The Morning File / Jack Wagner, right on time to the governor throng


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The headline in Friday's Post-Gazette was almost one of those deja vu things: "Jack Wagner Joins the Throng Seeking Nod from Democrats."

We say "almost" deja vu because this was no illusion of only feeling like we recall the former Pennsylvania auditor general, state senator and city councilman from Beechview deciding at a very late hour to get into a prominent political campaign.

No, as Elliott had to explain in "E.T." to a friend about the cute creature who couldn't be easily beamed up to his planet: "This is reality." And this isn't to suggest that there is anything alien about Jack Wagner, who with his full white mane and perfectly ordinary appearance fits the Tom Corbett-Tom Murphy-Bob O'Connor ideal of what a successful Pittsburgh politician should look like.

But less than a year ago Mr. Wagner jumped into the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor barely two months before that election, sensing opportunity once Mayor Luke Ravenstahl surprised everyone by announcing he would not seek re-election. Just as surprisingly, the better-known, more experienced Mr. Wagner was beaten easily by Councilman Bill Peduto.

In a post-mortem after that loss, Mr. Wagner told the Post-Gazette he was never able to overcome the challenge of entering the race so late and trying to put a campaign together in weeks against a Peduto effort that had been ongoing for years.

"Realistically, for any political race, you've got to prepare for more than a year," Mr. Wagner said last June.

OK, makes sense to us. Jack Wagner does strike us as a sensible man -- maybe not exciting, any more than are vanilla ice cream or pizza without toppings or Jose Tabata as the starting right fielder for the Pirates. We can stomach all of those things and people though.

The question is why should we have to, if there are more exciting options -- and why is Mr. Wagner ignoring the advice he seemingly just gave himself eight months ago about avoiding these Jackie-come-lately entrances into important campaigns?

For months, a state treasurer, a congresswoman and three former Pennsylvania Cabinet secretaries have been bustling around the commonwealth raising money, courting influential individuals and groups, hiring staff and beginning their advertising efforts in advance of the May 20 primary election.

They all long ago sensed a rare chance to be the first challenger to oust a sitting Pennsylvania governor from office. Multiple analyses have suggested Gov. Tom Corbett could be the most vulnerable occupier of any governor's mansion in the nation this year.

And then Mr. Wagner came along Thursday to say more or less, "Not so fast, yinz guys in this jumbled-up race. Remember, Pittsburgh is part of this here state, too."

Ah, there's the rub. By sheer coincidence or astrological alignment or some temporary roadblock someone had thrown up on the Pennsylvania Turnpike over past the Carlisle exit, all of the pre-existing candidates in the Democratic primary -- including two more given little shot of winning -- are from Eastern Pennsylvania.

Never mind that not only did Democratic Pittsburgh voters reject Mr. Wagner in a primary last year, but Democrats across Pennsylvania turned him down in the 2010 gubernatorial primary in favor of fellow Pittsburgher Dan Onorato, who then lost the general election to fellow Pittsburgher (well, Shalerer, or whatever someone from Shaler would be called) Mr. Corbett.

Perhaps it's on Mr. Wagner's mind that even if Democrats from this part of the state might prefer Bill Peduto or Dan Onorato to him, we are so parochial that by golly we'll stick up for him, no matter what, against 31 flavors or 57 varieties of Eastern Pennsylvanians who might be on the ballot against him on May 20.

And if that's enough to get him into the general election, maybe he figures the millions of Democrats east of the Susquehanna who decline to vote for him in the primary will still prefer him in the fall to a cross-state Republican who's done nothing in four years to win their favor.

So it's possible this late-game strategy of Mr. Wagner's could just succeed, but one also wonders if state government shouldn't have some kind of job retraining program for its past office-holders so they could learn some new practical trade instead of continually showing up on our ballots after past rejections.

We're certain we've seen them do things that way on E.T.'s planet to avoid any tired retreads among inter-galactic leaders -- or possibly, we just have a false sense of deja vu about that.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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