly holding up the U.S. Constitution.
Halfway through our interview, Wagner gets on the phone — well, sort of. He takes a live call with conservative Harrisburg radio host Ken Matthews. With thousands of WHP 580 listeners tuning in, Wagner throws his Republican colleagues under the bus. He calls a bill to scale back pensions for state workers, which just passed the GOP-controlled Senate, “low-level stuff.” He doesn’t think it goes far enough. “Governor Wolf takes a tremendous amount of money from the public-sector unions, and they were screaming in 2015 when we pushed the pension bill through,” he tells Matthews. “They were just going bonkers and bananas up here. Well, guess what? Who’s sitting on the sidelines not saying anything right now?”
In a few short years, Wagner has gone from having zero experience in government to grabbing a state Senate seat to seizing the first-place spot — in internal polls, anyway — for the May 15th gubernatorial primary. His rapid ascent to power is the result of many factors: his nerve, his bank account, the fact that he’s a businessman in an era in which many voters see career politicians as lower than single-celled organisms. But perhaps nothing has made Wagner successful more than his love of going after the Republican establishment.
In fact, breaking ranks is how Wagner first got elected to the Senate. In 2013, he launched a write-in campaign against a mainstream Republican in York County and a Democrat. The GOP didn’t pull any punches: It funded an ad calling Wagner a “bully” and condemning his company for suing an 84-year-old woman over unpaid bills. Wagner won by more than 20 percentage points. Though few political observers connected the dots during the presidential campaign, Wagner’s surprise victory now can be seen as a prelude to Trump.
“It told me people wanted change,” Wagner says. It also taught him something he would use to his advantage again and again. On election night in 2014, Wagner told his supporters that he began airing campaign ads early because he “knew that the political hit squad was coming to York.” In other words, the best defense is a good offense.
So when Wagner got to Harrisburg, he didn’t negotiate a treaty with the party establishment. Instead, in his sixth month in office, when most newly elected officials are making allies, Wagner pushed the battle line forward. He told the capitol’s most powerful man — GOP majority leader Dominic Pileggi — that he wanted him gone. In a letter, he accused Pileggi of using his power to “frustrate the Republican Caucus’ agenda.” Pileggi did not acquiesce, so Wagner helped whip votes to oust him — and, well, Pileggi is now a judge in Delaware County.
With the legislature’s new leaders in his debt, Wagner soon became the chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. This was the ultimate alpha move: The SRCC was the group that had skewered him in attack ads. Since taking the helm, Wagner has been credited with taking back three critical Democratic seats, giving the GOP something it hadn’t enjoyed in the previous seven decades: a veto-proof majority in the Senate. For a senator of only four years to do all this is unprecedented.
“In my four decades of being involved in Pennsylvania government, I can’t remember anything that even closely resembles Scott Wagner and what he’s done politically,” says GOP political consultant Charlie Gerow. “There certainly have been wealthy guys who entered into the process, and there have certainly been folks who have attempted to do what Scott Wagner is doing. But no one has had the staying power that he has.”
It’s no secret what’s behind Wagner’s success: It is, for the most part, money. Since the 2000s, according to an investigation by the York Daily Record, Wagner has donated more than $3 million to candidates in Pennsylvania. More than $800,000 of that was funneled to those three Republicans who flipped Democratic seats in 2016. Wagner kicked off his gubernatorial campaign with a $4 million loan to himself, and he’s bragged that in his 2014 Senate bid, he didn’t have to hold a single fund-raiser. His war chest is so big that it doesn’t just scare Democrats; Wagner has used it to fund primary challenges against establishment Republicans, too. In fact, some political insiders believe that’s part of the reason he was able to persuade the GOP to oust Pileggi: “People were just afraid,” says former governor Ed Rendell. “He [is] willing to invest money in primaries.”
Wagner also has political intuition. He recognized, when few others did, that GOP voters are disillusioned with mainstream Republicans, whom they see as squishy on everything from immigration to spending cuts. And Wagner’s got good timing. When he declared open season on Pileggi, many lawmakers were already through with the moderate from the Philly ’burbs.
And yet for all his power, Wagner can’t point to many legislative accomplishments. When I ask what bill he’s proudest of passing, or even simply introducing, he says, “I cannot honestly sit here and say that there’s been anything significant.”
To be sure, Wagner is glad he served on a York County task force on the heroin epidemic. He says he’s also pleased that he blocked a few tax hikes in the Senate. That he had to do that is something of a failure, though: Wagner targeted Pileggi because he had allegedly iced conservative legislation, but then his successor tried (and failed) to tax natural gas drilling. Meanwhile, none of the bills that are dear to Wagner’s heart — like “paycheck protection,” which would bar public employers from automatically deducting union dues from workers’ checks, or a proposal that would ax the prevailing wage for state projects — have become law. That’s nothing short of remarkable.
So how does Wagner reckon with this gaping hole in his résumé? He blames Tom Wolf. He says he’s teed up a successful future for the Senate by stacking it with Republicans — and now all Pennsylvania needs is to hire the right CEO: “We’re positioned to do things, but we’re going to go nowhere as long as we have the current governor.”
But Wagner served for almost a year under a Republican governor: Wolf’s predecessor, Tom Corbett. Could it be that Wagner is gumming up the works? Is he the “bully” that the GOP accused him of being just a few years ago? Are the bare-knuckle, scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners tactics that made him so successful in business — and popular with voters — alienating the very people he needs to close a deal?
Wagner got his break in the waste industry at the age of 10, or so he likes to say.
He was born in 1955 on a horse farm in York Township, in southern Pennsylvania, that was owned by his parents. As a boy, he shoveled manure for them for $5 a week. “We had chores every single day,” he says. “The school bus was at seven o’clock, and we were up at six o’clock doing chores.”
In spite of the hard labor, or perhaps because of it, Wagner remembers his childhood as idyllic: “My mother would always make breakfast every single morning. … I fished a lot as a young guy. … It was good.”
Wagner’s high-school yearbooks don’t hold any clues about his future in politics. He wasn’t in student government or the debate club or, for that matter, any extracurricular activities. But his senior portrait suggests a kind of self-serious confidence: His light blond hair is coiffed into a perfect ’70s shag, and unlike the kids alongside him making goofy and/or awkward faces, Wagner is looking coolly into the camera. He isn’t cracking so much as a hint of a smile. Above his photo, the subject that he planned to study in his post-secondary education is listed: “Diesel mechanic.”
But that didn’t pan out: Wagner dropped out of Williamsport Area Community College after one year, a fact he often mentions on the campaign trail. School bored him, he says; what he really wanted was to start a business.
Wagner didn’t wait long to pursue that dream: At 19, he bought his first plot of land, for $8,500. “I borrowed $7,000 from a community bank, and I borrowed $1,500 on two credit cards,” he says, emphasizing his pluck. Two and a half years later, he flipped the property for a $4,000 profit. That was the beginning of a streak of successful ventures for Wagner: Over the next few years, he bought a laundromat, purchased several rental buildings, opened a ski shop, and became a bail bondsman. Along the way, he also married (and eventually divorced) three women: legal secretary Candy Overlander, receptionist Ellen Beecher, and translator Silvia Rodriguez. Wagner is now married to his fourth wife, Tracy.
Wagner’s biggest break in the private sector came in 1985, when he started York Waste Disposal with his uncle and another partner. The trash collection company pulled in $40 million a year. Wagner eventually sold his share in the business, and as soon as a non-compete clause with York Waste Disposal expired, he started another corporation: Penn Waste. Today, it boasts about 400 employees. Wagner also now owns three other companies.
At this point in his life story, Wagner often points out that his background distinguishes him from Wolf. “He didn’t start from scratch,” says Wagner. “He was a sixth-generation business owner. … I started with two trucks. I was the driver, I was the mechanic, and I was the sales rep.” Surprisingly, Wagner occasionally points out that this also sets him apart from Trump: “The difference between Donald Trump and myself is, I grew up on a farm. … He grew up in the New York real estate market.”
Wagner might not have had a millionaire Pops, but there’s at least one similarity between his career and Trump’s: Both men and their companies have been frequent targets of scrutiny.
Penn Waste has been hit with two of what the U.S. Department of Labor terms “other-than-serious” citations for allegedly breaking rules governing first aid and “control of hazardous energy.” Wagner’s companies have also been given more than 30 violations and citations by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Asked about this, Wagner poses his own question: Does Philadelphia magazine have attorneys who can review my story? “You might want to get those folks to look at it,” he says. “I just want to be sure that our company is not perceived as a lawbreaking company and we’re not slandered in any way.”
Then bad-cop Wagner morphs into good-cop Wagner: He invites me to tour Penn Waste, where, he says, he can show me that the DEP and Labor Department have unfairly written up his company. “You almost have to see it firsthand,” he says.
A few days before Christmas, I drive to a brown, boxy, nondescript building in York County where the company responsible for picking up the garbage from 180,000 homes is headquartered. Wagner is wearing a Penn Waste zip-up vest and jeans, sitting at a table with a half dozen people. A handful of Trump signs and assorted Wagner campaign paraphernalia are lying around.
“The number one thing here at this company is safety and compliance,” Wagner says. “You’ll never hear me talk about profits. Because if you pay attention to those things, the profits will follow.” He goes around the table and introduces me to Penn Waste’s internal cops: the employees charged with making the company as safe — and rule-abiding — as Wagner says it is. (One is literally a former police sergeant.) They explain that the company’s garbage truck drivers must fill out lengthy inspection checklists at the beginning and end of their trips; there’s a shop open 24 hours a day during the workweek. “If they leave here with a headlight out,” the ex-cop says of the truckers, “it’s not a good day for them.”
As Wagner walks me around Penn Waste, a couple things become clear: One, he is extremely proud of his company. He talks nonstop about his employees’ qualifications, the millions he’s spent on renovations, and how clean everything is. (It is remarkably spotless, especially considering that it’s effectively a dump. Another thing Wagner and Trump have in common: “I’m a clean freak.”) Two, Wagner feels royally screwed by government agencies. The DEP once wrote up a Penn Waste truck for allegedly spewing garbage, he says, when only a “speck of water” had fallen off it. And that Labor Department citation over “hazardous energy”? He claims it could have been due to a worker just not “wearing either earmuffs or ear plugs” in a noisy area. Wagner points out that the 30-some violations and citations that his companies received from the DEP were spread out over 16 years, meaning they only averaged “1.8 … a year.”
Wagner’s charm offensive is fairly convincing, especially if you’re already inclined to believe that government is unkind to business. But something about Wagner’s lack of subtlety undercuts him. When I ask if Penn Waste ever received a violation that he thought was fair — just one, in the history of the company — he says, bluntly, “No.”
Wagner has apologized at least once in his political career: in 2014, for using “an unfortunate analogy” in comparing labor unions to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin.
But Wagner doesn’t usually back down. When religious leaders called on him to apologize after the George Soros incident, he refused. “If he was Catholic, he would have been ‘a Hungarian Catholic,’” he told the York Daily Record. “There was nothing offensive meant by that.” He also doesn’t regret yanking a camera from a “campaign tracker” — a political operative who trails a candidate, waiting for a slipup — who’d followed him into a private country club. “What’s next?” says Wagner. “Are they going to be able to break into my home?”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Wagner doesn’t express remorse over what happened between him and his daughter nearly 12 years ago.
In 2006, Wagner’s daughter, Katharine, filed a petition for a protection-from-abuse order against her father. Katharine, who was 19 and living with her grandparents at the time, said that Wagner had come to their house to talk about her drinking and other issues. Katharine said that when she made a comment about his then-wife, Silvia, going through her belongings — Katharine is a child from a previous marriage — he “came after” her.
Wagner allegedly put his hands around his daughter’s neck, squeezed and shook her to the point where she had trouble breathing, and pushed her backward over the kitchen counter. She said the assault left her wrist swollen and her back sore. She also claimed that Wagner had been “emotionally abusive to her and her family at least for the past 10 years” and that she was “afraid … after what he did.” Court records show that a judge granted a temporary protection-from-abuse order to Wagner’s daughter but later dismissed it after she didn’t show up for a hearing. Charges were never filed against Wagner.
Wagner says that Katharine had been in a drunk-driving accident that left her on a ventilator, and that he went to her grandparents’ house to convince her to go to rehab. “She almost died, and as a father, I did whatever I could to try to help her,” he says. “I don’t know how many people died of heroin overdoses or drug overdoses this year [whose] parents would have done anything to save their children.”
In the past, Wagner has said that parts of the petition were untrue. When documents about the incident were anonymously given to the York Daily Record during the 2014 campaign, Wagner told the newspaper, “It was a very heated argument. … Yeah, there was touching involved. But … some of the touching involved is inaccurate.” He declined to provide Philadelphia magazine with details about which claims were false, however.
Katharine defended her father in the Record: “All I’ll say is, at the time, I was making some poor decisions. And I have a child of my own now, and I can understand why it reached the level it did.” She has been employed by Wagner for several years and volunteered for his Senate campaign: “We have a great relationship now.”
So far, none of Wagner’s primary opponents have aired TV ads about any of this. But that hasn’t stopped Wagner from launching a preemptive defense.
In a recent email to his supporters, Wagner accused one of his rivals of having “stripped bare” a “private family matter.” He said Republican Paul Mango’s campaign asked voters about the “painful” incident in a push poll — a fake poll, essentially, meant to influence participants. “‘Push polls,’ I’ve learned, are used by the lowest of the low,” Wagner wrote. “Honorable men do not operate this way.” Katharine also sent a message to Wagner’s backers, saying he “certainly didn’t choke me” and accusing Mango of spreading “painful” lies. “What kind of values could Paul Mango possibly have,” she asked, “if he is willing to hurt my family, including my son and I, just to win a political campaign?”
The Mango campaign, for its part, says it never commissioned any such push poll.
It’s a summer morning in Philly, and an unlikely pair is holding a public hearing on the city’s soda tax: State Senator Tony Williams, a city Democrat, and Wagner. The event is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in City Council’s chambers. Within minutes, though, it becomes clear that this won’t go as planned: Activists who back the tax, which partly funds pre-K, take out plastic horns and make such a racket that attendees can’t hear themselves think. After several minutes of sensory overload, Wagner and Williams get up and leave.
Then a funny thing happens. An impromptu press conference pops up, presenting Wagner the opportunity to grandstand before the media. But he doesn’t recite a single culture-war talking point. He doesn’t lambaste the “heckler’s veto” or complain about destroying free speech. Instead, he says the disruption was “unfortunate for Philadelphia” and that Pennsylvanians “have to start coming together.” In a strange turn, Williams is the one who sounds like he could be on a FOX News panel, telling reporters, “We’ve got to this place in America where we can’t even say things when we have a different perspective.”
If asked about hot-button cultural topics, Wagner will usually toe the Trumpist line. He supports Trump’s travel ban and calls the Russia investigation “a lot of propaganda.” But these issues don’t seem to excite him. (Either that, or he’s concluded it isn’t politically advantageous to talk about them too loudly in a swing state in 2018.) When, at a recent event, a Republican voter asked Wagner for his position on sanctuary cities, he replied, “I am not in favor of sanctuary cities,” then pivoted to talk about the downsides of teachers unions.
On the campaign trail, Wagner likes to talk most of all about jobs. If you believe the market needs to be unleashed in Pennsylvania, he argues, there’s no one better to set it free than a successful CEO. He knows firsthand that many of the state’s rules are onerous: “I built two buildings, and I had to do studies to determine whether bog turtles — bog turtles! — lived there.” And his days as a salesman would come in handy in trying to lure companies to the state, he says: “If I found out about Amazon, I’d be on the plane to Washington to meet Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to Jeff Bezos somehow. I’ll wait at Jeff Bezos’s house at four in the morning. I mean, I’ve done it in the waste business.”
Wagner calls himself a “practical conservative.” He co-sponsored a bill with Williams to automatically seal criminal records for certain minor offenses. (The Senate passed it in June.) He also supports raising the minimum wage (to $8.75 an hour) and backs a bill banning housing and employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Still, according to litmus testers on the right, such as the American Conservative Union Foundation, Wagner is among the more conservative Republicans in the Senate. That’s partly due to his positions on labor unions: In addition to wanting to restrict union dues and the prevailing wage, Wagner says that some teachers are paid too much and shouldn’t be allowed to strike. He also calls Philadelphia’s building trades, which are dominated by white men, “racist.”
All of this has made Wagner enemy number one of unions across the state; they see him as a threat to their very existence. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, says Wagner’s policies would “take away the First Amendment rights” of union members. Jordan predicts that the state’s unions — rarely in lockstep — will unite to defeat Wagner’s policy agenda. Indeed, John McNesby, head of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, has been known to occasionally back Republicans — but says Wagner “is not supportive of police.”
Of course, what makes Wagner hated by unions is the very thing that has earned him hero status among many Tea Party activists. Some of his fiscal positions also enjoy widespread support: He’s campaigning to eliminate school property taxes, a change that 54 percent of state voters supported in a ballot question in 2017.
Just as a businessman doesn’t know how to do the jobs of all of his employees, Wagner says, he isn’t an “expert” on every issue that governors face: “I hire the experts,” he boasts. Perhaps, though, his lack of policy proficiency and lack of legislative accomplishments are connected.
Wagner has a habit of saying aloud what a politician ought to hide away. Until a few years ago, he was a reliable, relatively unknown GOP donor. Ask him why he decided to run for office, and he admits that it’s partly because he wasn’t impressed with his investment in members of the General Assembly. “I was an ATM machine,” he says. “Every two years, they would come and there would be an issue. I’d hear, ‘We can’t get the votes.’ … I would see them … two years later, and nothing was getting done.”
To make matters worse, Wagner says, his businesses were simultaneously being hassled by the state: “When agencies show up, they don’t make appointments. They don’t thank you when you’re finished for employing people or paying taxes. It’s like you work for them, and I’m sorry, but that’s not how I see it. Government is there to serve the people and business. I was just fed up.”
Wagner’s knee-jerk transparency endears him to the press: He’s a headline machine, after all. This is a man who once told a reporter, “I should be on 15 … medications before I speak.” To voters, this makes him look ruggedly honest. But the kind of politics that Wagner unapologetically describes to me irks some of his colleagues in the legislature — and may explain why he hasn’t been a more prolific lawmaker.
“So much of his approach has been transactional, and people are offended by that,” says one Republican insider in Harrisburg. “They may do business with him, and they may actually transact things with him. But they don’t like it.”
If you believe some in the capitol, this isn’t a minor gripe among Republican lawmakers. “Most of the members, they hate his guts,” says the same source. “Others, they tolerate him. And a third group will say nice things about him publicly, but they do so because their bread is buttered, if you get my drift.”
Wagner tells a different story about his time in office than the one critics whisper. He vehemently denies being “transactional.” And he says that when he got to Harrisburg in 2014, he was surprised by how few Republican senators were friends. “These 26 people didn’t know each other very well,” he says. “I found that to be pretty amazing, because in my personal life and in my business, relationships are very important.” So he made it his job to change that. A couple months into his first term, he invited his colleagues out to dinner: “Eleven took me up on it, and we started to get to know each other.” Today, he says, it’s a whole new world: “What I have built up over here in the last four years is significant.”
Jeff Bartos, a businessman from southeastern Pennsylvania, is running for lieutenant governor on Wagner’s ticket. He says there’s a softer side to Wagner that few people see: “Scott personally purchased 100 turkeys and distributed them to families who are less fortunate and then helped serve a Thanksgiving meal.”
And it’s not as if he doesn’t have anyone in the legislature to defend his honor. Jake Corman, the Senate majority leader who replaced Pileggi, says Wagner is a “good friend” and “not concerned about ruffling feathers.” Even Williams, a Democrat, called Wagner a “gentleman.”
Still, even supposing the criticisms made against Wagner in whisper networks and court documents are all untrue, something is off. He consolidated power and won a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but he has little to show for it. Wagner must share some of the blame for that — and it’s not so hard to believe that it may have something to do with the fact that he regularly bashes his colleagues and has a temperament that leads him to do things like snatch a camera out of a campaign tracker’s hands.
If he’s already alienated the legislature, what does that portend for a Governor Wagner? This isn’t Donald Trump. We’ve seen what Wagner can do in government for the past four years.
Wagner doesn’t deny that other political outsiders — not only Wolf and Trump, but also Tom Corbett, who had prosecuted state legislators at the attorney general’s office in a previous life — have hit roadblocks when they tried to govern. Unlike experienced politicians, they usually don’t have decades-long relationships to use to their benefit or years of favors to trade on. It seems especially difficult for CEOs to make the switch to government: They’re used to behaving like kings. They answer to no one, and then one day they answer to everyone. The objectives of a business are also narrow, whereas the goal of government is broad.
But Wagner says it’s precisely his business experience — and those dinners with lawmakers — that makes him ready for the job. “Governor Corbett’s issues, Governor Wolf’s issues, are very similar. It boils down to the fact that they didn’t have relationships. … If you look at my business success, it’s because of relationships, okay? … I could give you 10 banks as references. I could give you six law firms as references. I could give you four accounting firms. They would tell you that Scott Wagner has the ability to sit down and craft a deal.”
A few weeks after Wagner tells me that, I ask him something I ask everyone I profile: Whom should I talk to about you? Usually, I get back a long list of close friends, family members, political allies. I half expect Wagner to give me the names of 10 banks and six law firms and four accounting firms. Maybe my request is misinterpreted, but ultimately he gives me just two names — both businessmen, who he says will call me. Only one does.
Published as “The Trashman in Chief” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.