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 higher-profile.
Wagner is the third guy in the race - he’s not the well-funded frontrunner, Ed Gillespie, nor the loose-cannon headline-grabber, Corey Stewart. He’s gotten exactly zero non-Virginia money this year; isn’t a neo-Trump, doesn’t bash Trump, either. In a year of politics-as-metaphor, it’s darn hard to make anything symbolic out of Wagner’s longshot 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 ill-timed tax cut is not the thing that’s gonna 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 college-bound 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 re-election, 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 8 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 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. He seems to be very in touch with the issues,” he said. 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.