The Democratic establishment is behind Josh Shapiro for governor. Will Pa. follow?

Shapiro said he has ‘been in the game. I have taken on the powerful and I’ve held them accountable. I’ve gotten real things done for the people’

By: - October 13, 2021 1:45 pm

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at his gubernatorial campaign kick off in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, 10/13/21 (Courtesy of Shapiro campaign).

PITTSBURGH — At a rally with this western Pennsylvania city’s skyline in the background, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro officially kicked off his 2022 gubernatorial run.

Emphasizing his record as the state attorney general’s office, where, since 2017, he’s challenged health care giants Highmark and UPMC, the Catholic Church over child sexual abuse, and former President Donald Trump, Shapiro argued he was the right man to bring Pennsylvania into a brighter future.

“There is so much on the line right now,” Shapiro, 48, said to a crowd of dozens of labor leaders and elected officials on Wednesday morning. 

But Shapiro said he has “been in the game. I have taken on the powerful and I’ve held them accountable. I’ve gotten real things done for the people.”

Pennsylvania’s governor holds a key role in the everyday running of state government. 

They oversee the state’s sprawling bureaucracy, from unemployment compensation claims to environmental permits to driver’s license centers. They’ll present a budget blueprint each year that will form a starting point for key legislative negotiations on taxes and spending. And with a wave of a pen, they can sign or veto new laws impacting abortion, gun, and voting rights among other topics.

As of now, no other Democrats have stepped up to challenge Shapiro for the party nomination. 

Democrats and analysts have argued that is because he’s a proven vote getter; has served as staff for, or has been elected to, local, state, and federal government; that he’s a prolific fundraiser and campaigner; and that he’s a tireless worker who values consent building with those to his left and right.

“He’s ubiquitous in the state,” longtime Pennsylvania politics watcher Terry Madonna told the Capital-Star. “I don’t know another attorney general who’s been more active.”

But the hill to climb in the coming 13 months before the 2022 election is long and steep. Shapiro will be running to replace Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat who is term-limited out of office, in a midterm election that,  by long-standing political trends, should be good for Republicans.

In statements, state and national Republicans tied Shapiro to Wolf, whose polling has gotten worse in recent months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s no wonder Shapiro is the Democrats’ hand-picked candidate, who else will carry on the failed policies that have left the commonwealth behind?” the Republican Governors Association, which helps to elect Republicans to their state’s chief executive office across the country, said in a statement. “Voters are eager for change and look forward to electing a Republican governor next fall.”

At least a dozen Republicans have said they are running or are mulling a run to give the GOP full control of the levers of government. Their ranks include former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale.

In a statement, Barletta said Shapiro’s “policies are dictated to him by leftist activists and the residents of the Commonwealth have already suffered enough.”

To be sure, some positions, such as his legal actions against natural gas producers, have endeared Shapiro to parts of the left.

State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, appeared next to Shapiro last week when he announced 48 criminal charges against a pipeline company for allegedly violating state law.

Speaking to the Capital-Star this week, she fell short of endorsing Shapiro. But his work on the environment validated her and her community’s concerns, Otten said.

Shapiro files criminal charges against Energy Transfer in construction of Mariner East 2 pipeline

After dealing with Wolf, who she felt had shut her out when she criticized his pipeline policies, she was interested to see how Shapiro would act when he can set his own policy agenda rather than file lawsuits where appropriate.

“I’m hopeful that not just on the environment, he’ll be motivated to do some of the things he can’t do as attorney general,” Otten said. “It’s his legacy here right? He has the ability to build a really impactful legacy.”

There have been whispers among activists to recruit a primary challenger to Shapiro, particularly among criminal justice reformers who take issue with his tough-on-crime stances as the commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer. Shapiro has, for example, backed the death penalty in the past.

But mounting a challenge will be difficult. Shapiro was surrounded by lawmakers from across the spectrum at his kick off, from progressive Pittsburgh Democratic nominee Ed Gainey to more conservative Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. 

Shapiro also had numerous union leaders at the event, signaling he may have already locked up a key Democratic base for monetary backing and boots on the ground.

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, said Democrats’ quiet coalescence around Shapiro shows that the party recognizes the need to win in 2022 to block what Republicans could do with complete control of state government.

“I think the stakes are so critical, Democrats are willing to say — this one time — ‘we’re not going to do a purity test,’” Rashed told the Capital-Star.

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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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