Virginia Sen. Frank Wagner (R-7) says he has a major advantage over his competitors in the Republican gubernatorial primary race: experience.
Wagner is a 25-year member of the General Assembly and chairman of the senate’s influential Commerce and Labor Committee, a Naval Academy grad, and entrepreneur. He gives long, detailed answers to most questions, and commerce and transportation have been central to both his time in the state legislature and his campaign.
His district, which includes eastern Norfolk and western Virginia Beach, has that in common with Northern Virginia—where Loudoun has a major hub of international commerce in Dulles Airport, Hampton Roads has the Port of Virginia. And leaders in both areas feel the pressure from residents and businesses to relieve congestion on the roads.
“How can any politician go out there and talk about increasing jobs and building the economy, and diversifying the economy, without talking about a bigger investment in transportation?” Wagner said. “It can’t be done.”
In polling, he has trailed behind his rivals in the Republican primary contest, former Republican National Convention Chairman Ed Gillespie and Prince William County Chairman Corey Stewart—although he has decades more experience in government, as he likes to point out. He says investing in the state’s lagging infrastructure, in part through increasing a state gas tax that hasn’t been touched since establishing a 16.2-cent per gallon floor in 2013, is essential for Virginia’s economy.
“That’s the basis for me going out and taking what I suppose would be a relatively bold step for a Republican, in particular, to run on, but it’s critical,” Wagner said. “It’s critical to the quality of life, and it’s going to be critical for generations.”
He has opposed paying for roads with more tolls, such as on I-66 or I-495, or allowing foreign investors to build road infrastructure. There is a parallel to the Dulles Greenway, which was built by a local partnership but then bought by foreign investors. This year the Greenway hiked it tolls again, to $5.50 one-way during peak hours.
“That’s what happens when you don’t pay for your roads, and you don’t have the capital to do it, and you don’t have the bond capacity to do it,” Wagner said. “You’ve got to get the roads built.”
And for that, he said, a governing experience will be critical. The first two years of the next governor’s term will be funded by a biennial budget drafted by McAuliffe’s outgoing administration.
“That’s half of your administration driven by a budget [on] which you have virtually no input unless you know what the hell you’re doing,” Wagner said. “If I was to run the table, your first meeting on the transition team, the first meeting I’d be having is with the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.”
He has also said until Metro reorganizes its management and rewrites its labor contracts, he “wouldn’t recommend another nickel out of the state.” He said the federal government, which only makes payments to Metro for capital expenses and not operating costs, should pick up its share of the rail system’s burden.
“Metro exists to get government employees in and out of DC, and the federal government’s got to take responsibility,” Wagner said. “It’s their transit system that allows them to get their employees in and out, and of course if it wasn’t for the federal government, what would Washington, DC, be?”
On education, Wagner has called for more routes through public schools, not only to college but to trades and industry certifications.
He also has supported a nonpartisan redistricting commission to fix Virginia’s gerrymandered General Assembly districts, which have been drawn after the past two censuses by Republican-controlled legislatures. He said the new districts could be drawn by computers and validated by a non-partisan commission. If no commission is created by the time of redistricting after the 2020 census, he said, “the governor has a role to weigh in.”
Wagner acknowledged that infrastructure projects on the scale he envisions won’t happen in one governor’s four-year term—but he says they can get started.
“At the end of a four-year term, I would aspire to be able say I’ve left Virginia better off for me having been here,” Wagner said. “By that I mean, laying the groundwork for these things to happen.”