There’s a reason one boldface named Philly powerbroker dubbed Josh Shapiro “the Jewish JFK” some 20 years ago. The new governor is a man of once-in-a-generation political skill, combining Obama-like oratory chops with stellar backroom deal moves. Just how Shapiro’s been able to clear primary fields and damn near pick his general election opponents remains a Penn & Teller-like trick.
But now that his candidacy for governor has rescued democracy and the national left-leaning press, at least, is hyperventilating over his future, there’s that little detail to come that some refer to as “governing.” The last two Democratic governors, Tom Wolf and Ed Rendell, both ran into the buzzsaw that is Pennsylvania politics in their respective first years, and even Republican Governor Tom Corbett had his difficulties with a Republican legislature.
Politically, our Commonwealth contains vast and disparate constituencies. (Remember the famous James Carville line, that “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between?”) Moreover, there has long been a permanent establishment in Harrisburg that often seems content to wait out new governors, with their fancy ideas for change.
“Governors come and governors go,” one Harrisburg insider recently told me, “but the legislature is there forever.”
This week, though, we saw a crack in that allergy to change. While Washington, D.C. Congressional Republicans have treated us to a frightening display of dysfunction in their inability to pick a leader, enough Republicans in Harrisburg aligned with Democrats behind a consensus choice for Speaker of the House: Democrat turned Independent Mark Rozzi, who, as a victim of priest sexual abuse, has had a longstanding relationship with Shapiro, who famously took on the Catholic Church.
Who knew that Pennsylvania has a chance to be a national good governance model?
Upon his ascension, Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, appears to have changed his party affiliation, promising to put “the institution before ideology … I pledge my allegiance and my loyalty to no interest in this building, to no interest in our politics. I pledge my loyalty to the people of the Commonwealth.”
I can’t underscore enough how game-changing this could be. Many insiders immediately began speculating that Shapiro’s backroom fingerprints were all over this deal. Given the history of Shapiro’s pragmatic, consensus-seeking ways, it now realigns state leadership around a Democratic governor, a Republican Senate President Pro Tem leader in conservative Kim Ward, and, now, an Independent Speaker who will not caucus with either party.
Suddenly, Pennsylvania is a national example in a cutting-edge political experiment: tri-partisanship. (Last week, we covered why even bipartisanship matters.) More to the point, it could give a much-needed boost to the rise of independent politics; the fastest growing political affiliation in the state and nation, after all, is neither Democratic nor Republican, but Independent. And our closed primary system, which disenfranchises voters, is not only anachronistic, but anti-democratic.
Finally, the emergence of Rozzi should enable Shapiro to avoid what could have been a huge distraction in his first months as governor — Republican efforts to get amendments like an abortion ban on the ballot. Republicans had some leverage, given that Democrats amateurishly proclaimed themselves in the House majority prematurely. (It’s just math, folks.) Instead, in stark contrast to the U.S. Congress, there were 16 reasonable Republicans in the Pennsylvania House — perhaps prodded along by a deal inspired or supported by the governor-to-be? — to opt for the practical Rozzi alternative. Who knew that Pennsylvania has a chance to be a national good governance model?
So how should Shapiro govern? How does he avoid making the year-one mistakes of the likes of Wolf and even Rendell, one of the great political minds of his time? Well, for one:
Lose the “M” word
After his slam-dunk, 14-point general election win in a purple state, Shapiro has in interviews proclaimed himself the beneficiary of a voter mandate. But Shapiro and his team did such a great job of defining the stakes, the election was really about the fitness for office of his opponent, Christian Nationalist insurrectionist Doug Mastriano — and not much else.
The mandate, in other words, that voters have given to Shapiro was not to pursue any one program or plan; it was simply to not be crazy. Shapiro brilliantly and accurately framed Mastriano as a threat to your freedoms, and voters overwhelmingly decided to pass on that.
“Governors come and governors go,” one Harrisburg insider recently told me, “but the legislature is there forever.”
Most House Republicans won’t be persuaded by Shapiro pointing to his margin of victory. No, he’s going to have to make deals and form creative coalitions. And his political CV is uniquely suited to this moment. Shapiro represents a type of politics we’ve long needed, one that harkens back to the promise of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, who brought together working-class Blacks and Whites, good government reformers, private sector patriots, 20-something activists, and New Deal veterans. It was, in the words of Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
Sounds like a pretty good rallying cry for these divided times, no? How else can Shapiro avoid the Wolf/Rendell first-year pitfalls, and govern from a dynamic — even progressive — center?
It almost seems like it’s just part of Democrats’ DNA, doesn’t it? Joe Biden spends months trying to coerce Joe Manchin into supporting his gargantuan Build Back Better bill, when it later became clear that there was a deal on the table the whole time just for historic climate change investment. That deal was eventually made, but not before a drop of 20 points in Biden’s polling. When he was in office, Obama advertised his antipathy to the hard work of bipartisan compromise when he quipped, “People say I don’t hang out with Mitch McConnell enough. You try hanging out with Mitch McConnell!”
Similarly, Wolf’s first budget was nothing but a left-wing wishlist, and Rendell spent a ton of political capital seeking a major tax increase in his first year — handing Republicans an issue. Shapiro saw all this, and presumably learned from it. He also saw Rendell’s master moves at bipartisanship — as when, in exchange for historic levels of education funding, he infuriated Democrats by pledging not to campaign against Republicans who voted for his budget, even offering a letter praising them for their courageous act that they could use in their advertising.
Now, rather than try to go it alone, Shapiro would do well to carve out deals with Rozzi and Ward. Ward, though, could be a challenge. She has said all the right things about cooperating with the new governor, but you wonder if the conservative lawmaker from Westmoreland County has a caucus willing to reach across the aisle. Rendell dealt with Republicans like Senators Robert Jubelirer and Dominic Pileggi and Rob Wonderling — they might fight him, but in the end, they’d reach common ground.
It’s unclear whether Ward has such open-mindedness on her team. But if Shapiro and Rozzi and the handful of Republicans who voted for him can work together, it could pressure the Senate to join the fun, too.
Look to the Cuomo example … without the sexual harassment
Before his own personal failings did him in, Andrew Cuomo’s three terms as governor of New York was a textbook case on how strange bedfellows can join forces and get progressive laws passed, and it may be an object lesson for Shapiro.
Cuomo’s jiu-jitsu-like backroom moves — as recounted in Michael Shnayerson’s 2015 biography, The Contender — delivered more progressive accomplishments than any other state’s chief executive in recent history, yet he remained unpopular with progressives, who’d rather be right and lose than compromise.
“From Harrisburg to D.C., the debate is always about taxes and spending, when what we should be doing is starting our budgets at zero, defining our core mission, and then funding it,” Shapiro once told me.
You’d think that an elected official who banned fracking, who was ahead of the curve on a $15 minimum wage and marriage equality, and who passed free college tuition would be a progressive dream, but Shnayerson shows how Cuomo, skeptical of corrupt downstate Democrats, secretly empowered a renegade group of the General Assembly called the Independent Democratic Caucus to collude with Republicans to get him what he wanted. (Which may explain why Cuomo fought New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio for so long on a millionaire’s tax — he owed much of his progressive agenda to a coalition that included Republicans.) Shnayerson shows the sausage being made and it is a thing to behold — the deals, the head fakes, the way Cuomo settles scores and runs them up at the same time.
Now, what Cuomo didn’t have was a likable personality; he used fear and intimidation to get his way, which came back to bite him in the end. Shapiro shouldn’t emulate Cuomo’s scowling mean-spiritedness, which there’s no chance of: Shapiro is nothing if not a mensch.
But on any given issue, Cuomo was willing to piss off, say, 20 percent of his party and a third of the opposition if it meant getting points on the board. How he did it — the rewards offered, the threats implied — could help Shapiro wring out some wins from a House that is signaling it will deal and a Senate that could be enticed — or shamed — into going along.
Shapiro’s already made some stellar hires — like the heroic Al Schmidt for Secretary of State — but did you notice what could turn out to be his best one? He plucked Uri Monson out of the Philadelphia School District to be Budget Secretary.
Talk about track record: Everywhere Monson goes, finances improve. That was the case over a decade ago, when Shapiro made Monson his point person on zero-based budgeting in Montgomery County. It’s an innovative way of municipal accounting that Shapiro first heard about from Bill Clinton in the 1990s. (Policy geeks never forget a truly wonky idea).
When Shapiro was elected Montgomery County Commission Chairman in 2011, he faced a $10 million budget hole and a structural deficit of $49 million. In short order, he had a new directive for all department heads: Instead of submitting their usual request for a percentage raise in their budgets, each had to write a paragraph detailing their core mission. Then Shapiro and Monson worked backward with them from there, essentially starting at zero and figuring out how much it would take to meet the mission.
Within a year, the shortfall was transformed into a balanced budget with no new taxes, one that increased pension funding, grew the county’s reserves for the first time in four years, and eliminated all earmarks.
“I believe zero-based budgeting is the most important thing governments can do,” Shapiro told me then. “From Harrisburg to D.C., the debate is always about taxes and spending, when what we should be doing is starting our budgets at zero, defining our core mission, and then funding it.”
Through zero-based budgeting, Shapiro was able to decrease overall spending but increase investment in areas where it was most needed. The exercise exposes bloated spending — which small government Republicans should love — and can actually increase spending on proven programs, which liberals should embrace. (Jim Kenney pledged in 2015 to use zero-based budgeting to raise $90 million for pre-K, but opted for a regressive tax instead.)
Might Shapiro and Monson be putting the band back together again?
Moreover, this tri-partisan way of thinking — enacting policies that appeal to enough Republicans, Independents and Democrats in order to lead to progressive ends, can inform much of Shapiro’s agenda. He’s on record supporting a corporate tax cut, for example, which is badly needed if the state’s employers are to remain competitive. But we learned from the 2017 Trump corporate tax cut that its pro-growth effects are diluted if all said cuts do is fuel stock buybacks. So a tax cut paired with some mandate or incentive to reinvest a percentage of the windfall in workers can be pro-growth and pro-worker, in keeping with that Bobby Kennedy postulate: A liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.
The Inquirer’s Joe DiStefano floats another Montco strategy the new governor might want to revisit: Dumping high-fee Wall Street firms from managing state pension funds, and replacing them with low-fee index fund managers. In Montco, Shapiro cut loose dozens of specialized Wall Street firms and saved millions. At the state level, it would involve taking on some high-powered fights that might cost significant political capital. Which gets us to …
Try to keep the Presidency outta your head
Everyone I speak to about Josh Shapiro — I mean, everyone — has vast praise for him but, unprovoked, they all point to the same potential Achilles heel: His voracious ambition. Unanimously, they say he aspires to the presidency and that the 2028 primary campaign starts now. (Or 2024, in the unlikely event there’s no Biden candidacy!)
Oftentimes, the word ambition is lobbed at Shapiro as a political epithet, a way to call into question whether he has core principles or simply pursues that which is in his electoral self-interest. Now, I’m not sure why ambition is a bad thing, except if it will mean he shies away from making controversial decisions as governor because of a desire to be president.
If Shapiro really wants to be president, the best way to do that is to forget about it and focus on the joy in each and every moment of interaction with what used to be called “the common man.” Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good prescription for success in a Commonwealth.
So time will tell. If he’s eyeing a 2026 primary campaign for president that will now start in South Carolina, we’ll see if he skews more left than his centrist campaign rhetoric would indicate. Case in point: In September, politicos noticed a change on the then-candidate’s website: He was now in favor of “Lifeline Scholarships” — direct-to-student, tax-funded scholarships that kids in the worst-performing public schools could put toward tuition elsewhere. Shapiro has been supported by both the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and the American Federation of Teachers, both of which vociferously oppose school choice — and have considerable clout in Democratic presidential primaries.
How does Shapiro navigate this? On the stump, he pledged his support time and again for public school funding (which is at historic levels), but smartly made the case that “we can invest in public education and empower parents to put their kids in the best opportunity for them to succeed, and I don’t think we have to harm public schools in the process.”
It’s a fine line, no doubt. These next years will test whether Shapiro has the mettle to say no to his friends on matters of principle. But let’s also concede that acts like taking on the Catholic Church appear like a no-brainer only in retrospect. At the time, it was a risky political bet.
Be a happy warrior
I was pleased to catch a glimpse of Shapiro, once a skilled high school point guard, wearing a Sixers jersey at a recent game. Our elected leaders seem so dour and downright mean these days. When did jaw-clenching become a prerequisite for public office?
Shapiro may never be the glad-hander that Rendell was, but he’s amiable and interested in other people. Back in the 60s and early 70s, the phrase Happy Warrior infused itself into our politics. It was a reference from a Wordsworth poem, following the death of British war hero Lord Nelson: The Happy Warrior, he wrote, “owes to virtue every triumph that he knows” and is “attired with sudden brightness, like a Man inspired.”
Last weekend, because I have no life, I watched this interview with the original political happy Warrior, the late former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. How can’t you love this guy who quips that “behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law?” He’s brilliant, yes, but he’s also so happy to be sharing this moment with you — which was Humphrey’s way, no matter the circumstance he found himself in. (He was a shoo-in to be president, felled only by LBJ’s intransigence on the Vietnam War.)
If Josh Shapiro really wants to be president, the best way to do that is to forget about it and focus on the joy in each and every moment of interaction with what Humphrey and his generation of liberals used to call the common man. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good prescription for success in a Commonwealth, and perhaps beyond.
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