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Jack's Back: Wagner becomes only Western Pa. candidate in gov's race 

"You can sum it up in one word, Geography."

Jack Wagner during his 2013 run for Pittsburgh mayor

Photo by Heather Mull

Jack Wagner during his 2013 run for Pittsburgh mayor

Prior to Feb. 20, western Pennsylvania's main involvement in the governor's race was deciding which eastern Pennsylvania Democrat to support in the May primary.

But on that day, the race came a bit closer to home: After months of speculation, South Hills Democrat Jack Wagner decided to jump into the race. Wagner will be the seventh candidate in the race; minister and businessman Max Myers dropped out Feb. 24.

Wagner's candidacy has surprised some. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, he lost the Democratic primary to fellow Allegheny County son Dan Onorato, who won by more than 20 percentage points and 200,000 votes. This time around, Wagner has little cash on hand — about $30,000 — and is well behind in terms of raising money, building a campaign team and garnering endorsements.

So why get involved at this late date?

"You can sum it up in one word: geography," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

Madonna notes that the race has already passed some key milestones, including an early-February endorsement meeting of the Democratic Party's state committee. (No candidate came away with the two-thirds majority needed for an endorsement.) At this point, says Madonna, Wagner "has no money and a lot of the unions and other groups have already picked their horses, so what else could the rationale be? I think he sees there are a bunch of candidates from the east, and he [thinks] he can draw well enough in the Pittsburgh media market to make a run."

But Wagner told City Paper recently that geography had "nothing to do" with his decision. He says Gov. Tom Corbett "doesn't have a vision as it relates to our economy and education" and that "those issues and others are just sitting out there unaddressed in limbo. I have a passion to improve Pennsylvania."

Wagner is also positioning himself as more "moderate" than the race's other marquee Democrats: U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord, former DEP secretaries Katie McGinty and John Hanger, and millionaire businessman Tom Wolfe. Wagner says his moderate views best represent Pennsylvanians, "the majority of whom I consider moderate and [who] share those same moderate views."

Wagner's own views have undergone considerable moderation over the years. As a Pittsburgh City Councilor, he once opposed an ordinance barring discrimination against gays and lesbians ... though as a state senator in later years, he supported such protection. As recently as his 2013 Pittsburgh mayoral run, he opposed same-sex marriage rights; today he says that "when you look at that entire issue of equal rights and justice for all, same-sex couples must be allowed the right to marriage under the law." Wagner says he has changed his position after learning more about the issue in recent months. He said he has come to support same-sex marriage through his "general understanding of the law" and the realization that same-sex couples were deprived of basic equal rights in their daily lives and when it came to important financial, health-care and even end-of-life issues.

Wagner says that he is pro-life, though in his 2010 gubernatorial run, he said he would not wish to change current state law, which allows abortion. He says his stance in the middle makes him the best candidate to face off against Corbett. And a December Quinnipiac poll had Wagner as the party frontrunner and a 12-point favorite in a face-off with Corbett.

But Don Friedman, a local political consultant who frequently works with western Pennsylvania Democrats, says he's not sure a moderate candidate is the answer against an extremely vulnerable Corbett.

"Jack has no money, so beyond being the only candidate from the west, his main credential is he's not a liberal. And in this election, that's not the credential you need," Friedman says. "Even in good times, Jack has a difficult time raising money. And even when he has money, he doesn't spend it particularly well.

"Is there math that shows that Jack can win the primary? I don't see it. I think the main effect he will have on this race is further splitting up the white-guy vote."

That, says Friedman, could be bad news for McCord, who has invested time and resources in western Pennsylvania. Both men have run and won in statewide elections — Wagner served two terms as state auditor general — and both are, as Friedman points out, white males.

For his part, McCord says Wagner's appearance in the race "doesn't change my strategy and core approach at all."

"There is a long line of people who think they can do a better job of governing this state than Tom Corbett," McCord says. "I have spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania as treasurer and campaigning. I think a lot of people think of me as an Allegheny County candidate already.

"But Pittsburgh isn't just a campaign stop. It's vital to our state's future because of the region's ability to reinvent itself."

Madonna predicts Wagner will be helped by the sheer number of candidates in the race and the fact that voter turnout will likely be low.

"I think you can win this election with 300,000, 320,000 votes," Madonna says. "But if you're Jack Wagner, how do you get there? Even if he can manage to raise the money and saturate the Pittsburgh media market and get the lion's share of those votes, you can't get there purely out of the west.

"But I do think that Wagner entering this race is going to have an effect on those eastern candidates. Without Jack, I think it would have been a free-for-all out [in western Pennsylvania] for votes. With Jack in the race, I think it's hard to say what the final outcome will be."

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