Wagner Launches Bid For Third Term, Promising Advocacy On UPMC/Highmark Split
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner kicked off her re-election bid Wednesday evening, pledging to keep up scrutiny of items high on the agenda of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
“When I look back at the seven years since I was first elected, what I pledged then was to be more than just a bean counter,” the two-term Democrat told WESA prior to a launch party at a Lawrenceville union hall. “So while I can look to many things I am proud of, I still think we are at a really critical point as a region, and there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of addressing fundamental challenges.”
The controller’s office tracks county finances and conducts audits, but at times Wagner has also used it as a platform to question the region’s other top Democrats. She has harshly criticized Peduto over governance at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and appears set to scrutinize a plan to renovate the Pittsburgh International Airport.
“It's a rebuild, essentially, of the terminal to the tune of over $1 billion. It is critical that that is something that we don't just accept that carte blanche,” she said. She says many needed improvements “could be achieved without a $1 billion project.”
Wagner also criticizes the airport authority’s efforts to lure new carriers to Pittsburgh with subsidies – an effort that has increased traffic but also foundered at times as upstart carriers have struggled. Media reports, meanwhile, have questioned authority board members who have been investors in some of the airlines that have provided service.
Wagner’s ability to audit the airport has been limited since a judge ruled she didn’t have jurisdiction over independent authorities. Still, she says, her office was “watching it very carefully,” using right-to-know requests and attending authority board meetings.
That legal fight over her office's jurisdiction, and several other contentious issues, has at times sparked enmity with Fitzgerald in particular. Wagner's 2015 reelection bid involved a bitterly fought primary contest with Mark Patrick Flaherty, who Fitzgerald backed. Wagner is part of a well-known political dynasty in Pittsburgh’s South Hills – her uncle was a state Senator and state auditor general – and beat Flaherty by nearly 4 percentage points, despite being outspent several times over.
It seems unlikely that she will face such a rival this time around. No one has stepped forward publically, and she had more than $85,000 in her campaign account as of this past fall. Fitzgerald, too, is up for re-election this year, but Wagner said, “I think the relationship has really just matured. It’s in a much better place now than it was four years ago. We don’t always agree, but we need healthy debate within government if we want government to work.”
She said she deserved a measure of credit for the county’s improved fiscal health – a key talking point in Fitzgerald’s own re-election pitch.
“I’m a strong believer that those things have come about because of the accountability we have pushed for in our office,” Wagner said.
Meanwhile, Wagner seems poised to wade into an even uglier fracas: the final split between health care giants UPMC and Highmark.
UPMC has sought to remove Highmark from its provider network ever since the regoin’s largest insurer took control of Allegheny General Hospital and its own network of competing hospitals. State regulators put a hold on that divorce for five years, but the truce ends later this year. Wagner says that while action to preserve access to UPMC facilities must come from the state, "If they're not hearing form the regional and local elected officials about how very important this is, then we aren't really going to expect them to do anything within their respective jurisdiction."
Wagner will be holding a press conference on the matter Thursday – less than 24 hours after declaring her re-election bid. Some may accuse her of engaging in election-year PR gestures, but she says “There are usually those sorts of cries. But I hope people understand that during election time, I don’t stop doing my job.”