It may have made headlines, but it wasn’t really news when Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced his candidacy for governor a couple of weeks ago. He’s long been seen as our state’s probable next chief executive; there are those who consider his eventual election almost as inevitable as the odds that favored Edwin Edwards in 1983’s Louisiana gubernatorial race, prompting the ever-colorful Edwards to quip that “the only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
Besides, there is no one inside politics surprised by Shapiro’s ambition. Years ago, a prominent inside player in Philly politics dubbed Shapiro, the-then boy wonder state house reformer, “the Jewish JFK.” It was a wonderful line—striking all at once at Shapiro’s mix of erudition, coolness, ambition, and his assassin-like political instincts.
Oftentimes, the word “ambition” is lobbed at Shapiro as a political epithet, a way to call in to question whether he has core principles or simply pursues that which is in his electoral self-interest. The thinking goes that he’s a modern-day Bill Clinton, famous for his political calculations.
When Clinton was in his twenties, he wrote a letter to a ROTC recruiter saying, “I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system.” Once that came to light during his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton couldn’t escape the critique that he was just a political animal—no matter the wins he’d go on to put on the board.
Politicos around the state view Shapiro in the same light—as someone who will do anything to advance his own interests. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard political insiders grouse that “Josh is in it for Josh.” That was the scuttlebutt just this week, when Shapiro broke from Governor Tom Wolf’s climate change plan’s carbon-pricing regulation, aligning his position with the building trades unions that have supported him in the past.
But—it’s complicated. If you read the full-context of Clinton’s long-ago letter, it’s not a Machiavellian screed. It’s actually the heartfelt rumination of a torn, but ambitious, young man—who would go on to deliver real progressive change while keeping front of mind the self-evident truth that no change can be enacted by he who loses.
“Here’s a warning to the Democratic party,” Shapiro said last year. “If we don’t get our act together and compete everywhere, not just in certain communities around Pennsylvania as we did in 2016, we’re going to lose again. We need to show up in places like Bradford County and communities that feel like Democrats have forgotten them and don’t appreciate their very real anger.”
So it is with Shapiro. Yes, he’s calculating. But as he demonstrated in his “Big Fights Bus Tour” to kick off his campaign, there are risky moves on his CV. The first time I became aware of him was when, as a young state rep, he bucked his party’s establishment and was one of the nation’s first electeds anywhere to endorse Barack Obama for president. That doesn’t seem so risky now, but then? He was breaking not only from Hillary Clinton, but also from his own sitting governor and mentor, Ed Rendell, as well as Philly’s mayor, Michael Nutter.
More recently, in a state that is 30 percent Catholic, here was a Jewish AG famously taking on the Catholic Church. Likewise, his prosecution of some 70 corrupt politicians, while popular among the citizenry, was a middle finger to the political status quo that risked alienating those in his own party.
To wit: Shapiro’s prosecution of former state rep Movita Johnson-Harrell, who tragically has lost two sons to gun violence but also funneled something like half a million dollars through an anti-gun violence charity to pay off a Porsche, fur coats and a Mexico vacation. Johnson-Harrell once worked for DA Larry Krasner and he, along with countless other progressives, still publicly genuflect before her. (Johnson-Harrell was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail back in January of 2020 before an early Covid-related release and now she’s back, being praised by Krasner for her “courage” and running the Charles Foundation, another charity, this one in memory of her late son.)
We’ll see how the ambition critique shakes out. Time will tell whether Shapiro can say no to his friends—still the best barometer for courage in politics. But what is missed when we talk about Shapiro is the degree to which, as a political candidate adept at practicing the art of politics, he really is a throwback.
We live in a time when everyone—reality stars, CEOs, carnival barkers masquerading as real estate titans—thinks they can succeed in political office, without any prior training. Would you sit in a dentist’s chair if the guy wielding that drill told you that, up until right now, he’d been very successful as a financier in the private sector?
There are many lessons in the rise of Shapiro for Democrats, and count that as the first one. Try electing candidates, like Rendell, who have demonstrably mastered the unsexy amino acids of politics: The building of coalitions, the gauging of leverage, the horse-trading, the melding of soaring rhetoric with the inside game necessary to get stuff done. “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo once famously said.
Well, our politics have been overrun by poets. Let’s look at examples of Shapiro as prose master. During his time in the state house, he came up with and was instrumental in seeing to fruition an innovative backroom deal in which Democrats, in the majority by all of one vote and faced with a fractious caucus, struck a deal with a friendly Republican, Dennis O’Brien, to become Speaker of the House. Shapiro—who became Deputy Speaker in the deal—was critical in a bipartisan agreement that left Democrats with a Speaker of the opposite party they could control.
As Montgomery County Commissioner, Shapiro instituted zero-based budgeting, an innovative policy, while co-opting (some might say playing) his Republican colleague, Bruce Castor. As Attorney General, the taking on of the Catholic Church got a lot attention, but Shapiro’s intervention in a health care dispute in the western part of the state may have been just as telling. Most elected officials were loathe to intervene in a war between the University of Pittsburgh medical center and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. Shapiro waded in; initially, he seemed to lean on UPMC, but dug in on the issue. In a story with a lot of twists and turns and black eyes all around, he was part of a historic settlement—after all had looked bleak. He’d spent lots of political capital when the outcome had been unknown, and, in the end, demonstrated significant problem-solving skills, a vast amount of luck, or some combination thereof.
Also as AG, and closer to home, Shapiro schooled Krasner in the art of political jujitsu. When it came to light that Krasner and his staff refer to prosecutors he’d fired as “war criminals” and that those who had gone to work for Shapiro had “fled to Paraguay,” a reference to one of the countries that gave safe harbor to Nazis after World War II, Shapiro didn’t deign to punch down. He simply sent an email to his staff condemning the DA’s “hateful speech,” which naturally got picked up by the media. In short order, the Anti-Defamation League was admonishing Krasner, and the DA found himself where no elected official wants to be: In a defensive crouch, forced to point out that he never actually used the word “Nazi.”
Whatever you think of Shapiro’s ambition, these are all examples of his political skill at work—at a time when, all around us, it seems like politicians talk about change but often fail to grasp how to actually deliver it.
What else can we cull from the Shapiro phenomenon?
How about this: Just. Show. Up. It was Woody Allen who once famously said that “80 percent of life is just showing up,” and, in his two statewide races, Shapiro—a Jewy Jew from the Philly region, says this Jewy observer—showed up time and again in Trump country, and reaped the rewards of such menschkeit. In both 2016 and 2020, he won more votes than anyone on the ballot. In 2016, he won 3,057,010 votes to Trump’s 2,970,733; in 2020, he won 3,461,471 to Biden’s 3,458,229.
Shapiro has won counties like Northampton and Luzerne—decidedly not Democratic hotbeds. While Biden made a concerted effort to show up in counties that Hillary Clinton had written off four years earlier, even he was outperformed by Shapiro. In Erie, for example, Biden lost the media market by more than 20 points; Shapiro by 5. Biden lost the Pittsburgh region by 6 points; Shapiro won it by 4. Or look at Beaver County in Western PA, which Biden lost to Trump by 18 points. Shapiro only lost it by four points.
“I was to the left of center in communities that were far right, but if you show up and you look them in the eye and you say, I understand the opioid crisis in your community, and here’s what I’m going to do about it, and then actually deliver on it the way we have, I think you earn people’s respect, even if they disagree with you ideologically,” Shapiro told me in a Citizen virtual chat last year.
He reminisced about a town hall he held in heavily Republican Bradford County in the northeastern part of the state. He says a voter in a red MAGA hat approached him and shared that he hadn’t voted for him and went on to tick off all his policy disagreements. “But he said, ‘At least you’re here and you’re fighting for me,’” Shapiro recalled. “That meant a ton to me, and here’s a warning to the Democratic party—if we don’t get our act together and compete everywhere, not just in certain communities around Pennsylvania as we did in 2016, we’re going to lose again. We need to show up in places like Bradford County and communities that feel like Democrats have forgotten them and don’t appreciate their very real anger.”
When he said that, Shapiro was looking ahead to 2020—and he was prophetic. Though he and Biden won, Democrats around the state and elsewhere performed poorly. Now his warning applies even more forcefully to 2022. Democrats consistently make the mistake of thinking that voting is not an emotional act.
White papers can be dead-on when it comes to the issues, but, at a time when Thomas Jefferson statues are coming down and the gubernatorial candidate in Virginia famously says “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” it’s not unreasonable for the average working man or woman, Black or White, to conclude that a party of elites has given up on you.
“I don’t think in fighting to defeat Donald Trump, we need to attack the people who voted for him,” Shapiro said last year. “I think we need to understand them.”
Which gets us to our second lesson to be culled from the Shapiro example. That there just may exist the possibility for a new political paradigm. Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive, independent think tank, calls it “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
In a Century Foundation report titled “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy” and an op-ed in The New York Times, Kahlenberg holds up Kennedy’s stirring 1968 presidential primary campaign as a model for a worker-based, multi-racial political coalition that strikes at common economic themes across groups that are often purposefully set off one against the other. As Shapiro rails on the stump about average working men and women who are preyed upon by bad actor corporations, for example, he’s striking at populist themes without “othering” or appealing to resentment. It’s more Harry Truman than Donald Trump or even Bernie Sanders.
As Shapiro rails on the stump about average working men and women who are preyed upon by bad actor corporations, for example, he’s striking at populist themes without “othering” or appealing to resentment. It’s more Harry Truman than Donald Trump or even Bernie Sanders.
But to pull off populism without the anger is, almost by definition, to possess the ability to strike a chord interpersonally, to have what Biden and Rendell possess in abundance: The common touch. Shapiro, charming in person, can be stiff and establishment-seeming in public. I’ve learned more about politics from watching Rendell through the years than anyone else, and I still marvel at his gift of likability. The rumpled suits, the shuffle of a walk, the wisecracking—it all endeared him to folks from the street to the elite.
Does Shapiro have those chops? That’s what campaigns are for. Before Rendell won the mayoral election in 1991, he wasn’t the Ed Rendell who would go on to be called “America’s Mayor” by then-Vice President Al Gore or the governor who invested in education spending more than any in the nation. He was a former DA, a twice-failed candidate for higher office, and an Eagles fan who once paid a guy twenty bucks to hit a member of the Dallas Cowboys with a snowball from the 700 level of the old Veterans Stadium. (That controversy actually endeared him to Philly voters.) He grew into becoming an icon, in other words.
Like Rendell, who saw something early on in him, Shapiro has proven adept at engaging in public fights but seemingly not making enemies. In politics, that’s golden, but Shapiro would do well to remember that it’s a skill that gets tested the higher and higher you climb.
Header photo courtesy of Shapiro for Governor