Wagner undecided on comeback try

April 09, 1995|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

The first Sunday in May wouldn't be the same without Anne Arundel County's largest political gathering: the 14th Annual Bull and Oyster Roast put on by the Committee to Elect Mike Wagner.

But is the three-term incumbent who lost his state Senate seat last November running? Would he have an all-afternoon party attended by Democrats if he wasn't?

Mr. Wagner said he has four answers to those two questions: People like the party; his failed 1994 re-election campaign is $20,000 in the hole; the proceeds help support community activities, including sponsorship of a girls softball team; and, perhaps most important, "It also keeps people wondering what I am doing."

The former senator also wonders about his future. Politically active since age 16, the 53-year-old Ferndale resident admits having separation anxiety concerning Democratic politics.

He talks about finding candidates for "our" ticket in 1998, though he doesn't know if he'll be on it.

He says he misses the challenge of putting together coalitions, solving constituent problems, being part of the "club."

Not too long ago, he went to Annapolis to testify for a bill that would require a small-business impact assessment for legislation. He got as far as the legislative office doors of former colleagues.

The hall was bustling, but he was standing still. Senators slapped him on the back, then went on with their business. He remembers realizing he was in the wrong place, an outsider where being an insider is what counts.

"I said, 'What am I doing here? I have things I want to do at my business.' I left," he said.

Unlike some officials the voters retired last November, Mr. Wagner had work waiting for him.

"I don't have to [ask] the governor or somebody for a job at [a state agency]," he said.

His son, Scott, notes the change since his father's defeat. "He spent years helping other people. Now he's working for himself, for us, for his family," he said.

What he doesn't miss

Mr. Wagner is largely free of the day-to-day political hassles.

"Now I don't have to worry where Jack Kent Cooke wants to build a stadium and where John Gary wants to build a jail," he said.

Citizen Wagner doesn't have to be as politic in his statements as Senator Wagner, who angered voters last year when he said people who move next to an airport should expect jet noise.

"I don't miss listening to the Gray Panthers [complain] about not getting enough Medicare benefits," he said. And he doesn't miss the lobbying, the complaints, the dread when he opened the morning paper.

"I used to pick up the paper and say, 'Oh, God, why my district,' " he said.

This is the first winter in a dozen years that he has been able to vacation in Aruba and Florida, the first spring his catering company and family aren't recovering from a legislative session of neglect.

He's picked up business by seeking contracts away from his Glen Burnie banquet hall. His family's supply business bought a bankrupt meat packing company. He's bidding on state contracts without having to worry about potential conflicts of interest.

And, his golf game has improved.

The downside, however, is that he's buying his own golf balls. Lobbyists don't lavish them on people out of office. The loss of perks goes both ways. Unlike in past years, Mr. Wagner won't be passing out dozens of free tickets to the Kurtz Beach bash. He doesn't expect to draw the usual 2,500 guests to the $25-a-person event.

"We expect 1,500, 1,600," he said.

And he thinks he will go ahead this summer with the third annual golf tournament, at $100 a ticket. If the tournament and the bull roast do well, he'll more than cover last year's campaign debt. Both events are so costly that they net a small amount per ticket.

Keeping options open

Still, he has no intention of folding the Committee to Elect Mike Wagner once the account is settled.

"If I raise the money, I'll use it for some political purpose, assuming I don't run," he said.

Run for what?

"I wouldn't run for anything else but state Senate," he said. "If I do run, I'll have a real fund-raiser -- a $100-a-ticket cocktail party."

His opponent would be C. Edward Middlebrooks of Old Mill, the Democrat who turned Republican just so he could run against Mr. Wagner and beat him. Mr. Middlebrooks said he isn't bothered by the possibility of a rematch.

"It's America. Everybody has got their right to raise funds, or do whatever," he said. "I am a little more concerned with what is going on in the legislature now than with running four years from now."

Mr. Wagner has made a come back before. In 1978, he lost the Senate seat by a scant 250 votes to H. Erle Schafer, then reclaimed it in 1982.

Patrick E. Gonzales, president of Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling Strategy Inc. in Annapolis, cautions anyone against counting Mr. Wagner among the politically dead.

"Mike Wagner has always been a successful politician. I would suggest he got caught up in something that was beyond his control," said Mr. Gonzales, who polled for Mr. Wagner and other state Democrats last year.

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