Friends, Foes, Sen. Michael Wagner Caters Them All

October 08, 1990|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

At Michael's Eighth Avenue, the sweet smell of roast pork wages a pitched battle with state Sen. Michael J. Wagner's smokin' stogie.

Coasting unopposed to his third consecutive Senate term, the Ferndale Democrat stands in the lobby while contractors put the finishing touches on his new, $1.3 million catering hall.

"My office will go up there when they're finished," Wagner said, pointing with his cigar to the balcony above. The shrill of power drills and the low hum of a forklift punctuate his words.

While other anti-abortion senators spent the summer fighting for their political lives in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, District 32 voters saw little of Wagner on the campaign trail -- as a candidate that is.

They were more likely to find him supervising construction at Michael's or catering a fund-raiser for the multitudes of other candidates in contested races. Democrats and Republicans, Wagner has catered them all.

McMillen, Neall, Sophocleus. Gilligan, Boschert, Huff and Bachman. Last week, he fed the supporters of Howard County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo and Howard Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer.

"All the big ones, I do," Wagner bragged. And that was before Michael's opened last August in a refurbished roller rink in the Glen Burnie Industrial Park.

"Now, with this place, I'll probably get the rest of them," he added, now sitting at one of a dozen round dinner tables in a small banquet room.

Wagner, whose family has been in the restaurant supply business for 25 years, began catering 20 years ago, making pizzas for Little League games.

He founded Executive Caterers in the mid-1970s and soon was staging bull roasts for then-U.S. Representative Marjorie Holt, R-4th.

Wagner began catering at an opportune time. Bull roasts were becoming popular as political fund-raisers and "there weren't many other games in town," said Clerk of the Court H. Erle Schafer.

Wagner got his start from his parents, Harry and May, who ran a poultry and egg delivery business.

"All my brothers and sisters drove egg trucks, delivering chickens and eggs," said Wagner, one of five brothers and three sisters. "I used to drive an egg truck to school; take dates out in an egg truck."

When Wagner's father died in 1962, his brothers focused on the restaurant supply operation, H & M Wagner and Sons, their father started as a sideline. Business boomed and the brothers branched out, starting Wagner Coffee.

Wagner also branched out, indulging a long-standing interest in politics. "I had a fifth-grade teacher who once told me, 'Being a good follower is just as important as being a good leader.' And I said, 'That's OK, but I don't want to be a follower.' "

The fifth-grader matured into an ambitious teen-ager, who founded an organization for young Democrats. Not long after, he ran for public office.

After two unsuccessful campaigns for House of Delegates, Wagner finally captured a seat in 1974.

"People refer to me as the ghost of the political past, but Mike actually started out before I did," said Schafer, who was elected to the County Council in 1970 and ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1974.

Wagner was appointed to the state Senate in 1977 after then-Sen. Al Lipin resigned to become undersecretary for the state Department of Licensing and Regulation. Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee members picked Wagner over Schafer in a bitter political fight that would lead to a tense race between them in the 1978 primary.

To win the appointment, Wagner, who participated in the anti-abortion filibuster in the Senate last spring, said he had to promise four committee members who favored abortion rights that he would vote for Medicaid funding of abortions. During the next session, he did -- but he paid a price.

The vote angered anti-abortion forces in the district and he lost to Schafer by 200 votes.

"I knew there would be hell to pay, but what the hell can you do?" said Wagner, 48. "I made a commitment."

"Mike was the toughest candidate I ever ran against," Schafer said. "It was a knock 'em down race that reminds me today of the Jimeno-Leopold (District 31 Senate) race."

Wagner finally won the Senate seat in 1982 when Schafer ran unsuccessfully for County Executive against O. James Lighthizer.

Known as a pro-business lawmaker and ally of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Wagner has grown increasingly powerful in Democratic politics.

"If there is a political leader in Anne Arundel County, Mike Wagner is it," said County Councilman Michael F. Gilligan, D-Glen Burnie. "Whether you like him or not personally, he's the person you go to get things done."

In the district, Wagner is relatively well-known. A recent poll shows one of three residents could name him as their senator and three out of four recognize his name when asked.

He's best known in the Linthicum-Ferndale area, where he's active in the Ferndale Improvement Association, helps organize Ferndale Day and sponsors baseball and softball teams.

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