ST. PETERSBURG — Maybe Scott Wagman never lost the political bug after serving as Tulane University's hippie-haired, dashiki-clad student body president more than three decades ago.
Maybe it's that give-back-to-the-community stuff Depression-era Dad insisted upon. Or maybe he simply suffers from bored rich guy syndrome.
It probably doesn't matter much what possessed Wagman — to the shock of many friends — to run for mayor of St. Petersburg, because he's already in deep: $20,000 of his own money spent on the campaign so far; Sunday after Sunday listening to African-American church services; immersing himself in everything from the Pier's structural deficiencies to Campbell Park's code enforcement problems.
Wagman, 56, has emerged as the biggest wild card in the crowded and unpredictable mayoral contest. He's part city hall outsider, part hard-charging chief executive, and part well-heeled, St. Petersburg establishment type.
Unlike the other major candidates who have extensive City Council experience, Wagman is a stranger to most voters. But he also happens to be a millionaire capable of spending loads of money to become better known, has by far the most executive experience, and is supremely, maybe naively, confident.
"I said to myself this isn't rocket science. There's no one here who's better. … There's no vision," he said of rivals.
The 25-year St. Petersburg resident is cocky for a political rookie. When he said at a recent candidate forum that the city should dramatically increase its arts promotion budget to as much as $1 million, prominent arts philanthropist Bill Hough stood up to suggest the budget should be at least $2 million.
"Bill, Bill, Bill," sighed Wagman, a major philanthropist himself. "If I'd said $5 million, you'd have said $10 million. You need (for mayor) a person of character and strength that can look a Bill Hough in the eye and sometimes say, 'No.' "
Born in New Jersey, Wagman moved to Sarasota, where his parents in 1965 started a paint manufacturing company, Scott Paint, named after their only child. Bernie Wagman was content with a single manufacturing facility, but Scott Wagman saw aggressive expansion as the key to surviving against behemoths like Sherwin Williams and Home Depot.
By the time he sold it in 1998, Scott Paint had grown from a single, four-person business into a 140-employee, 24-store chain touting $19 million in annual sales. Wagman declined to reveal the sales price, but said it was "close to that" annual revenue number. While debt had to be paid off, "We did real well."
People who worked for him there recount a hands-on manager of endless energy and ideas for promoting teamwork and marketing the company.
"He's a person's person, one of those rare guys that always can get down to the average guy's level and never belittles anyone," said Larry Shumway, a Scott Paint manager who still works for the company that paid for his college education when Wagman was in charge. "Every time he'd talk to you, he'd make you just want to go out and hug a five-gallon bucket of paint. I don't think you're going to find anyone to say anything negative about him, except maybe that they wish he hadn't sold the company."
The company funded college educations for employees and at the height of the recession in the early 1990s started a 401(k) benefit even as Wagman said he temporarily cut his own salary to zero.
"One thing about Scott — and I think he got this from his dad — he always viewed the company as family," said Ted Bossart, now vice president of finance for Scott Paint. "Paying for people's tuitions, he didn't even care what they studied, because he felt the more education people had, the better person you become and the better employee you become."
There were bumps along the way, including Wagman having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up pollution at a Scott Paint property sold to Sarasota County. The company also had to pay back pay to employees for working on their lunch periods. Two employees filed a federal complaint alleging they were fired for trying to unionize Scott Paint for the Teamsters, but nothing came of it, and Wagman is proud only three employees signed union cards.
In any event, his management plan for City Hall mirrors the way Scott Paint staffers recall him: motivating employees.
Most candidates would say their No. 1 customers are taxpayers and citizens. Wagman says customer one is the city staff. His top initial priority as mayor, he says, would be to spend 60 days immersed in "every nook and cranny" of city government.
"I know how to work through people," Wagman said. "When I take care of those employees, when they see I'm a mature, level-headed guy that they can trust, then they are going to be the machine to initiate all the things that need to go on in this city."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.