Long-shot Wag­ner makes his stand

AR­GUES HIS CASE FOR EX­PE­RI­ENCE GOP hope­ful for gov­er­nor is out­spent, out­gunned

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

roanoke — State Sen. Frank W. Wag­ner showed up a few min­utes late to the lo­cal Republican lunch meet­ing, grabbed some food and sat near the back. He grav­i­tated to­ward fa­mil­iar faces, a ta­ble with a cou­ple of other leg­is­la­tors from Rich­mond.

Few of these 40 or so peo­ple knew much about Wag­ner, whose Vir­ginia Beach district is far across the state. They knew he was run­ning for the Republican nom­i­na­tion for gov­er­nor, but his op­po­nents are much high­er­pro­file.

Wag­ner is the third guy in the race — he’s not the well-funded front-run­ner, Ed Gille­spie, nor the loose-can­non head­line-grab­ber, Corey Ste­wart. He’s got­ten ex­actly zero non-Vir­ginia money this year. He isn’t a neo-Trump, doesn’t bash Pres­i­dent Trump, ei­ther. In a year of pol­i­tics-as­metaphor, it’s darn hard to make any­thing sym­bolic out of Wag­ner’s long-shot bid for gov­er­nor.

In fact, there’s a lot about his can­di­dacy that doesn’t make sense. Last year’s elec­tion was all about distrust­ing the es­tab­lish­ment, and Wag­ner is run­ning on his 25 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the leg­is­la­ture. The Republican credo is tax cuts; Wag­ner is call­ing for tax in­creases. So it’s fair to ask: Why is he do­ing this?

“I know peo­ple al­ready may have their fa­vorites,” he’ll tell the Roanoke group when he gets up to speak. “But I will point out, it’s still a long way to the pri­mary elec­tion.”

Ac­tu­ally, it was just weeks away from the June 13 pri­mary, but Wag­ner thinks he can make the case that he’s the best choice, if peo­ple just give him a chance. It’ll take some ex­plain­ing, though, and he doesn’t have many re­sources for get­ting out the mes­sage.

At 61, Wag­ner has the mop of hair and weath­ered hide of a life­long beach bum. He’s a for­mer Navy sal­vage diver who stayed on the wa­ter af­ter he left the ser­vice — started a ship re­pair yard, sold it for a nice profit, then started another one.

Though he grew up in Ar­ling­ton and grad­u­ated from Wash­ing­ton and Lee High School, there’s not much North­ern Vir­ginia pol­ish left in this guy. He wears a baggy, pin-striped suit like some­one who’s more com­fort­able in a hard hat or div­ing gear. He calls an in-depth in­ter­view a “full rec­tal.” When cam­paign obli­ga­tions con­flict with play­ing bingo with his adult daugh­ter, who has spe­cial needs, Wag­ner’s re­sponse: “I don’t give a s---.” He’s play­ing bingo.

He be­gan to win some praise and at­ten­tion af­ter the first Republican de­bate, in March, at Smith Moun­tain Lake. While Ste­wart and Gille­spie took shots at each other, Wag­ner talked about road fund­ing and school ac­cred­i­ta­tion.

“I thought it was ex­cel­lent,” said Mil­dred Scott of the Roanoke Republican Women, who said the de­bate put Wag­ner on her radar screen. “He’s so knowl­edge­able. He’s the only one who re­ally tells it like it is.”

That’s Wag­ner’s schtick in this race — that the other can­di­dates are run­ning on the wrong things be­cause they don’t know how Vir­ginia state gov­ern­ment works.

Both of his op­po­nents are call­ing for tax cuts. Wag­ner ar­gues that a cut would be reck­less and ir­re­spon­si­ble in a state that bal­ances its bud­get ev­ery year and re­cently had to close a $1.2 bil­lion fund­ing gap. While many of his Republican col­leagues in the Gen­eral Assem­bly have backed Gille­spie and his call for a 10 per­cent in­come tax cut, Wag­ner fig­u­ra­tively flips them the bird and says the math doesn’t add up.

A fam­ily would have to make more than $200,000 a year to get the $1,300 sav­ings Gille­spie prom­ises, he said. “I’m try­ing not to be neg­a­tive, but that num­ber very, very, very much up­sets me,” he said.

What’s more, Wag­ner points out that Stan­dard & Poor’s re­cently put a “neg­a­tive watch” on Vir­ginia’s cov­eted AAA bond rat­ing over fears that the state’s “rainy day fund” has dwin­dled to dan­ger­ous lev­els.

“I can guar­an­tee you, an ill­timed tax cut is not the thing that’s go­ing to put us in the right di­rec­tion,” he said.

On the other hand, Wag­ner notes that the state’s gaso­line tax is the low­est in this part of the coun­try. Raise the gas tax and use those funds to fix the over­whelmed trans­porta­tion sys­tem in North­ern Vir­ginia and Hamp­ton Roads. Get a long-dis­cussed east-west in­ter­state fi­nally moving ahead in South­west.

Then, to pre­pare peo­ple for jobs that are al­ready out there, em­pha­size vo­ca­tional and tech­ni­cal train­ing. It’s great for col­lege­bound kids to worry about Stan­dards of Learn­ing test scores, but plenty of good jobs at ship­yards and auto re­pair shops don’t re­quire those kinds of skills, he says. Start a track for pub­lic schools to win ac­cred­i­ta­tion through vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion.

“I know a lot of 65-year-old welders that are not go­ing to go out and get a teach­ing cer­tifi­cate, but they’d love to pass on a life­time of knowl­edge to a young per­son,” Wag­ner said at the Roanoke lunch.

As he ran through his ar­gu­ment, au­di­ence mem­bers be­gan to nod in agree­ment. Steve Richards, 66, a re­tired physi­cian, raised his hand.

“We want a Republican gov­er­nor. We’re tired of a Demo­crat be­ing in of­fice,” Richards said. “How would you beat Northam or Per­rell or who­ever their can­di­date is?” The two Democrats vy­ing for their party’s nom­i­na­tion are Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello.

That, of course, is the big ques­tion. Wag­ner had an an­swer — and, like his pol­icy pro­pos­als, it was more prag­matic than lofty and in­spi­ra­tional. His ra­tio­nale: To win statewide, you have to win not only heav­ily pop­u­lated North­ern Vir­ginia, but also vote-rich Hamp­ton Roads. Northam is from Hamp­ton Roads, so if he’s the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, the Republican had bet­ter be able to counter that.

Wag­ner has beaten Democrats in Hamp­ton Roads be­fore. In his most re­cent re­elec­tion, in a district that twice voted for Barack Obama, Wag­ner’s op­po­nent raised more money as Democrats pushed to gain an edge in the state Se­nate. But Wag­ner won by more than eight per­cent­age points.

Wag­ner got into the gov­er­nor’s race rel­a­tively late and has lit­tle money. He had slightly more than $178,000 on hand at the most re­cent re­port­ing dead­line on March 31 — a small frac­tion of Gille­spie’s more than $3 mil­lion. Un­til re­cently, Wag­ner was field­ing all his own press calls. Now he’s build­ing up a hand­ful of staffers.

Wag­ner said in an in­ter­view that he’s been think­ing about run­ning for a long time. He’ll turn 62 in July, so he didn’t want to wait much longer.

But more than that, it was the party’s de­ci­sion to go with a pri­mary this year in­stead of a nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion that per­suaded him to jump in. Vot­ers might be will­ing to give him a chance, he said.

“I was al­ways con­fi­dent that the things that con­cern me,” he said, “are the same things that con­cern the av­er­age fam­ily in Vir­ginia.”

There’s some anec­do­tal ev­i­dence to back that up. Af­ter the Roanoke lunch, sev­eral peo­ple said he had their at­ten­tion.

Richards, who had asked how he would beat the Democrats, said later that he knew noth­ing about Wag­ner be­fore the lunch. “I’m glad I saw him to­day,” Richards said. “He seems to be very in touch with the is­sues.” He had been fa­vor­ing Gille­spie but said he’d now con­sider Wag­ner, as well.

“I like his busi­ness back­ground,” said Jenny Clinebell, 75, a re­tired banker. “I was maybe lean­ing a lit­tle to­ward Gille­spie, but I haven’t made up my mind.”

So, two maybes, and a few more. But this was a group of only 40 peo­ple, in one town, in one of the less pop­u­lous parts of the state. Ev­ery­where Wag­ner goes, the chal­lenge is the same.

In late April, Wag­ner went to the Shad Plank­ing, the old-time po­lit­i­cal/so­cial event in the pine woods out­side Wake­field. It was a far more fa­vor­able set­ting for Wag­ner than Roanoke, right on the edge of his Hamp­ton Roads power base.

To make things even bet­ter, Gille­spie didn’t show up to speak to the heav­ily Republican crowd. Ste­wart was there, along with an air­plane tow­ing a Ste­wart ban­ner and Con­fed­er­ate flag. But this was Wag­ner ter­ri­tory.

Af­ter he spoke to the crowd, a woman pulled him aside and pep­pered him with ques­tions in the hot af­ter­noon sun. She wanted to know: Why should she vote for him?

He told her he has the conservative cre­den­tials. He knows what’s go­ing on in Rich­mond. He’s a busi­ness­man and vet­eran.

“I give you that,” said the woman, Re­becca Fran­chok, 39, of Prince Ge­orge County. “But what makes you, just, dif­fer­ent?”

He said he’s fo­cused on things he can ac­tu­ally get done — vo­ca­tional train­ing, fix­ing trans­porta­tion, re­duc­ing busi­ness reg­u­la­tion. She asked about health care, he talked of Wash­ing­ton and fix­ing Med­i­caid. He talked gas tax, she pushed for de­tails. And on and on.

By the end, Wag­ner was drip­ping sweat. He went off to get more wa­ter. And did he close the deal? Fran­chok stood think­ing for a long mo­ment, then shrugged. “I don’t know,” she fi­nally said.

STEVE HELBER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vir­ginia Sen. Frank W. Wag­ner and two oth­ers face off in a Republican pri­mary June 13.

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