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Former Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Wagner to enter race for governor

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 12:45 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jack Wagner, 66, of Beechview visited the Tribune-Review as a candidate for Pittsburgh mayor in April.
Jay Paterno, son of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, speaks during a memorial service for Joe Paterno on Jan. 26, 2012, at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center in State College.

HARRISBURG — Former Auditor General Jack Wagner, as the only Western Pennsylvania candidate in a crowded field, could alter the outcome of the May 20 Democratic primary for governor even if he doesn't win, analysts said on Thursday.

Quietly entering a race this week in which others have been running for months and have raised millions of dollars, Wagner steps in with little money but an accomplishment that only one of the other seven Democrats has achieved: He and Treasurer Rob McCord twice have won statewide office.

“Wagner does have the potential to change the dynamics of the race even if he doesn't win,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester. One candidate from a populous region against six from Eastern and Central Pennsylvania “makes the race that much tighter, and consequently a bit more unpredictable,” Leckrone said.

Wagner said he's running because of his experience in an executive position as the state's fiscal watchdog, his “ability to make tough decisions,” and to offer voters “trust, integrity and independence.”

A former state senator and Pittsburgh City Council president from Beechview, Wagner, 66, lost the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor to Bill Peduto last year.

Wagner's family has strong ties to Democratic Party politics. His brother, committeeman Pete Wagner, runs the family restaurant, The Huddle, in Beechview, and his niece is Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner of Point Breeze. His sister, Eileen Wagner of Scott, is a state committeewoman, former register of wills and former County Council member.

“My sense is no one running is making serious inroads,” said Jack Treadway, a retired political science professor from Kutztown University. With Wagner's established name recognition, “I don't know why he doesn't have a chance.”

Wagner was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2010, when former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato became the party's nominee and lost to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“Jack Wagner has every right to run,” former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said. But he speculated that Wagner would be successful only if he can raise money for advertising to remind people he's running.

Five of the Democratic candidates have raised at least $1 million. Largely self-funded candidate Tom Wolf, a York businessman, had $13 million as of Jan. 30, when he began airing TV ads.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, described himself as a Wagner supporter but said he suggested that Wagner run for lieutenant governor.

“With all due respect, he has no organization and doesn't raise money. I don't think he should jump in,” Ferlo said.

Campaign fundraising typically has been a steep hurdle for Wagner, but he does have name recognition, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

“I am not personally wealthy like some of the other candidates,” Wagner said. He expressed confidence he'll raise enough money to get his message across.

A Quinnipiac University poll in December showed Wagner beating Corbett by a higher margin than any other Democrat, Borick noted. Wagner led Corbett 48 to 36 percent, followed by U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County, then Wolf and former Department of Environmental Protection chief Katie McGinty of Chester County.

Wagner said he was “humbled” by the poll result since he was not a candidate then.

He might have scored well against a Republican in the poll because voters view Wagner as a “moderate Democrat” who would be a good general election candidate, Borick said.

Yet that might make it harder to win a Democratic primary, in which voters tend to be liberal, Borick said.

Leckrone said Wagner has an opportunity to position himself in a field dominated by progressives who appear to have little difference in positions.

“Wagner's pro-life stance could allow him to separate himself from the pack on an important issue, particularly to some Catholic Democrats,” Leckrone said.

The other candidates are former DEP head John Hanger of Harrisburg, minister Max Myers of Mechanicsburg, and Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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