Pittsburgh mayoral campaign leads Wagner to open up about self, Vietnam

Run for mayor puts him back in city politics

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Over three decades at his historic, cottage-style home in Beechview, Jack Wagner has refurbished the original iron gates, designed the deck, expanded the kitchen, built a fence, unhooked and refurbished the original radiators and run a gas line from the house to the outdoor grill. Among other projects, the safety engineer and self-taught craftsman has also redirected three of his five downspouts to water his rhododendrons rather than dump rainwater into the old sewer lines.

"Whether or not that meets the code, I'm not really sure, but it made sense to me," the Democratic mayoral candidate recently told a gathering of real estate developers. "Government needs to have common sense when it comes to some of these initiatives."

The Wagner name has been long known to Pittsburgh voters, from his first run for a citywide council seat 32 years ago through a loss in the 1993 mayoral primary, successful runs for state Senate and auditor general, and an unsuccessful 2010 Democratic primary run for governor. In this race, the 65-year-old, long regarded as a stoic, is opening up more about himself in a bid to show he has the personality and leadership capabilities to take over the Pittsburgh mayor's office from Luke Ravenstahl, who has winced in the public spotlight since rising to mayor at age 26.

Talking about being badly wounded in the Vietnam War has been central to this reintroduction. His Marine Corps service has been part of his biography from the beginning of his political career but only in 2010 did he start to address it publicly, and only this month did he begin to feature it in a campaign commercial. Seven members of his 12-man unit, including his best friend, were killed in a May 1967 ambush in the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam and he was hospitalized for five months, barely avoiding amputation of his foot.

He did not discuss the ambush with his family for 20 years.

"Everybody who ever served in any conflict is injured in some way. You'll carry it the rest of your life. Marines, they have a tendency of hiding it," said longtime city firefighter's union president Joe King, a fellow Marine and Vietnam vet. The powerful union has supported Mr. Wagner in every election since he first told Mr. King in 1981 he wanted to run for city council. That was during a discussion at the Wagner family's bar, The Huddle, a Beechview watering hole favored by firefighters and cops.

"I think this was a breakout, to himself, to say this is what I personally experienced," Mr. King said of the commercial.

Mr. Wagner has sponsored a golf event for 27 years called Sharing and Caring that raises money to take disabled veterans on an annual riverboat cruise, which for some is their only trip outside the hospital all year. Talking to them about war is one thing, but talking to strangers -- or even family -- is another.

"It's a tough thing for me to do, to talk about my Vietnam experiences. I've talked in life very little about it, but it has had a major impact on who I am," Mr. Wagner said last week. "I'm a lucky guy to have survived Vietnam. When you realize that I could have died at 19 as easily as the guys I was serving with, you cherish the opportunity to do other things."

Mr. Wagner entered the May 21 Democratic primary for mayor late, after Mr. Ravenstahl announced March 1 he would not seek re-election. His main competitors are city Councilman Bill Peduto of Point Breeze and state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District. Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson is also on the ballot.

'Stop the Circus'

His first successful campaign came in 1983 when he ran on a pledge to "Stop the Circus" at Pittsburgh City Council. He promises nowadays he can bring harmony to the fractious body again, partially by keeping Mr. Peduto -- the lead critic of Mr. Ravenstahl -- out of the mayor's office.

"I actually think sometimes now it's worse [than the 1980s]. When I see council members such as my opponent who have not communicated with other council members for years, I never saw that in my days on city council," Mr. Wagner said. "People want to see their elected officials working together."

The Peduto campaign portrays him oppositely, as a vestige of the past and heir to the careworn Ravenstahl legacy. (Most of Mr. Ravenstahl's leading contributors have opened their checkbooks to the Wagner team.) Peduto backers point too to his past eight years as the state's lead auditor -- he was capped at two terms by state law -- wherein some of his penny-pinching studies were used by Republicans to bash Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell or to defend Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's budget cuts.

Mr. Wagner's break with the Rendell forces goes back to his failed lieutenant governor bid in the spring of 2002, when he was the running mate of Bob Casey Jr., who was opposing the ex-Philadelphia mayor in a hard-fought Democratic gubernatorial primary. Eight years later, he opposed Rendell ally Dan Onorato in the gubernatorial primary, coming in a distant second to the then-Allegheny County executive and losing almost every Pittsburgh district north of the Monongahela River.

A telling example of a Wagner audit was his August 2011 study of the wine-selling kiosks Mr. Rendell championed for grocery stores: The contraptions didn't work, weren't purchased properly and were a waste of money, his audit said, but his solution was to expand the hours at the state-run liquor stores that are so fiercely guarded by fellow Democrats and their union allies.

In 2010 Mr. Rendell said, "At times he is a pain in the butt, but he does his job."

As a state senator, Mr. Wagner was one of the sole local politicians, Democrat or Republican, who early on opposed the $523 million Port Authority tunnel project to the North Side, instead pushing for the light-rail transit system to use the Fort Wayne Bridge near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center instead. He was a leading proponent of the Port Authority's move to reopen, for commuter use, the little-used Wabash Tunnel under Mount Washington, which has been a white elephant since the reopening in 2004.

Mr. Wagner was crushed by Tom Murphy in the May 1993 primary for mayor, and after being elected to the state Senate the next year (after beating Mr. Onorato in the primary), he would go on to be a leading critic of the Murphy administration. Mr. Wagner often joined with then-state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, in attacks on the city's fiscal bailout pleas in 2003-04 and was a lead proponent of the new payroll tax ultimately awarded to Pittsburgh in late 2004, matched with cuts in other tax rates.

During the period, Mr. Wagner remained close with Mr. Murphy's chief political rival, Bob O'Connor, with whom he served briefly on city council. After Mr. O'Connor died nine months into his 2006 mayoral term, he visited Mr. Ravenstahl at the City-County Building and offered his counsel. He has rarely interacted with the administration since.

"I never got a call. That told me they didn't want my help and advice," Mr. Wagner said.

A very local political start

After the war, Mr. Wagner graduated in 1974 from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a degree in safety management and went to work for CNA insurance. He worked in Chicago for two years before coming back to Beechview, where he was drawn into politics after someone injected a pesticide in a neighborhood water main in December 1980, leaving residents without water for weeks. The incident didn't get much attention from then-Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, Mr. Wagner felt, or from the rest of a city government mostly tied to East End neighborhoods. His 1981 campaign slogan -- Where Is Your Councilman? -- reflected that.

Pittsburgh still has never elected a mayor from its southern neighborhoods: Council President Thomas Gallagher of Brookline rose to the post in 1959 after Mayor David L. Lawrence was elected governor, then handed the seat over to Joseph Barr.

His family roots still run deep in the neighborhood, where his brother Pete has served as the 19th Ward Democratic chairman since the 1980s, and Pete's daughter, Chelsa, was elected a state representative before taking over last year as Allegheny County controller. Ms. Wagner sees her uncle as her main mentor even though he is more conservative -- he is anti-abortion, for instance -- and commonly goes to him for both personal and political advice.

"To me, the real measure of him is those instances where we don't agree on something and he says, in absolute sincerity and confidence, 'You should do what you believe is right.' He really, really believes that," she said.

Then of course there is the house.

Mr. Wagner's three-bedroom house, where he and wife Nancy raised their two children, is across the street from a smaller one where he grew up with brothers Pete and Bob. He and Nancy bought the dilapidated house two years after he joined city council and renovated it for a year before moving in.

"It's a great home and a great piece of property," he said. "The house really is a treasure in terms of its uniqueness to the community and to the immediate neighborhood."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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