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Democratic governor candidate Wagner remains confident amid skepticism

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 10:40 p.m.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Jack Wagner meets with voters on Monday, May 21, 2013, in the Mt. Washington Senior Center during a busy day of campaigning ahead of the Pittsburgh mayoral election.

Jack Wagner knows he has trouble winning some Democratic primary races, but he says if voters give him a chance, he's confident he could beat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this fall.

“I have never lost a general election race in nine elections,” Wagner told the Tribune-Review last week. “Yes, I have lost some primary elections, but I have never lost in November.”

Wagner, 66, of Beechview jumped into a crowded race in February with no fanfare, staff or endorsements and just $30,000 in his campaign account.

A self-described moderate who is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and pro-business, Wagner believes his stances — and the fact that he is the only candidate from Western Pennsylvania among seven Democrats — set him apart.

“My appeal with voters in a general election is broad-based and more moderate,” he said of a potential matchup with Corbett, 64, of Shaler. “It is one that reaches a bigger audience, with crossover support.”

Despite that, the top Allegheny County Democratic committee chairs and elected officials, including County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, on Saturday endorsed York County businessman Tom Wolf, the early leader among Democratic candidates in a recent public opinion poll. Wolf is putting $10 million of his money into the race and began airing television ads on Jan. 30.

“Geography is not a reason to vote for Jack Wagner,” said Fitzgerald of Squirrel Hill. “We are looking forward towards leadership and character, not someone who decides to jump into every race for office that comes around.”

Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County, does not think Wagner's entrance in the race is a game-changer.

“Entering so late, and without any money to speak of, even with the moderate name recognition he enjoys, he will not be able to be competitive,” Brauer said.

Brauer acknowledged that Wagner could “garner enough of the Western Pennsylvania vote to barely eke out a victory over a crowded and fragmented pool of candidates, all with home bases in Eastern Pennsylvania.”

In addition to Wolf, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord, both of Montgomery County, former state Department of Environmental Protection secretaries Katie McGinty of Delaware County and John Hanger of Hershey, and Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz are running.

Wagner last year lost to Peduto in the Democratic mayoral primary, and lost a bid for governor in 2010 to then-County Executive Dan Onorato. He is a former Pittsburgh City Council president, state senator and state auditor general.

A Franklin & Marshall poll, conducted last month, before Wagner announced his candidacy, showed Wolf with 36 percent of the vote and the others with single-digit support. But 48 percent of those polled said they are undecided about whom to support.

“Jack got into the race late, but we've worked on petitions over the last week and certainly have every intention to continue to run,” said his sister, Eileen Wagner of Scott, a state committeewoman, former register of wills and former County Council member. “We've made several inroads throughout the commonwealth, and we're looking forward to the election.”

Losing the endorsement of hometown party leaders means not having get-out-the-vote legwork to help with an election, such as manning phone banks, driving voters to polling places or handing out slate cards at precincts on May 20.

“These committee chairs and local elected officials who decided not to support Wagner were critical to my victory in 2011 and Mayor Bill Peduto's victory last year,” Fitzgerald said. “Without them, Wagner has problems.”

Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said Wagner's influence on the election might be drawing votes from one of his contenders.

“At this point, it really isn't clear who he helps or hurts the most,” he said.

Brauer suspects Pennsylvania Democrats are hungry for someone different, “an outsider and/or a woman, to try to defeat Corbett,” and he notes that Wagner, although “a sound public servant,” is not new or different.

“He will not attract a large segment of the Democratic base this go-round,” Brauer predicted.

Wagner brushes off skeptics who point to his lack of money and campaign staff.

“I am working on that,” he said.

And he does not put much stock in critics who call him a perennial candidate.

“At the end of the day, the race is about who is best to lead the state, their qualifications and their experience,” Wager told the Trib. “A governor is in a unique position to be able to have a hand in job retention and job growth in their state. I have the best relationship with business to be able to get to work immediately.”

As governor, Wagner said, he would work to strengthen the state's public education system, including investment in adult literacy programs and trade schools.

Despite his views on abortion and guns, Wagner, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran of the Vietnam War, supports same-sex marriage in step with his more liberal rivals.

“I truly believe Pennsylvania is behind the times on gay marriage,” he said. “The only way we can have equal justice is to have legalization of gay marriage.”

Staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report. Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media political writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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