Solid relationships overriding theme of Wagner campaign
Joe King delivered some bad news.
King, the head of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 1, had backed Jack Wagner in all of his campaigns, but the powerful union intended to throw its weight behind Wagner's opponent in the mayor's race.
It was 1993, and King told Wagner — a fellow Marine and Vietnam War veteran — that he wanted to keep Wagner as president of Pittsburgh City Council and get Tom Murphy out of the state House and into the mayor's office.
Instead of seeing the decision as a personal betrayal by a longtime ally, Wagner remained friendly, King recalled recently. Wagner even laughed when it was over.
“He said, ‘King, who taught you politics?' ” King said.
As Wagner, 65, of Beechview makes his second attempt at becoming mayor, King's union is behind him — as it was for Wagner's four council races (one unsuccessful), three state Senate campaigns, two auditor general races and unsuccessful runs for lieutenant governor and governor.
Relationships such as this are central to Wagner's pitch. His chief rival on the May 21 Democratic primary ballot, City Councilman Bill Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze, says he wants to change Pittsburgh's political culture. Wagner says he's the best equipped to work within it.
Also seeking the Democratic nomination are state Rep. Jake Wheatley, 41, of the Hill District and Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson, 36. Republican Josh Wander of Squirrel Hill is running unopposed.
The Democratic nominee hasn't lost a mayoral election in Pittsburgh since the Great Depression.
Where Peduto brings detailed policy proposals, Wagner — whose proposals often are vague — brings well-placed relationships.
As with many themes of his campaign, Wagner links this skill set to his service in the Marines.
“I didn't enlist in the Marine Corps to be a John Wayne,” said Wagner, the youngest of three brothers. His middle-class family couldn't afford to send him to college. His draft notice in 1966 told him he could be called up at any time, and the Marine Corps was the only branch offering a two-year, rather than four-year, enlistment, he said.
“I didn't give much thought to Vietnam. Vietnam really hadn't heated up.”
That changed shortly after he enlisted. Wagner reported to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., in September 1966 and deployed to Vietnam six months later. Seven of the 12 men in his squad died in the war. A grenade wounded Wagner when it landed behind him while he was lying prone and firing on the enemy inside the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.
“I was very fortunate to have survived Vietnam. I think of that every day,” Wagner said. “I realize that I, personally, am an extremely fortunate person, to have lived the life I've lived and the opportunities I've had.”
After five months in a Philadelphia hospital, a medical discharge and three years of college, Wagner became a safety inspector for CNA, a Chicago-based insurance company.
He ran for council in 1981, spurred by the city's tepid response to a two-week water crisis in Beechview. East End politicians who dominated the at-large City Council at the time ignored him and his neighbors, he said.
A campaign ad now airing, purchased by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's political committee, attempts to stoke the same resentment by accusing Peduto of ignoring all but the East End. Wagner denies involvement with the ad.
Support despite disagreement
Wagner's relationship with his party has endured rough patches, particularly during the six years when he was state auditor general and Ed Rendell was governor.
“Sometimes when Jack gets an idea in his head, he doesn't listen all that well,” Rendell said. “He would say a department didn't do A, B and C. Well, they may not have done A and B, but they (made other changes) and actually wound up saving more money than he said they lost. He gets sold on an idea. But that's true of controllers and auditor generals everywhere.”
Despite their battles, Rendell said Wagner was “always motivated by making sure the taxpayers' dollars were being spent wisely.”
The former Philadelphia mayor said Wagner would do well as Pittsburgh's executive.
“You have to do some things that are not going to be popular with the political power structure, but you've got to do them,” Rendell said. “So you can't be a wuss — and Jack is certainly no wuss.”
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, who calls Wagner “a straight shooter,” recalled budget debates in 2009 and 2010 when House Republicans frequently cited Wagner's audits as they argued for cutting the Department of Public Welfare's budget.
“We called it as we saw it,” Wagner said. He argues his audits exposed waste.
Those audits were “hard to overcome” for Democrats trying to preserve the department's funding, said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee before rising to minority leader.
The result was that legislators cut programs for the needy, he said.
Yet, like Rendell, Costa doesn't attack Wagner, even though he supports Peduto's candidacy.
“He's a good man,” Costa said of Wagner. “I believe if he's successful, he'll be a good mayor.”
Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed. Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.