End of an era: After 29 years as state auditor, Wagner not seeking another term

State Auditor Tom Wagner will not be seeking reelection due to health issues. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Auditor Tom Wagner, believed to be Delaware’s longest-serving statewide elected official ever other than members of Congress, is not seeking reelection.

Citing health problems, he made the announcement Saturday at the annual Kent County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner.

“At the end of the day, I can’t guarantee that I can continue to do the job that I require myself to do or that I think the citizens deserve,” Mr. Wagner, 62, said Friday in an interview at his office on Legislative Mall.

Owing to Crohn’s disease, a stomach bug and side effects from a medication, Mr. Wagner has been struggling with kidney issues for a decade — “Only by the grace of God am I not on dialysis” — and because he has not gotten a new kidney, he plans to retire from public service.

A Republican and former mayor of Camden, Mr. Wagner was appointed in 1989 just a few years after losing to Democrat Dennis Greenhouse. When Mr. Greenhouse resigned following his election to New Castle County executive, Mr. Wagner was plucked from the State Bank Commissioner’s office by then-Gov. Mike Castle, a Republican. Mr. Castle had basically forced him to run for the seat in 1986, the auditor recalled with a laugh.

“If it wasn’t for (state GOP Chairman) Frank DiMondi and Mike Castle, I’d probably be saying, ‘Can I supersize you?’ or something,” he joked.

Mr. Greenhouse won that election, but Mr. Wagner ended up in the auditor’s post a few years later anyway.

He was elected to the post for the first time in 1990, garnering 51.9 percent of the vote. As Delaware became a more Democratic state over the years, Mr. Wagner remained in office, winning election every four years.

Tom Wagner, right, with former Sussex County Administrator Joe Conaway at Return Day in Nov. 2012. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Come January, when he departs, only former Sen. Joe Biden will have held the same statewide elected office for a longer continuous period of time.

After the 2006 elections, only two of the nine statewide offices were held by Republicans: auditor and U.S. representative. That dwindled to one after 2010, when U.S. Rep. Castle was defeated in a primary for the GOP nod for Senate, and victor Christine O’Donnell subsequently lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election.

The 2010 election was Mr. Wagner’s closest race, as he squeezed by Democrat Richard Korn with 50.4 percent of the vote.

In 2014, Democrats smelled blood in the water, and Brenda Mayrack outspent Mr. Wagner $189,000 to $39,000. But, in what was a dismal year for the Democratic Party nationwide, Mr. Wagner retained his seat, garnering 54.2 percent of ballots cast.

Now, his impending retirement gives Democrats a great chance to pick up another office. They currently hold seven of the nine statewide seats, having lost the treasurer’s office in 2014.

Despite his health issues, Mr. Wagner said he would be seeking another term had Ken Simpler not been elected treasurer.

“Had Ken not won, I probably would run again because it’d be over my dead body before I allowed the state” to be controlled entirely by one party, he said.

Mr. Wagner said he had been quietly looking for a successor but to no avail.

Democrats Dennis E. Williams and Kathy McGuiness have filed for auditor, and although Mr. Wagner could not find any qualified GOP candidates, the auditor still views the seat as “very winnable for a Republican.”

If his health allowed it, he would be aiming to win his eighth statewide election. As is, he’ll have to settle for private life, and he will continue to hope an opportunity for a kidney transplant comes along.

State Auditor Tom Wagner will not be seeking reelection due to health issues. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“My God, I have trouble asking people to donate to my campaign, how do you think I feel about asking somebody to donate a kidney?” he said.

He almost received a transplant recently, but it ended up falling through.

“It was sort of a shot out of the dark that happened and it didn’t work out, so — I’ve always lived my life thinking basically certain things are meant to be and you just roll with the punches,” he said.

While the Office of Auditor of Accounts has remained in the Townsend Building in Dover over the past 29 years, it’s changed tremendously, Mr. Wagner said.

Thanks in part to automation, the office has gone from 57 employees to 21. The state budget, meanwhile, has grown several times over.

As auditor, he’s responsible for ensuring taxpayer money is being spent properly. Essentially, Mr. Wagner leads the team looking out for fraud, waste and abuse. The auditor also serves on the Board of Pardons.

“I’ve always viewed auditing as sort of going to the dentist. You probe, looking for problems, and if you don’t find any, that’s great, but if you find some, you try and fix it,” he said.

Professional standards dictate auditors recommend changes but prevent them from forcing agencies or individuals to implement them — something many people, including some past opponents, have failed to understand, Mr. Wagner said.

The most startling finding in his time as auditor, he recalled, was a realization early in his tenure that the state lacked proper financial controls, making it relatively easy to steal money.

Another significant case involved login information for high-ranking officials who had access to the top levels of state finances and data.

“Somebody in their infinite wisdom had one password for everybody,” Mr. Wagner said.

The longtime politician has worked with five different governors over the years: Mr. Castle, Tom Carper, Ruth Ann Minner, Jack Markell and John Carney. The last four are all Democrats.

Mr. Wagner said he believes he’s been helped in a way by the state’s left lean, with some Democrats voting for him out of a desire to provide a “counterbalance.” One Democratic governor even told him after an election the governor had been rooting for him, Mr. Wagner claimed.

“I’ve always tried to run a very professional office, so no governor — and let me tell you what, you can play some real politics and create some real havoc out of this office if you wanted to — and I think what any governor would want out of this office is fairness, and I guarantee you no governor went to bed at night worried that Tom Wagner was out to embarrass them or do something political,” he said.

After 29 years in one job, what’s next for Mr. Wagner?

“I have been so focused on this, honestly, I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do,” he said.

While he would like to work for a charitable cause, such as helping animals or children, he joked that he might also start a Mötley Crüe cover band, become the Andre the Giant of the “midget wrestling” circuit or work as the equipment manager for the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders.

Leaving the auditor’s role, Mr. Wagner said, will almost be like giving up a part of himself.

“This is my corner store. I view this as a business that I helped create and run,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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