At 34, an Abington reformer is Harrisburg’s fastest-rising young star. But is there a place for Jimmy Stewart in Pennsylvania’s smoke-filled back rooms?
LAST DECEMBER 31st, Josh Shapiro and his wife, Lori, tired from a late flight back from L.A. the night before, were being, the young legislator recalls, “a lame married couple. We were going to get Chinese food and watch the ball drop.” After collecting their New Year’s takeout, the couple was driving through an Abington intersection when Shapiro remembered a moment a few years before, when he had been standing on that very corner alongside campaign volunteers, waving SHAPIRO ’04 placards. One passing motorist who gave a thumbs-up was driving a car with a state legislator’s license plate. When Shapiro got back to his campaign headquarters, he had looked it up. It belonged to Dennis O’Brien, a veteran Republican rep.
Remembering O’Brien, Shapiro considered the daunting political puzzle he and his fellow Democrats were now facing in Harrisburg. And something in his brain clicked.
Two days later, the Harrisburg legislature had an unprecedented new configuration, with a Republican Speaker — Denny O’Brien — handpicked by the Democratic majority. John Perzel, the GOP machine boss who had become a metaphor for business-as-usual politics in the state capitol, and was highly regarded for his strategic acumen, had been checkmated by an eager-beaver second-term Montgomery County state rep from the other side of the aisle. “You had a kid from an affluent family from Abington, with a great educational background — in high school, college and law school — against a guy with a limited education, a street fighter,” a longtime Harrisburg observer says about the square-off. “And Perzel’s got to sit back in his den one day and say, ‘Jesus, that little fucker did a great job.’”
NEWS FLASH: Harrisburg is a hidebound, partisan swamp. It was here that elected officials thought voting themselves a hefty pay raise (up to 34 percent) under cover of night (at 2 a.m.), hours after taking a machete to Medicaid for the old and infirm, and then going on vacation for two months, would be a good idea. It is here that comb-overed titan of probity Mark Cohen remains a state rep despite notoriously expensing to taxpayers, in a single year, $28,000 in books for his own reading pleasure, including AOL for Dummies, a biography of Mark Twain, and The Little Book of Stress. And it is Harrisburg that incubated the walking 139-count indictment known as Senator Vince Fumo. Seniority, in this place, is earned as predictably and mechanically as civil-service promotions. Against this tawdry backdrop, the emergence of a gutsy, savvy sophomore lawmaker who could make Big Things happen by forging a political compromise without compromising his own ideals was, sadly when you think about it, something bordering on radical. O’Brien quickly named Shapiro to the invented position of deputy speaker, and appointed him co-chair of the new, bipartisan Speaker’s Commission on Reform. Harrisburg isn’t a place given to phenoms and rising stars, but those are the kinds of words people use to describe Shapiro. “He’s someone clearly capable of running for Congress,” says Neil Oxman, who served as Shapiro’s media consultant when he first ran for state office in 2004. “And I certainly think he could run statewide. He’s in it for the right reasons.”
On an Indian-summer September morning back in his district northeast of Philadelphia, Shapiro drives his black Jeep Laredo toward an assisted-living facility where he’s due to speak. As he drives, he talks about an old warehouse, on Route 611, that developers and civic leaders have been at odds over; yesterday, Shapiro brought the conflicting parties together to work through their differences. “At 11, I stood up to leave, to speak at a memorial service for a fallen police officer,” Shapiro says, “and everyone else stood up. I said, ‘Where are you going? When I come back, let’s hammer out an answer.’ And in the end, we shook hands, and we had a deal. So it was a great meeting, and hopefully an example of what we can do with 611.”
For a guy who engineered a coup, Shapiro doesn’t look especially Machiavellian. With his clean shave, glossy hair, rimless glasses and crisp shirts, he seems both older and younger than his 34 years. Older in his intensity and seriousness of purpose. Younger physically: Oxman likes to needle Shapiro about his baby-faced appearance in his campaign literature, chiding him to lose “the bar mitzvah photo.”
When he arrives at the Sunrise assisted-living facility, Shapiro strides into the building confidently — confidently, at least in part, because he knows he has something the senior citizens here want. When he was desperate for every vote he could get, back in 2004, Shapiro promised he’d bring these people doughnuts if they elected him. Now, every time he comes, it’s with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts under his arm.
Before handing out the treats, though, Shapiro wants to tell his constituents what he’s been doing for them. He paces the room energetically, bantering with the crowd of around 30, many in wheelchairs, and not all of whom are all there. After talking about how his six-year-old, Sophia, started kindergarten the day before, Shapiro tells the group he’s “trying to reform Harrisburg” and “change the way government works.” He talks about a bill he has introduced to make Pennsylvania’s investments “terror-free,” and about making the state less dependent on foreign oil. He mentions Dennis O’Brien, then fields questions on topics ranging from gun control to absentee ballots. How does he get along with Governor Rendell? “Very well. I’m working closely with him on energy and reform.”
When an older man addresses him as “Congressman,” Shapiro smiles and says, “Thank you for the promotion.” Then he passes a tray filled with 100 Munchkins.
THE ONLY TIME Josh Shapiro ever lost an election, he was running for student president of Akiba, the Jewish day school in Merion. It wasn’t even close, according to the classmate who beat him. “He was all style, no substance,” says Ami Eden, now a Manhattan journalist, whose all-gravitas high-school campaign consisted of a poster depicting himself as Indiana Jones and a promise to get an ice-cream vending machine for the campus. (The trash-talking Eden insists that his real competition was Hannah Richman; Shapiro was merely “a third-party spoiler candidate. He basically carried the eighth-grade girls, the New Kids on the Block crowd.”)
Other than that blip, Shapiro has always been the Youngest Guy in the Room. In seventh grade, building on his mother’s involvement with the movement to help Soviet Jews emigrate, Shapiro founded an international pen-pal organization to connect young Americans with their refusenik peers. Shapiro’s own pen pal, Avi Goldstein (whose family were the most famous of the refuseniks), made it out just in time to attend Shapiro’s bar mitzvah, and the event was covered by local media. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland flew Shapiro out to speak about the cause. His freshman year at the University of Rochester, after a fateful day on which he was cut from the Division III basketball team and failed a calculus exam (a requirement for pre-med), Shapiro decided to run for student senate, then aimed higher. While still a freshman, he was elected president of the entire school. “I knocked on every single door on campus,” he recalls. After college, Shapiro moved to D.C. to work for a series of legislators, and by the time he was 24, after just a few months working for Representative Joe Hoeffel, he was running the Congressman’s office. “I’m pretty sure he was the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill,” Hoeffel says. “I was always in rooms with older people,” Shapiro says. “I learned how to be respectful yet assertive.”
Hoeffel sensed that his aide had higher aspirations, and in 2004, Shapiro ran for Pennsylvania state rep in the district he had grown up in. He was a Democratic unknown up against GOP candidate Jon Fox, who had something like 99 percent name-recognition in a district that was 50 percent Republican. Shapiro’s first campaign poll showed him down 40 points. Remembering his college strategy, Shapiro knocked on 18,000 doors, went to every community event, raised three-quarters of a million dollars, and eventually won by nine points — all without going negative against Fox. The key to victory was his ability to find common ground with people who might not normally have voted for him. Shapiro’s father is the chairman of pediatrics at Abington Memorial Hospital; Shapiro bridged the partisan divide by reaching out to doctors, backing stricter penalties for lawyers who file frivolous malpractice suits. In his campaign literature, Shapiro put it this way: “My plan is neither Democratic nor Republican — it’s common sense.” This same instinct for aisle-spanning solutions would lead to the Shapiro-driven coup this past January.
SHAPIRO AND SOME colleagues had been disappointed, in 2005, in their efforts to expand environmental spending, and they recognized that as long as the chamber was ruled by a Republican like Perzel, they had zero shot at getting their agenda through. Shapiro was acutely aware of the impotence of minority rule: His tenure on Capitol Hill had occurred during the 12-year stretch when Republicans dominated Congress. In the Pennsylvania House session that was about to begin at the start of 2007, the Democrats had a mere one-vote margin over the Republicans. And just before New Year’s, Shapiro got a call from Democratic leader Bill DeWeese, who was hoping to become Speaker of the House. DeWeese told him a Democrat was going to defect — costing him the speakership.
Shapiro scrambled to try to find a way the Democrats could salvage the situation. “My motivation was, How can we control the agenda?” recalls Shapiro, who keeps an inspirational Abe Lincoln quote under the glass of his district-office desktop: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
Thinking that O’Brien might be amenable to some sort of compromise, Shapiro placed a call. His next was to DeWeese.
“What’s up, Scout?” said DeWeese, who calls the young legislator that because “in the Old Testament, I believe, Joshua was the main scout Moses sent into Canaan.”
“I think we’ve got Denny O’Brien,” Shapiro said.
DeWeese’s joy was uncontained. “He’s going to vote for me for Speaker?”
“No,” Shapiro said. “He wants you to vote for him.”
DeWeese really had no choice, and quickly signed on to the idea. “DeWeese was never going to be Speaker again,” says a veteran Harrisburg player. “Do you want to be the minority leader the rest of your life and get Perzel’s drippings, or do you want to be the majority leader?” DeWeese says that in wooing O’Brien, it was the promise of energetic bipartisan leadership of a reform effort by Shapiro and David Steil, a Republican representative, that “was the allure that brought him within our ambit.”
The next day, Shapiro, DeWeese, Dwight Evans and O’Brien met at the Conshohocken Marriott to hash out the deal, with Governor Ed Rendell on speakerphone. The Democrats wanted O’Brien to become a Democrat, but O’Brien was firm about staying a Republican. The next day, the coup went down largely as planned. O’Brien was in, Perzel was out.
DeWeese says Perzel knew what was coming “about as much as Admiral Nimitz did Pearl Harbor,” but adds, “To Perzel’s inestimable credit, he was very gracious. He saw me a week or two later in one of Harrisburg’s famous eateries, and shook my hand with a shit-eating grin and said, ‘I’da done it to you.’”
IT’S THE MIDDLE of the afternoon, and in the conference room at Shapiro’s Abington district office, a parade of constituents calls on him. His slot on the appropriations committee has enabled him to bring back close to $20 million to his district in the two and a half years since he joined the legislature, and has made him an influential player in the state’s budget process; today’s supplicants include two women from a women’s-health-services organization seeking a line item for one of their causes, and the head of a citizens’ group seeking to stop the Barnes Foundation from relocating to Center City. When a few of the visitors take shots at Rendell, Shapiro deftly sidesteps the criticisms, uttering wry variations of “That’s between you and the Governor.” Between audiences, he has a phone conversation with the treasurer of a state that has had some success divesting its pension funds from companies that do business in terror-sponsoring countries. A constituent wonders aloud how Shapiro will be able to forge a particular deal. Shapiro grins and says, “I’m very good at locking people in my office and not letting them out until they decide.”
Still, the work at this level is hardly glamorous: His efforts at revitalizing the district have so far helped yield a coffee shop in an old SEPTA station. He’s working with PennDOT to try to have an aging bridge in the district moved up on the priority list of infrastructure to modernize, and has brought together a coalition of local businessmen and other stakeholders to undertake a thorough study of ways to reawaken the 611 corridor. The day ends with 15 people converging in a conference room for a presentation by the firm commissioned to do the study.
Married to his high-school sweetheart, and prone to talking earnestly about his family (as when he relates how he wept the day before as he sent Sophia off to kindergarten), Shapiro would seem to be the kind of postcard-perfect politician who surely must, in secret, wear nipple clamps and worship Satan. But those who know him say the smart, hardworking, reasonable, non-robotic person you see is who Shapiro is — ambitious without being ruthless, principled without being rigid, “manipulative in a good way,” substantive without being ideological. “If there’s criticism from anywhere, I’d say it’s jealousy and resentment, not left-right,” notes a longtime Harrisburg observer. “The lunatic fringes on both sides of the aisle don’t like to see quality. They just like to complain.”
An observant Conservative Jew, Shapiro manages, in a profession virtually defined by its blur of dinners featuring rubber chicken as the primary entrée, to keep kosher. Even when the legislature is in session, he makes the two-hour drive home many nights so he can wake up with Sophia and her two-year-old brother, Jonah. “That’s something that’s marginal in politics,” says John Saler, a lobbyist with the law firm Stradley Ronon, where Shapiro is of counsel. “There are a lot of chameleons out there. He’s not one of them.” (Mercifully, Shapiro isn’t devoid of human failings: As I rode with him on a drive through the 153rd in his dual-kid-seat-equipped SUV, the proud sponsor of a new bill aimed at “disconnecting distracted drivers” by outlawing handheld cell-phone use while operating a motor vehicle conspicuously thumbed his BlackBerry.)
Shapiro’s interest in trying to do the right thing in a world of gray may help explain his fascination with the post-Apocalypse cult TV series Jericho, created by his brother-in-law. Mystery surrounds the motives of one of the show’s main characters, Robert Hawkins, and Shapiro regularly calls up his sister and brother-in-law after each new episode and demands: “Is Hawkins good or bad?” His brother-in-law responds, “Are you sure you want to know?” Shapiro invariably sighs and admits he doesn’t. When Shapiro was reelected last year, the actor who plays Hawkins taped a congratulatory video.
Shapiro, along with some like-minded colleagues, has been a blast of oxygen in the smoke-choked back rooms of quid-pro-quo Harrisburg. Still, it is a testament to our lowered expectations for politicians in general, or for those in Pennsylvania in particular, that he has become a star partly by doing things that in a more perfect world would appear standard among politicians — working hard and taking his job seriously, sending long, substantive, text-heavy newsletters to his constituents, holding 30 town meetings in his first two years in office. This puts him in a weirdly circular situation: The very Harrisburg mediocrity that has allowed him to make a name for himself will, if he’s successful in his reform efforts, cease to exist.
Not that that would mean the end of Josh Shapiro. No one seriously thinks his ambitions end in the state legislature, though Shapiro is careful not to get ahead of himself, at least out loud. “All you can do is do the best at the position you’re in,” he says, “and be prepared.”