Wagner joins crowded field of Democrats seeking nomination for governor

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Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner is mounting an 11th-hour drive for the Democratic nomination for governor, a development with the potential to shake up the crowded field of challengers already vying to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett.

After two terms as the state’s financial watchdog, and unsuccessful runs for governor in 2010 and for Pittsburgh mayor last year, Mr. Wagner starts with a measure of statewide name recognition. But he faces hurdles in his bid to be a genuine contender in the race. Fundraising is chief among them, as he’ll have to convince donors he is a plausible winning nominee despite his successive losses in the gubernatorial primary and the mayor’s race.

The Vietnam veteran and former Pittsburgh councilman was optimistic about his chances Thursday as he embarked on the effort of getting the required number of Democratic signatures on his petitions to get on the May 20 ballot.

“I’ve been talking to people all over the state getting a good reception,” he said. “Even at this stage in the campaign, it’s a jumbled-up race in the Democratic primary.”

He pointed to a Quinnipiac University survey late last year that showed him with the strongest showing of any of the Democrats tested in a trial heat against Mr. Corbett.

The Democrats’ statewide competition got another familiar name Thursday as Jay Paterno, son of the late Penn State University football coach, announced he was going to seek the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. By virtue of his name alone, Mr. Paterno immediately found a place in the front rank of the contenders for the second spot on the Democratic ticket. The other candidates include Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith; Brenda Alton, a Harrisburg city official; Harrisburg Councilman Brad Koplinski; former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz; state Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia; and state Rep. Brandon Neuman of Washington County.

Mr. Wagner has a statewide record and resulting name recognition, but the chief tactical argument for his candidacy is regional. He is the only Western Pennsylvania figure in a field dominated by eastern candidates.

“In terms of, does it change the race … only if Jack Wagner can raise enough funds to go on media in the southwest,” former Gov. Ed Rendell observed. “If he doesn’t, hardly anyone will hear he’s a candidate.”

The leading contenders among his rivals are U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County; Treasurer Rob McCord; former state revenue secretary Tom Wolf; and two former secretaries of the state department of environmental resources, Katie McGinty and John Hanger.

Mr. Wolf, a wealthy businessman, started out as a relative unknown, but he has raised his profile by being the first among the candidates to embark on network television advertising. Mr. McCord, like Ms. Schwartz, is from Montgomery County, but, in the midst of his second term as treasurer, he had made perhaps the strongest inroads — at least among Democratic Party officials — in Mr. Wagner’s political back yard.

At a recent meeting of the Democratic State Committee, he received a strong plurality in a vote of state committee members. Though Mr. McCord fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed for an official endorsement, he ran strongly across the state, outpolling his rivals in most of the southwest.

Mr. Wagner argues his record makes him more than a just a regional candidate, and that he will not be burdened by his loss to Mayor Bill Peduto last year.

“The people of Pittsburgh made a choice, and I respect that,” he said, while insisting voters would also remember that, “We did a tremendous job as auditor general; I believe people trust me. I’ve challenged governors Republican and Democratic to improve government. … I’m not afraid to take a stand on an issue as many politicians are.”

Mr. Wagner acknowledged he could not match some of his better-funded rivals, but said he was “working very hard” and “hopeful” he would be able to raise enough to wage a credible campaign. But he has a lot of logistical ground to make up. As of Thursday, he had yet to hire a campaign manager, a press secretary or any other campaign staffers.

Still, his surprise announcement was enough to overshadow several other developments in the race Thursday. It came as the McGinty campaign burnished her environmental credentials in announcing a high profile endorsement from former Vice President Al Gore. Ms. Schwartz, campaigning Thursday in Pittsburgh, announced a $100 million plan to expand rent and property tax rebates for seniors by shifting some lottery revenues that now support other areas of state spending.

Ms. Schwartz professed to be unconcerned by the Wagner entry.

“I’m talking about who I am. That’s what I’m going to continue,” she said.

Politics editor James O’Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published February 20, 2014 2:02 PM

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