Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro will seek Democratic nod for governor in 2022

There have been been low-key efforts to recruit a progressive primary challenger, but they haven’t been successful

By: - October 11, 2021 3:06 pm

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a union rally on Oct. 16, 2020 in Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Josh Shapiro is running for governor.

It’s a statement many have known to be true for quite some time, but will become official on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, according to published media reports on Monday and Democratic sources. A spokesperson for Shapiro could not immediately be reached for comment.

Shapiro, 48, elected the state’s Attorney General in 2016, entered the spotlight with a number of high profile legal actions, including releasing a grand jury report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, as well as by challenging former President Donald Trump in court and on cable news.

Shapiro’s reported entrance formalizes Democrats’ statewide field for 2022. While a dozen Democratic hopefuls have entered the U.S. Senate race and the race to be the lieutenant governor in the last year, until Wednesday, none had declared their ambition to become Pennsylvania’s next chief executive.

The race will be difficult. Midterm elections typically go against the party controlling the presidency — the Democrats in this case.

Much also is at stake. After eight years in office, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited, and Republicans have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly for the past 12 years. 

A win for Democrats means they continue to have a voice in the day-to-day running of Harrisburg; a GOP win means Republicans could set the agenda themselves.

As the state’s top lawyer since 2017, Shapiro has made a name for himself by fighting natural gas companies in court, and joining dozens of lawsuits against former Trump’s administration policies on the environment and abortion

Under his watch, the attorney general’s office also released a statewide grand jury report that chronicled, in painful detail, widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests across the state. Shapiro has been a vocal advocate for legislative changes to aid victims since.

In the last year, Shapiro has also built his profile by challenging Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 reelection loss, from tough talk in national media to a recent suit challenging Pennsylvania Senate Republicans efforts to investigate the election.

Shapiro also has inserted himself into numerous negotiations as attorney general. 

In 2019, he forged a compromise between Pittsburgh health care providers Highmark and UPMC to allow patients insured by Highmark to access UPMC services.

In the summer of 2020, amid Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, he also struck a bargain with police unions in the summer of 2020 that led to a small, but significant policing reform bill winning unanimous approval from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. 

This was enough for him to win reelection in 2020, earning the most votes of any candidate on the ballot.

But it’s not yet clear if Shapiro will face a primary challenger in 2022. Within the Democratic Party, Shapiro has some progressive detractors. In particular, as the commonwealth’s top cop, he’s been criticized for taking a “tough-on-crime” mentality to the job.

Shapiro has voted against more pardons than any other member of the five-person board, which grants leniency — it requires a unanimous vote to end an individual’s sentence prematurely.

Fetterman, Shapiro say they both believe in second chances. Pardons board votes tell two different stories

He also has said he supports the death penalty for “the most heinous of crimes” — a depature from Wolf who has implemented a moratorium on capital punishment — and opposed an effort in Philadelphia to establish safe injection sites, or locations were individuals can use illicit drugs under medical supervision. 

Additionally, Shapiro has feuded with Philadelphia’s popular progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner, including hiring a number of attorneys who left the DA’s office after Krasner was elected in 2017.

This record is enough for some progressives on criminal justice issues to openly mull recruiting a primary challenger.

Alon Gur, a political operative who worked on both Kranser’s 2017 campaign as well as Queens District Attorney Tiffany Caban’s unsuccessful 2019 run, told the Capital-Star that he’s heard from others in the criminal justice space that Shapiro’s office hasn’t been receptive to criticisms of his record on pardons and safe injection sites.

He hoped Shapiro would “update his positions in a few different areas because people in Pennsylvania need him to. And I hope he does it soon.”

In the meantime, Gur said that he and others were looking to at least one name — third term Philadelphia state Rep. Chris Rabb — to jump into the Democratic primary.

A vocal progressive with an occasional pragmatic streak, Rabb has made a name for himself introducing a bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty. He’s also floated state-level reparations for slavery and for the wrongly convicted, and wrote the police reform measure that Shapiro opened a path for in 2020 by compromising with the police unions.

“I think Chris Rabb is a uniquely talented person, and his running isn’t about anything other than that he would be a great governor who champions an amazing set of ideas,” Gur told the Capital-Star.

Rabb declined to comment on a potential gubernatorial run.

But it’s still unclear if Gur’s critiques will be enough to draw a progressive such as Rabb to challenge Shapiro, who already has at least $2.7 million in his campaign coffers, according to his most recent campaign finance filings, the endorsement of Wolf, and a winning track record.

The Republican field, meanwhile, is at least a dozen candidates deep and still developing. 

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, of Hazleton; longtime Republican lobbyist and consultant Charlie Gerow, and Pittsburgh attorney Jason Richey, among numerous others, have already jumped in. 

For many of these candidates, the stakes have been clear — a successful Republican candidate has to be able to beat Shapiro.

And with the lack of a clear front runner, other influential figures, such as Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, may still enter the fray.

Shapiro has been in the public eye since 2004, when he flipped a historically Republican state House district in Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia. The seat has been reliably blue since.

In 2006, when Democrats took back a single-seat majority in the lower chamber, Shapiro helped negotiate a deal that handed Republican Rep. Dennis O’Brien, of Philadelphia, the speaker’s gavel. 

As part of the deal, Shapiro was appointed “deputy speaker,” a new position, and assigned to a commission charged with reforming the House’s rules.

The commission banned late night votes and increased transparency in the lower chamber, among other reforms.

Shapiro then ran and won a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners in 2011, part of the county’s first Democratic majority board in decades. 

After serving on the board for five years, he ran for the state Attorney General’s office in 2016, first winning a three-person Democratic primary before winning statewide even as Republican Trump won at the top of the ticket. 

Shapiro was then re-elected in 2020, beating Republican Heather Heidelbaugh by 5  percentage points. In his reelection, he outperformed President Joe Biden in many ancestrally Democratic counties, including winning Luzerne County outright in northeastern Pennsylvania.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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