Local Politics

Tuesday, Oct 02 2012 10:06 AM

Friends mourn the death of political activist Al Wagner

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    Al Wagner was a Democratic Party stalwart, a deeply religious man and a fighter for open government. He was found dead at home Oct. 1 at age 56.

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BY CHRISTINE BEDELL and STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writers cbedell@bakersfield.com

Al Wagner, a tireless campaigner for local Democrats and their causes, a deeply religious man who spent his vacations doing missionary work, and a fighter for open government, died over the weekend.

He would have turned 57 on Friday.

Wagner’s cause of death was unclear but his neighbor found him dead at home Monday after he failed to show up for church and work Sunday and Monday, said close friend Steve Schilling.

Friends said Wagner’s father died of a heart attack at a young age. The Kern County coroner’s office was investigating Wagner’s death.

Wagner was not only known for his political activism — helping launch the political careers of many including state Sen. Michael Rubio and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, both Shafter Democrats — but his devotion to God and his help to the poor at home and abroad.

Florez, too overcome to speak to a reporter, shared his reflections in an email.

“The Irish tell the story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in,” Florez wrote. “St. Peter says, ‘Of course, just show us your scars.’ The man says, ‘I have no scars.’ St. Peter says, ‘What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”

“Al Wagner had plenty of scars and his life-long work in politics was based on the premise that ‘lost causes’ are the only causes worth fighting for and we all marveled at these God skills he used to fight for what was right, just and fair,” Florez said.

‘OUR GURU’

Wagner was the first person Rubio called when he decided to run for the Kern County Board of Supervisors 10 years ago and one of the few to actually encourage him to run, Rubio said. The two became like brothers and Wagner continued to be a close confidante after leaving Rubio’s employ to work for his church.

Rubio last heard from his friend late Saturday night, when Wagner emailed him ideas for securing state funding for a valley fever vaccine.

“He was a relentless pursuer of good government,” Rubio said. “He felt there was a way in government, in politics, to make government work a little better every single day, (be) a little more responsive to the needs of people.”

Candi Easter, chairwoman of the Kern County Democratic Party, said Wagner was a key strategist and organizer for the local party for decades. And he didn’t direct things from an office — he’d hit the streets morning to night campaigning for candidates and getting voters to the polls, she said.

“Nobody knew politics better than he did,” Easter said. “He was our guru. When we had a question, we’d go to Al: ‘What do you think of this?’ His instincts were right on.”

“Al was all about grassroots,” Easter said. “He organized volunteers to go and walk. I can remember he’d load up a van and hit Avenal or Kerman or Wasco. He’d canvas the whole town in one day.”

Wagner was a conservative Democrat and gravitated toward those kinds of candidates, she said. His biggest political hero was Harry Truman.

“If there was a good, strong, working-class Democrat with good moral values, Al would do anything for him,” Easter said.

Schilling first got to know Wagner 37 years ago. Wagner worked on Schilling’s unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature in 1976 against Bill Thomas.

“I don’t believe he was all that enamored with the personalities of politicians,” Schilling said. “He was much more deeply committed to the cause of political activism.”

RECORD OF SERVICE

Wagner grew up in what Rubio described as a “loving family” in Wasco: mom, dad, rwo brothers and a sister. He earned a bachelor’s degree from California Baptist University and did master’s-level coursework at Cal State Bakersfield, according to a recent state Senate resolution by Rubio honoring Wagner’s legislative service.

It said Wagner’s public service began in 1977 and included stints as an administrative assistant to the Wasco city manager; an accountant/auditor and administrative assistant for the Kern County Auditor-Controller’s office; business manager/treasurer for Guatemala Baptist Mission; and general manager/director of bookstores for El Salvador Baptist Mission.

His service in the state Legislature began in 1998 as chief of staff to Florez when he was in the Assembly and in 2002 when Florez was elected to the state Senate, it said. Rubio appointed Wagner to oversee his valley offices in 2010; he did that for about 1 1/2 years before going to work at Valley Baptist Church.

Wagner had two stints at Clinica, most recently as deputy CEO in 2009 and 2010.

Wagner joined the board of directors at Kern Health Systems just months before the public HMO for Medi-Cal patients exploded in controversy in late 2009. It wasn’t long before Wagner began to question the status quo at the organization, including what he viewed as a disturbing lack of public transparency and problems stemming from the management style of former CEO Carol Sorrell.

Eventually, transformative changes did occur at KHS, not the least of which was the forced retirement of the CEO.

“Al was the moral compass for the board,” said Estela Casas, the executive director of Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance who served alongside Wagner for years as a volunteer KHS board member.

“Al felt important changes needed to take place on the governance level at KHS to maintain the integrity of the organization,” Casas recalled. “I think he was the voice and passion of that transformation and without his leadership and vision, we would not have succeeded.”

Wagner’s death came so suddenly and unexpectedly, Casas said, she felt like she was just going through the motions at work on Monday — trying to absorb not only the loss of a good friend, but of someone whose importance to the community was immense, yet not widely understood.

“This is an incredible loss,” she said. “He will be missed greatly.”

Wagner also worked with the Bakersfield Homeless Center and Shafter Migrant Camp outreach.

COMMUNICATING WITH EVERYBODY

Abroad, Wagner did business-related work for Baptist missions, including in poor villages and orphanages in Eastern Europe and Central and South America.

Phil Neighbors, a senior pastor at Valley Baptist Church where Wagner worshiped and worked, said Wagner was most proud of the eight years he spent working for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board in the 1990s.

Wagner spent the bulk of those years in El Salvador and Guatemala assisting and serving the poor and spreading the Christian Gospel.

Even after he left that job, Neighbors said, Wagner continued to go on shorter missions, often using his vacation time to do something he believed was important and worthwhile.

“He was scheduled to go back to Guatemala in November,” Neighbors said.

His fluency in Spanish and American Sign Language made him a natural for outreach efforts, but Wagner had an innate ability to communicate effectively with just about anyone.

Even across political divides.

“Al’s a Democrat and most of us on this side of town are Republicans,” Neighbors said. “But he could communicate with Democrats and he could communicate with Republicans. He genuinely cared about people.

“Our community has lost a great voice, a great leader,” Neighbors said.

Wagner was not married and had no children. He’s survived by his mother, whom Wagner had been nursing through illness, two brothers and a sister.

His niece, Renee Wagner Renee Wagner , was in Hawaii when she learned of her uncle’s passing. She returned to Bakersfield Monday.

“He looked out for everyone,” Renee Wagner said of her uncle. “It didn’t matter who it was.”

“Al never rested,” she said. “His mind never stopped. His body never stopped.

“He always felt there was more he could do for people.”

The family hadn’t made service arrangements as of Tuesday afternoon.

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