In a race dominated by tax cuts, immigration bans and minimum wage increases, Frank Wagner has continued to push on transportation. The Republican gubernatorial candidate sees transportation funding and improvements as the key to addressing not just the other issues dominating this campaign, but ways to improve the Commonwealth as a whole.
A Naval Academy graduate, ship builder, Delegate in the Hampton Roads area from 1992 through 2001 and a state Senator representing that area from 2001 through today, Wagner is the most politically experienced candidate in this race. That experience, as well as his emphasis on transportation, has not translated in polls and fundraising, where he trails his two Republican rivals in polls for the nomination as well as the two Democratic candidates in a hypothetical head-to-head match up in the general election. With less than a month until the June 13 Republican primary, Wagner is still confident on election day his less flashy message of transportation enhancements, regulation rollbacks and education reform will stand out with voters.
In an interview conducted May 5, Wagner explained why transportation is so important, along with his plans to lead Virginia. In the nation’s marquee off-year election, a race often seen as a referendum on the preceding year’s presidential election, Wagner also explained his positions on President Donald Trump, a candidate he campaigned for in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the figure who is the nation’s most significant talking point.
The central issue in your campaign has been transportation, something you’ve worked on extensively on the Senate Finance Committee, as the Chair of the transportation subcommittee and the lead negotiator of former Gov. Bob McDonell’s landmark transportation bill three years ago. Your fellow Republican candidates, Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart, are centering their campaigns on the economy and immigration, respectively. Why is transportation your main focus when addressing voters and what will you do to improve it?
This is the No. 1 issue in the most populated area of the state and neither one has made a proposal on what to do about transportation. And they want to be governor? You have got to be kidding me. How are you going to fund it and propose it? I’m trying to be honest and straightforward. That’s the only thing I know how to do. The more I travel, the more I meet folks up here, there is only one issue in Northern Virginia that they look to Richmond for. They look to Richmond to fix the transportation system. I hear about it every day. We’re heading in the wrong direction. The general public is not aware of it. I see it every day. That drives me to go out there and talk about it every day.
Somebody has to be honest with the public, and somebody has to tell them to understand that if we don’t do something about this, anticipate more tolls, anticipate paying twice as much for that highway as it would usually cost. Also understand there would not be the money there to get the Metro system, even if they were to get back with re-organization. All these things we should be doing we aren’t. They’re being shelved. It goes back to something simple in my mind. Every candidate, Democrat or Republican, says they’re going to grow the economy of Virginia and diversify the economy of Virginia. Ask yourself one question: Do we have a transportation system adequate for the economy we have today? The answer is clearly no. So how are you going to grow and diversify the economy if you don’t have the money to make that investment in transportation? Is it controversial? No. I think voters understand. I think voters get it. The one thing they want is an assurance that if I give you more money for transportation it’s going to be spent on transportation. You have my word as a Naval Academy graduate that that money will go to transportation.
Regulations reform is a constant theme among Republican candidates in nearly every election. You’ve pointed to your experience working in ship building, a heavily regulated industry, and your efforts creating the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, which gives the General Assembly the power to suspend and review any proposed regulation coming from the governor. Why are regulation rollbacks so important now and what would you do next as governor to amend these restrictions?
I’ll tell you of the more than 30 years I’ve been in ship building, the attitude of the inspectors that come in used to be to find a few deficiencies, work to get them corrected and back on board to see you succeed. Now they come in with an attitude of ‘I’m from the government, you’re in business. I’m the good guy, you’re the enemy. We’re going to come in and find something.’ It’s very much an attitude like that.
Any restaurant owner, any business owner like that knows the sting. It’s gotten worse under the last eight or nine years under (former President Barack) Obama. Somehow business is bad but government is good. There are bad actors out there. We have a responsibility to ferret those folks out to ensure that the playing field is level. Beyond that, we should be, at the state level, assisting them to help them comply. We need to say if we can help you do this, you can be even bigger. We need a total attitude shift. I’ve come to that conclusion because I’ve experienced it first hand.
Secondly, in the Navy the captain of the ship set the attitude for that ship. You knew how that ship was going to perform based off that captain and his attitude. Same thing in government. If I have the honor and privilege of serving as governor, the attitude is going to shift. We are here to help Virginia business grow. If you’re not part of the program, you’re not going to be part of state government. Go find yourself another job. We are a team to help Virginia grow. We are teaming with Virginia business, big and small. We’re all on the same team. And it’s government’s interest to be that way because the proper way to raise government revenue is through increased economic activity.
As in nearly every gubernatorial race, education has been another major topic in this race, and you have made it one of the major pillars of your campaign. What’s wrong with our current education system and how would you improve it?
What are we doing fundamentally wrong in our education system that we’re not turning out the kinds of students for the jobs that are available today and quite frankly are the jobs that will be available in the future. We’ve gone down this route of standards of accreditation, standards of learning and the tests in K-12 education which is wonderful if you want to track out and go to college. But it’s terrible if you want to pursue something in career and technical education.
So the big plan in education is to have two methods to have schools and school systems get accreditation. One would be the traditional SOL route that we have in place now and the other one would be career and technical route leading to industry credentials. If that student passes that then the school gets the score as if it were accredited and it all adds to their accreditation. Once you make that shift, you’re changing the superintendents’ attitudes, the principals’ attitudes and the teachers’ attitude about how do we approach education
Perhaps the most well-known policy proposal on the campaign trail has been Gillespie’s massive tax cut package, which he says will create thousands of dollars in savings as well as new jobs for Virginians. You’ve been an outspoken critic of the plan. Why is your claim right and your opponent’s wrong?
We have to have a serious and open discussion about taxes. Ed Gillespie is saying that the average Virginia family of four under my tax plan will get back $1,300 after cutting income taxes by 10 percent. The current income tax rate is 5.75 percent. We’ll cut it 10 percent, which rounded up is 0.06 percent reduction. For a family making $100,000 a year, that’s $600. So what he’s telling me is that the average adjusted gross income of Virginians across the state is better than $200,000, which it’s not. What do you call a statement like that?
At the Naval Academy, I know what we would call that. That’s the kind of stuff that would get you thrown out of school. He’s going out there and saying it over and over again. But the reality is the average income is in reality about $60,000. In 2015, there were 3.1 million individual tax returns filed in Virginia, of which 208,000 had adjusted gross incomes over $200,000. That’s about six or seven percent. His whole entire claim is ridiculous. It’s pandering and misleading. I think that’s what got people where they don’t like American politicians. Why should they trust politicians like that when they put out claims that are totally misleading and in many cases false. I can’t do that. It’s not in my make up to do that.
This message has still clearly resonated, and Gillespie continues to lead polls and in fundraising. Assuming you’re right and he’s wrong, how do you tell voters the truth?
You get the message out and let people know this is B.S. Ever since the (April 13 Republican governor candidate) debate it’s palatable out there. It’s fleshing out the truth. People will say ‘that’s what Donald Trump ran on, tax cuts, and that’s how he won.’ I say Donald Trump won because he promised to drain the swamp. Ed Gillespie is the swamp. Everything Donald Trump talked about fixing in Washington is represented by Ed Gillespie. I’m thinking that’s how Donald Trump got elected. Whether you’re a fan or not, what goes on in Washington is not Richmond. Richmond is a balanced budget, fairly well-run state that I think needs a little adjustment in how we look at thing to figure out how we get our economy back on track.
Medicaid expansion is another major issue in this campaign. Virginia is one of 19 states not to accept the federal extension of the program and you were among the majority of voters in the Republican-controlled General Assembly that voted against it. Democrats, including both of your would-be opponents in the general election, Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, as well as incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe have all vocally supported it, saying it would insure 400,000 of the neediest Virginians. Why do you oppose expanding this program?
I think first of all people need to understand what the existing Medicaid program has done to our budget. The existing Medicaid program, the way it was written, used to be 8 percent of the General Budget and now it’s well over 22 percent and it raises every year. Though we’ve cut 1.5 billion (from this fiscal year’s budget) we had to increase funding to the existing program. That’s without adding 400,000 people. If we expand it, though it certainly will increase coverage, it will drain our general fund to the point where we would have to start cutting K-12 education and the rest of our funding programs.
Medicaid is eating it up and that’s why I haven’t supported it in the past. Clearly there’s going to be some upcoming health care legislation out of Congress, and what form or fashion it takes I don’t know. I do know that I’ve been on the Health and Human Resources subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee where we take care of all the funding issues for all these programs. It’s a massive system. You better have somebody when that comes through that understands it and says ‘here’s what we can do.’ My real hope is that they block grant it and we can run it the way we plan and get a whole lot bigger bang for the buck by releasing us from federal rules.
Democrats have also pushed strongly for a minimum wage increase, with Perriello pushing for a increase to $15. Democrats say this will help thousands get out of poverty. Why do you oppose an increase?
We have always fixed our minimum wage to the federal minimum wage and I’ve been supportive of that and I will continue to support that. While I understand the Democrats’ arguments, there are a whole lot of minimum wage jobs of kids working part time that are in school where these are starter jobs and their first way to get going and moving forward. Raising it sounds sexy and whatnot. I would say had the people gone and gotten a good career and technical education they wouldn’t have to worry about that. They would be able to go out and make a lot more than even what they’re proposing as a minimum wage.
There are a lot of positions like that that offer good starting things for people that are 15 or 16 years old to work fast food chains or other things where they’re not going to pay a lot of money to do that. It’s a lot of talk of increasing the minimum wage while there’s increases in technology where we won’t need half of the employees. If the costs continue to go up, so will the technology and we’ll be in as bad a boat as we were in before. That’s an anxiety across the board: what technology is doing to jobs that are traditionally done by people. You see it in manufacturing. That’s what we call advanced manufacturing, doing what people used to do. And robots work 24-7 and don’t have health care.
Donald Trump has overshadowed all national political campaigns, and as the most high-profile contested race in the country in 2017, the election of the Commonwealth’s next governor will be considered a nationwide referendum on the president. What are your thoughts on the president’s performance so far?
I’m very pleased with what Trump has proposed and I guess now that the budget has passed, what he’s done for defense of this country. His actions in (bombing) Syria where all together appropriate. It sent a signal, and because of those initial actions he set a clear signal on our foreign policy. The respect of our allies around the world is increasing every day. I think there’s an understanding that those who might oppose us understand there is a new sheriff on the block. I think that will bode well in future foreign relations.
How do you view Republican-led efforts in Congress to amend the Affordable Care Act?
We’re talking around the term of his first 100 days, something as complex as health care, understanding how long it took the Obama Administration to push through the Obamacare package. It didn’t happen the first 100 days, it didn’t happen for a long time. My hope is the Republicans take their time and try to get this as right as possible in one of the most complex issues facing the entire mission. I’m not disappointed in all that.
McAuliffe and many other Democrats in Virginia and across the nation vehemently condemned Trump’s proposed immigration ban preventing travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Do you support such a ban?
Basically, it came down to slowing down and understanding who was coming in from known countries that were harboring terrorists. Was it artfully done? No. Was it planned properly? Probably not. Did it set a statement? Absolutely. The Democrats had full control of the White House and Congress (from 2009 until 2011). They never changed the immigration laws. Illegal is illegal. They never defined the immigration laws or what an illegal alien was. They had ample opportunity to open the borders. They now say we have open borders. They in fact never did that. They didn’t enforce them.
If there’s a law on the books, it’s up to the chief executive to enforce them. I think he’s enforcing them in the proper areas, especially those who are committing crimes and getting those people out of the country and getting the illegal immigrants that would break our laws, other than the immigration laws they broke to get here in the first place, and that the fact that anybody even questioned that is beyond my imagination. These people — get them out of here. And as quickly as possible after they served their sentence. If they ever show up again, I would hope Congress would pass a law that would say if you’ve been convicted of a crime of illegal immigration and you leave the country and you come back, they receive 20 years to life. You’ll never want to come back here again. I think that’s altogether appropriate.
If you’ve been tossed out of here once because you committed a crime and you choose to come back here, it means you didn’t get it the first time so we’ll make sure you get it the second time. How do you protect a border that’s leaking? Who do you know is coming across that borders? Clearly there’s a whole lot of drugs coming from somewhere. That reason alone, to try to get drugs out of this country, that reason alone is reason to secure our southern border. Drug flow in our country is really crippling this country. The problem we have with heroin addiction across the state, the amount of overdose deaths has become the new medical crisis in this state. Where do you think that’s all coming from? Why do you think it’s so cheap on the streets? Absolutely, there’s no question it’s coming from Mexico. It would be nice to believe in a fairy land where we could stop it, but I doubt we can, but stemming that flow and turning it around could only have a positive impact.
I think following the actions to date and the talk we’re already seeing a stemming of the flow of illegal immigration from across the border. Illegal is illegal. I do think that a guest worker problem, a viable guest worker program is the right avenue. I think the (former President George W.) Bush administration had it right in that regard. There is work over here that, for whatever reason, Americans over here won’t do or can’t do. We need to fill those jobs to keep the economy rolling. Whether it’s getting crops out of the field or any number of things that traditionally immigrants have done here. I’m good with that. Come over here, make money then go home. If you do well here, you can come back again.
Guest worker doesn’t just mean guest Mexican. Guest worker means guest Korean, guest Indian. It means guest Filipino. Not just guest Mexican. That’s the best way, in my mind, to deliver foreign aid from this country. My best way is to come over here, make some money, we get value added from and they go home. If they do it, come over next year, make some money and go home. But we control it and we understand it. Those people come over with certainty and as long as they don’t commit a crime, they’re welcome to come back and do some more work. What’s wrong with that? They get to take the money home and help stabilize some of these poorer economies. It’s a wonderful idea. Beats the heck out of writing a $400,000 check and wondering what happened to your money other than some dictator lines his pockets and redeposited to some Swiss Bank Account.
Ultimately, why should voters elect you as the next governor of Virginia?
All this election is about when you throw out the rhetoric is that the voters in Virginia are hiring somebody to run Virginia. That’s what it’s all about. They’re hiring a CEO and you’re the shareholders. Read the resumes. Who would you call in first for an interview? You would call in Frank Wagner.