VISTA Today spoke with Laura Wagoner, the Finance Director of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, about growing up outside of Phoenixville and writing a paper as a senior at Franklin & Marshall on the borough’s revitalization. An all-around athlete in field hockey, basketball, and softball in high school, she earned 13 varsity letters at Agnes Irwin.
Wagoner also discussed how interning for Congressman Pat Meehan in Washington, D.C., for a summer got her hooked on politics, as well as the experience of fundraising and prospecting for the state’s Republican Party.
Where did you grow up, Laura?
I was born, the youngest of two children, at Bryn Mawr Hospital and grew up in Schuylkill Township, outside of Phoenixville. My father is an engineer who works on big bridges and roads. My mother was the CFO of Upper Main Line YMCA for 25 years and now has that same position at Surrey Services in Devon.
What do you remember about growing up in Schuylkill Township?
When I was a child, Phoenixville wasn’t a nice place; there was a lot of crime, prostitution, and drugs. We didn’t spend much time in town. By the time I turned twenty-one, the town was booming and coming back to life. I actually wrote a paper for a Local Government class my senior year at Franklin & Marshall about the revitalization of Phoenixville.
What sports did you play growing up?
When I was a teenager, my parents shuttled me to so many games and practices. I owe them big time. At one point, I was in three different softball leagues in the same season. I played all over the state and up and down the East Coast.
When I was 11, I played in the Babe Ruth World Series in North Carolina. My team, the Audubon Allstars, came in 4th place. I have some great memories from that tournament, including winning the “Leadership and Spirit Award,” which was given to one player in the entire series.
I played field hockey, basketball and softball in high school and played softball for two years in college. I also rowed for a year in high school when I took a one year hiatus from softball. I graduated from Agnes Irwin with thirteen varsity letters, playing two varsity sports while I was in 8th grade.
Looking back, was your involvement in youth sports too much?
Not at all! Managing all my sporting events is when I think I first became addicted to being over-stretched and fully immersed in doing so many different things. It was a great way to learn how to prioritize and handle pressure at such a young age.
What was your first job?
I was camp counselor for four years teaching sports and golf camp at the Upper Main Line YMCA in high school. I also worked at the Panera Bread store in Gateway Plaza my senior year of high school just to earn some money for college. While I was in college, I worked at a boutique along the boardwalk in Ocean City and Margate during the summers and in the fitness center during the school year.
What lessons from those first jobs stay with you today?
I think being a camp counselor and working in retail prepared me for being in a political position. I learned to solve issues diplomatically, work with different people, as well as not get upset constantly being yelled at.
How did you end up going to Agnes Irwin for high school?
My softball coach, who was also the athletic director at Agnes Irwin, recommended I apply. I took and somehow passed the entrance exam and transitioned from St Patrick’s, a small local parochial school in Malvern, to Agnes Irwin in 7th grade.
You were in 7th grade. Was transitioning to a new school challenging?
It was very difficult transitioning from a co-ed to a single-sex school in 7th grade. A lot of girls in my class had been at the school since Kindergarten or had come the year before, which was more common, and most of them had already made their friend groups. I wasn’t prepared academically, especially in math, and I didn’t come from the same background of wealth and affluence that many of my classmates’ parents enjoyed, so that was definitely a transition.
Agnes Irwin was a whole new world for me. In 7th grade, I didn’t know a single brand – Vera Bradley and Kate Spade very popular at the time. It took a while, probably three or four years to fully assimilate and feel like I belonged there, but in the end, attending Agnes Irwin was the best decision my parents ever pushed me to.
Sports definitely helped me transition. In 8th grade, I was Athlete of the Week for the Main Line Times – an 8th grader playing on the Varsity softball team. That was pretty cool! My sophomore year, I was MVP on the field hockey team and my senior year, I was captain of the softball team.
Senior year, our softball team won the Inter-Ac Championship for the second year in a row, and I tied for first in Delaware County in home runs and was named to the All Inter-Ac and All-Main Line teams.
Where did you go to college?
I looked at some big schools initially but chose Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland instead. Not only was Washington the first college to offer me a softball scholarship, but I loved the coach as well. Much to my dismay, that coach left Washington College at the start of my freshman year so I didn’t even get to play for her.
I transferred to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster after sophomore year. I knew I wanted to go to a small school, and Franklin & Marshall had about 1,000 more students and a town nearby. It was a much better fit. I began as a Political Science major at Washington College and had taken a good amount of political related classes my freshman and sophomore years and continued on as a Government major at F&M.
Was transferring to F&M the right move?
Transferring to F&M was the best decision I ever made! When I transferred, I re-examined my priorities and made a conscious effort to focus on my education. It was a similar experience as my transition to Agnes Irwin. Most people had already made their friend groups, but it was sports and the students in the government department that helped me adapt. I worked hard to excel in my classes and make the Dean’s list.
When did you get interested in politics?
I have a pretty interesting path to my current position. I just recently spoke on a panel at the Republican State Committee meeting about getting young people involved in politics and discussed my former life as a Democrat. Growing up, my parents were not very political. We didn’t talk politics at the dinner table, mostly just sports.
2008 was the first year I was eligible to vote, and since everyone I knew was voting for Barack Obama, I followed suit and registered as a Democrat and voted for him as well. It wasn’t until I started getting serious about my studies at F&M that I realized I fell on the conservative side of the spectrum. I interned one summer for Congressman Pat Meehan in D.C. and I was hooked!
What is there about local politics that excites you?
So many people focus on national politics that nobody seems to be concerned about local elections and how important it is to vote. Local races affect your life the most! We have a roughly twenty percent turnout rate in elections that dictate what schools teach, how much we pay in property taxes, and so much more.
Local politics is NOT sexy to be sure, but its where the most important day-to-day issues are hammered out. The people serving on the school boards, borough councils and county row office are normal people who are sacrificing time with their families to serve the community.
How did you get to where you are today?
I became very involved in school clubs when I transferred to F&M. I was a section editor for an online magazine for women and a very active member of the International Women’s Outreach Committee. I taught English to Nepalese immigrants on Wednesday and Friday mornings before classes. That was incredibly rewarding. It was then that I decided I wanted my career to focus on helping people.
Through my mother’s connections, I met Maureen Martinez, who was the Executive Director of a non-profit called Justice4PAKids. I interned for her and helped her organize that organization’s first 5K run and first motorcycle ride. This internship and the projects I worked on helped me get a lot of practice writing and doing social media work.
Maureen was good friends with Deb Abel who suggested I interview with the Chester County Republican Party for a job post-graduation.
This past weekend, I spoke at the Pennsylvania Young Republican’s Awards Dinner to introduce an award for the Young Republican Champion of the Year. My boss, Val DiGiorgio, was the recipient. I spoke about my first interaction with him, where I cried as I walked out of the interview, thinking I’d never get a job in politics. Val took a big chance on hiring me. I had absolutely no experience, other than the classes I had taken in college.
He’s been my biggest champion over the last four and a half years, and has really shaped the professional I am today.
I started out as the Member Services and Outreach Director of the Republican Party of Chester County and was soon promoted to Political Director. After about a year and a half in that position, I was promoted to Executive Director. Since February, I’ve been working with Val at the Republican Party of Pennsylvania as the Finance Director, following his win as State Party Chair.
What do you think Val saw in you, Laura?
He knew he could ask me to do something and it would get done. Despite how simple that sounds, I think that’s a big part of it. I work very well independently so he doesn’t need to be constantly asking me what I’m working on.
Where do you get that ability from?
As my dad says, he’s not “strict,” but he set high expectations based on his belief in my innate abilities and he expected those commitments to be met. If my parents asked me to do something, I knew I had to do it.
I think I’ve always had leadership qualities. Even when I was a kid playing softball, I was the one cheering my teammates on from the dugout or calming the pitcher down. I was a catcher, and I was giving my pitcher the courage she needed to face the next batter. My teammates listened to me and knew they could look to me to be the calming influence on the team.
Actually, the Delco Times wrote an article on me my senior year at Agnes Irwin titled “Wagoner: An Inspiration for Agnes Irwin.” That was surreal.
What are you focused on right now?
2016 was one of the busiest, most frustrating and rewarding years of my life. We were working on something like 19 national, state and county races. I was also finishing my Masters of Public Administration at West Chester University. I worked long, long days and then I would go home and be writing papers until 2 in the morning, only to repeat the process the next day.
This year is an “off-year” election. When Val won the state chair role, he pledged to win all seven of the state judge race. We want to have a lot of momentum heading into 2018.
In February I was voted to be the National Committeewoman for the Pennsylvania Young Republicans. In this role, I’ve been able to travel to Boston and Annapolis for National Young Republican meetings and hear from YR’s all over the state about what their chapters are doing. That’s been a very cool experience.
When Val won the Chairmanship in February, he and the PA YR Chairman Rick Loughery wanted to work hard to triple the size of the PA YR organization. We started with 9 in February and just charted our 24th chapter. We held our Awards Gala on Saturday with 150 young people from across the state!
Other fun projects I have been involved with the YR’s have been “an appreciation rally” for Senator Toomey outside of his Philadelphia office and handing out 330 backpacks outfitted with school supplies to different schools in Philadelphia with the Philly YR chapter.
What about 2018?
Being 26 years old and the Director of Finance for the state party is such an experience for me. I’m so grateful for Val’s support. He believes in me and challenges me every day to do and be better. We have been traveling the state and meeting such interesting people. Recently, we held an event with former Governor’s Ridge and Schweiker. They were lovely!
My role is finding people who are open to contributing to the party’s efforts and initiatives and setting up introductory calls or meetings for Val.
2018 is going to be a big year of fundraising and prospecting. We will continue to travel all over the state to meet with people and encourage them to contribute to our cause. I help with the introduction for many prospects, provide Val with background information and help him convince the person why they should invest in the Republican Party. It’s a good amount of briefing and legwork. I also do a lot of events.
My dad actually calls my job the “director of fun and games” because I do so many events.
What’s been your best experience thus far?
Participating in the Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series program by far. I had the privilege of meeting women from all over the state and spend 10 months learning how to better our Party. I was nominated by my classmates to give the commencement address. I focused my speech on how I had been actively avoiding large, strong female organizations my whole life, and how the program helped me understand that being a strong woman was an asset, not a liability.
In Chester County, we held an event with Marco Rubio that topped over 800 attendees. I was only 24 years old at the time and it was an incredible feeling to pull that one off.
What do you do in your free time?
I have a nine-month-old Great Dane named Freddie who I walk the Valley Forge Park trails with a few days a week. I love walking around Valley Forge – I actually just recently complained about something and unexpectedly found myself volunteering to do some social media for the Valley Forge Park Alliance.
I do Orange Theory Fitness in West Chester four days a week. My mom does it too – we are hooked! I like to play golf with my boyfriend Alex as well as my mom, although, things can get pretty competitive between the two of us, in a good way!
I still play softball in a co-ed league in Malvern and recently won the home run derby at the league all-star game.
Finally Laura, what is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
My 83-year old great uncle Gus recently told me, ‘if you’re going to go to the dance, you better be ready to dance.’ His advice reminds me if I jump into something, I better be willing to give it my all. I use it as a reminder to get out of the stands and do something with my life.