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Newsmaker: Jack Wagner / His support of state bailout important to city

Monday, July 28, 2003

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ten years ago, then state Rep. Tom Murphy and Pittsburgh City Council President Jack Wagner were engaged in a quiet race for mayor. Then one night it changed.

State Sen. Jack Wagner. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Name: Jack Wagner

Date of birth: Jan. 4, 1948

Place of birth: Pittsburgh

In the news: Wagner, the city's senior state senator, is at odds with Mayor Tom Murphy over a budget reform plan for Pittsburgh.

Quote: "Do I want to see something happen? Darn right I do. I see the deterioration of this city, which bothers me most. That begins on Grant Street, not Harrisburg."

Education: South Hills High School; Point Park College; Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Military: U.S. Marine Corps, Infantry, 1966-68, Vietnam; wounded in action, received Purple Heart.

Family: Married, with two children.

Murphy, under attack from Wagner in a KDKA-TV debate, accused one of the councilman's brothers of "stealing." Afterward, Murphy and another Wagner brother almost fought outside the television studio.

"Tom Murphy is a flower child of the '60s, a person that does not have any backbone, and will take a cheap shot where he can take a cheap shot," Wagner barked that May night in 1993.

Wagner, a former Marine, and Murphy, a former Peace Corps volunteer, are fighting now over Pittsburgh budget reform. Both say relations between them are cordial today, but their disagreements continue.

None is more important than the city's request for state approval to close a $60 million hole in its budget this year, mostly through a $52 occupation tax and a new 0.45 percent payroll tax on for-profit companies. Without state help, Mayor Murphy says, he will have to lay off some 400 employees, cut city services and study bankruptcy.

Friends of Wagner, a conservative Democratic state senator from Beechview, say it should be no surprise that he questions the tax increases. He says the city should cut its spending first. It should also be no surprise that he is clashing with Murphy, whether it's for personal or ideological reasons.

"Is there some payback here? Yeah, there is, but Jack and Tom have never reconciled a lot of things," said Republican consultant William Green, a friend of Wagner's.

Of course, Wagner and Murphy do not get along, said a Murphy ally who did not want to be identified, but the real reason Wagner may be criticizing the city budget package is simply political: If Wagner runs for a statewide office, such as auditor general next year, he does not want to alienate suburban voters by approving extra tax increases.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who has fought politically with both Wagner and Murphy over the years, said the majority of Wagner's disagreements with the mayor stem from policy issues, not pique.

"I'd say it's about 95 percent to 5 percent," Ferlo said. "This administration is so focused myopically on development projects that it is mismanaging neighborhoods and quality-of-life issues. These are very substantive, real issues. The mayor does not want to hear that, and you are summarily dismissed when you talk about it."

Wagner, who lost to Murphy in the 1993 mayoral primary, said much the same thing. Wagner said Murphy mismanages city resources by putting too much emphasis on Downtown, rather than neighborhood issues.

Such worries about the city, Wagner said, motivate his criticisms of the mayor and his economic policies.

"I live here, I represent it and I know people in the city as well as anyone. I care about them, and my family lives here. But I will not permit the city to simply further tax people without being financially responsible," Wagner said.

Murphy was not available for an interview last week. Told of Wagner's criticisms, his spokesman, Craig Kwiecinski, countered the neighborhood arguments.

He said Murphy's reform package would cut mercantile and business privilege taxes paid by retail shops, exempt businesses with less than $100,000 in payroll, and tax large for-profit companies exempted by state law from the business privilege tax.

"This is a tax structure that doesn't work. Our effort is to address small business districts and the mom-and-pop businesses that already pay too much. ... We're going to get the big guys to pay their fair share," Kwiecinski said.

Wagner and Murphy mostly agreed on the city's single biggest economic development package the past decade, the $1 billion stadiums and convention center construction projects. But even on that issue there is friction: Wagner says he does not get enough credit for the projects, particularly for pushing the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The pair has clashed on other economic development proposals. Wagner opposed Murphy's use of $48 million in city subsidies to attract a Lazarus department store Downtown and the mayor's failed Fifth-Forbes redevelopment plan. He also clashed with Murphy over a Light Rail Transit tunnel to the North Shore that the mayor supports, and a proposed bridge from the Wabash Tunnel to Downtown that Murphy does not.

These two also have had political fights. Wagner supported Murphy's mayoral challenger in the 1997 and 2001 elections, former city Councilman Bob O'Connor, and even formed a bond with his longtime 19th Ward nemesis, former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti of Brookline, against Murphy.

Meanwhile Murphy kept campaigning against Wagner after he beat him in 1993. When Wagner won a special election for his state Senate seat the next year, Murphy supported his opponent, former city Councilman Dan Onorato, who is now Allegheny County controller and a candidate for county chief executive.

Against that backdrop, Wagner remains a key to Murphy's efforts to get his state budget package approved. He is the city's senior state senator -- before Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and Ferlo -- and is the caucus chairman for Senate Democrats.

"The rest of leadership looks to him. If he's questioning something, the rest of the Democratic and Republican leaders respond in kind," Green said.

While lobbying Wagner in his Harrisburg office July 16, Murphy brought along fire and police union representatives, including the union president for the city's 200 school crossing guards, who may be part of 400 Murphy says he will lay off unless he gets state help.

"That would be the worst managerial move I've ever seen happen," Wagner scoffed. "That goes to the public safety of our children."

The senator is also aware that Murphy administration officials have given reporters old news clippings showing that, as a former city councilman, he supported increasing the $10 occupation tax, partially to pay for increasing public safety costs. The message: Wagner would be a hypocrite if he opposed Murphy's request to do the same thing.

"I kind of laugh at those kinds of things. It's childish," Wagner said.

When asked if the administration was trying to embarrass Wagner, Murphy's spokesman had a terse reply.

"Let's get real. This debate is not about personalities, this is not about Tom Murphy and Jack Wagner. This debate is about Pittsburgh and the future of our city," Kwiecinski said. "I'm certain that when this is concluded that responsible public officials will be supportive of a plan to keep Pittsburgh moving forward."

Amid the jockeying, there are signs that Murphy is trying to reach out to the senator.

Murphy sent city Operations Director Robert Kennedy and Public Works Director Guy Costa to meet with Wagner in his district in mid-July, and agreed to spend $200,000 to soon replace concrete slabs on Broadway Avenue, Beechview's main artery, among other street resurfacing and cleanup efforts.

Still, in Pittsburgh politics, some fights never go away.

In that televised debate 10 years ago, Wagner called Murphy "weak" for testifying as a character witness on behalf of a city school board member named Carole Annis, who was convicted of pushing a federal drug agent during a raid at the home of an in-law. Annis worked in Murphy's state office until her conviction.

"Jack," Murphy said back, "was that any different than your brother stealing from the city and you standing up for him? It's about loyalty to your friends and loyalty to your family."

Murphy was referring to a 1992 incident in which Pete Wagner, then deputy director of the city's Department of General Services, sold scrap copper from a city building to pay for a tailgate party as a reward for department workers. He was disciplined but not charged.

After the debate, Wagner's other brother, Robert, grabbed Murphy by the arm and warned him not to call his brother a thief again. They exchanged words, and as Robert walked away, Murphy said, "What about your contract, Robert? You want me to talk about that also?"

Murphy was referring to a property the city has leased from Robert Wagner since 1985, for use as the Beechview Senior Center. As of 2002, the city was still paying him up to $36,900 annually in rent.

Only this year did the city announce it would buy its own Beechview building to house the center. It is the vacant St. Catherine of Siena Church grade school on Broadway Avenue, which Jack Wagner attended as a child.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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