Is Josh Shapiro the Guy to Clean Up Kathleen Kane’s Scandal-Ravaged Office?

Everywhere he goes, Shapiro turns things upside down: He helped make Harrisburg productive (seriously), and brought peace to Montco's conflict-torn board. Now he wants to redo the AG's office.

Josh Shapiro | Photo by Matt Rourke

Josh Shapiro | Photo by Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania Democrats have been excited about Josh Shapiro for over a decade. The 42-year-old Montgomery County career politician has put his stamp on every institution he’s been elected to, and won attention from press and fellow politicians alike. Now he is running to remake the scandal-plagued, post-Kathleen Kane attorney general’s office, despite never having worked a trial.

In next week’s primary, both of Shapiro’s opponents have resumes tailor-made for an attorney general’s race and never miss an opportunity to remind voters that they have the prosecutorial experience Shapiro lacks. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli see the office as it has always been: a means of pursuing guns, drugs and the occasional corrupt politician. They are well-equipped for it, having served as district attorney for more than 40 years between them.

But in 2016, perhaps decades of experience during the tough-on-crime era doesn’t have the cachet that it used to, at least in a Democratic primary. As Black Lives Matter ekes out concessions and Clinton-era policy becomes the bête noire of everyone to the left of John Kasich, maybe Pennsylvania voters are ready for something new. Shapiro’s campaign website features an ambitious agenda, covering everything from fracking to wage theft. On the stump, Shapiro — who is nearly always dressed in a conservative blue suit and rimless glasses — energetically reiterates his desire to take on “the status quo” and “the special interests.” His message is polished, and he’s clearly been taking notes on New York’s bank-busting attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who promised more from the office than a parade of high-profile mug shots.

“It has always been abundantly clear to me that the office could be doing so much more,” says Shapiro in an interview with Philadelphia magazine. “It could be a force for progressive change. About 40 percent of our nation’s AGs weren’t prosecutors before they ran for the office. We’ve never taken that approach. But I really believe the people of Pennsylvania deserve someone with a vision far broader in terms of protecting their rights.”

This unorthodox approach is of a piece with Shapiro’s political track record, which looks especially distinguished in a state known for churning out unremarkable, if not distasteful, policy makers. His ferocious ambition and relentless drive have been clear since 2004, when he won a seat in the state legislature and defeated an established Republican by 12 points, all at the ripe age of 30. (Before that he worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill for eight years and went to Georgetown for his law degree at night.) Instead of luxuriating in victory, Shapiro flouted Harrisburg’s iron law of seniority and went on the offensive again. Just over two years after winning a seat, he became deputy speaker of the House.

It was the first time in recent history that such a young legislator had risen so far, so fast. It was also the first time anyone obtained the role of deputy speaker, because it was invented as an auxiliary to a coup that allowed Democrats to effectively take control of the legislature for the first time since 1994. In the 2006 elections, the party won a one-seat majority in the Assembly, but its ever-fractious ranks proved incapable of rallying around one of their own. Then on New Year’s Eve, Shapiro had a genius notion. Why not ask a centrist Republican to become speaker, with the support of most Democrats and a few of his middle-of-the-road GOP allies?

They don’t come much more moderate than Philadelphia’s Dennis O’Brien, who evidently didn’t take much persuading. By January 2nd of that year, he was speaker of the House, and Shapiro was his deputy. Together with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, modest legislation on ethics, transportation and education funding became law — what passes for a productive legislative session in Harrisburg.

“[Shapiro] rose quickly for two reasons … [he] is smart and willing to work hard, traits that were not necessarily found in all of their colleagues,” says Rendell, who has endorsed Shapiro in the election. “When you have people who are willing to work hard in a body that isn’t known for hard work, they immediately rise to the top. In terms of his ethical standards, they are higher than almost anyone I’ve ever met in politics, local, state or federal.”

It was around this time that political insiders and journalists began to predict bigger things of Shapiro. But instead of staying on in Harrisburg, Shapiro went back home. After the Republicans swept to power in 2010, he ran for the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, an economical institution that serves both legislative and executive functions. The GOP’s grip on its longtime suburban stronghold — the third most populous county in the state — had been weakening as Democratic voters leaked across the border from the city and the national GOP moved further toward the right. In 2011, Shapiro and Montgomery County Democratic Party chief Marcel Groen led the Democratic takeover of the county’s Board of Commissioners. It was the first time the Republicans had ever lost control. Shapiro was named chair, the position he holds to this day.

Last year, Democrats swept the county elections again, winning so completely that the only elected Republicans remaining today are those who hold offices reserved for minority parties. But Shapiro is apparently magnanimous in victory. The lone Republican on the commission, newly elected 26-year-old Joe Gale, describes Shapiro as “a reasonable guy, not confrontational … he’s a very likable individual,” and praises his efforts to bring the county’s fiscal house in order.

In his four years in power, Shapiro and his allied commissioners have brought peace to a governing body that had been riven with internecine conflict. They acted to close the yawning deficit left by their predecessors, while increasing salaries and pension payments to county employees. Two of Shapiro’s innovations were zero-based budgeting, which requires departments to explain what funding they need each year rather than providing them with unquestioned annual increases, and moving pension investments from Wall Street hedge funds to cheaper, more reliable index funds (which offer steadier returns, but no big windfalls).

At the same time that Shapiro has cultivated a reputation for good governance and civility, he hasn’t hesitated to play the game. Shapiro has assiduously established relationships with powerful people across Pennsylvania, and, as a result, is reaping endorsements from politicians ranging from President Barack Obama to Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke. “I like the fact that his focus on this office isn’t centered solely around arrest and conviction and the criminal side of it,” says Clarke.

There’s no mistaking Shapiro as anything but a politician, and that could be a liability in this particular race. After all, the state’s last two attorneys general got themselves into trouble because they were seen as letting their ambitions for higher office affect the decisions they made about critically important cases: the Penn State sex abuse scandal and the Philadelphia sting. Everyone believes Shapiro also holds such ambitions. And the way Shapiro carries himself certainly doesn’t make him look like a man apart from the system.

“His weakness is that he may come off as a little too polished in an era when people are looking for authenticity,” says Rendell. “In a time when outsiders seem to be in vogue, Josh is running against the stream. But when I say polished, that’s just the way he is. It’s not an act. He is that way. He doesn’t have a persona to match [Senate candidates] Mr. Fetterman or even Joe Sestak. Josh comes off as a white-shoe lawyer or very successful Wall Street businessman, but that’s who he is.”

This March, at a campaign event the small ex-industrial city of Butler in western Pennsylvania, Shapiro made his way through the small crowd of graying attendees, introducing himself with a piece of campaign literature in hand. It’s the kind of inauspiciously catered event where dewy green beans, heavily cheesed potatoes and weak coffee are offered to party loyalists in exchange for listening to speeches from the local political class. Shapiro is the only attorney general candidate in attendance, and he works the room effortlessly, introducing himself to everyone but not staying in any one place too long. He’s easily confident and charming in one-on-one interactions, and he seems entirely at ease, even though this is the territory of his principal opponent, Zappala. He gets a warm reception as he talks about sticking it to Wall Street and changing up the drug war to be less punitive for non-violent users.

“Honestly, I don’t think he has [a weakness],” says Groen, now the head of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, a position he won due to his success in Montgomery County. “I’m not being cute. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve never worked with someone who was more gifted than he is. Period. He is respectful of people, stays in contact, asks for advice. He’s still young and has a long way to go, but his potential is unlimited.”

Groen isn’t the only one feeling enthusiastic about Shapiro’s future. Last year, as Sen. Pat Toomey’s reelection campaign crept closer, bigwigs like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer came calling. Everyone knew that Admiral Joe Sestak would run again, but he is roundly hated by powerful Democrats. They wanted someone else.

Shapiro considered the offer, but “it’s just not the job I wanted,” he says, after the requisite statements about how humbling the offer was. “I think you can get more done as attorney general.”

That’s probably true of the way that he hopes to approach the office. On Shapiro’s campaign site, he lists an agenda that reads “Hold the Frackers Accountable,” “Protect Workers from Corporate Abuse” (he names wage theft as a crime he would prosecute), and “Fight for Fair Education Funding.” That last bullet point is a reference to an ongoing lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania and its jerry-rigged education funding system, brought by the Public Interest Law Center on behalf of parents, school districts, the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. They charge that the legislature is not meeting its constitutional obligations to “provide a thorough and efficient system of public education.” Shapiro not only agrees, but promises to join the fight on their side.

“That would be a remarkable development,” says Michael Churchill, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center who is leading the suit and who directed the last attempt to sue the state over inadequate education funding in 1999. “The attorney general’s office has always opposed anyone enforcing the education clause. I haven’t seen any similar statements from any other candidates in the past, so this is an entirely new and welcome development.”

Focusing on civil cases as much as, if not more than, criminal cases would bring Shapiro into the company of other large blue states like California (Kamala Harris), Massachusetts (Maura Healey), and New York (the aforementioned Eric Schneiderman). These attorneys general have pursued prosaic issues like labor violations, civil rights and financial regulation. Such aggressiveness on the civil side is unheard of in Pennsylvania’s attorney general office, which was long run by Republicans until Kathleen Kane came along. Many voters supported Kane because she promised to break up the good ol’ boys’ network in Harrisburg. Similarly, Shapiro’s reformist credentials would seem to set him apart from the old-school networks that have become mired in the scandals that currently envelop the office, at least somewhat. He is still backed by party honchos, after all.

To enact his agenda, Shapiro will have to overcome his primary opponent: Stephen Zappala. Zappala is a battle-tested district attorney with powerful friends, including leaders in the state’s two big-city parties as well as Philadelphia electricians union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. (Morganelli is widely considered an also-ran.) But Shapiro has outpaced his opponents in a recent Harper poll and raised more money than them, too. Victory next week is not certain, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see his bespectacled visage on campaign ads again come autumn. In the general election, the Democratic nominee is expected to get a major boost from the far larger and more liberal presidential-year electorate — especially if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is the Republican nominee.

Regardless of who wins, the first job for the next attorney general will be ending the stasis that has frozen the office since Kane’s scandals began to metastasize. Unsurprisingly, Shapiro believes his record of managing an enormous bureaucracy in Montgomery County makes him best suited to the task.

“One of the biggest challenges in the AG’s office now is managing a big staff and a big budget and making it work again,” says Shapiro, who adds that the institution he currently runs has a budget and staff four times the size of the attorney general’s office. “I went through a very complex and challenging transition, being the first Democrat to lead Montgomery County in 150 years. I know how to make personnel decisions that ultimately allow the system to work better … I just think it’s such a wonderfully important office that could do so much good for people, and I’d be honored to have the chance to lead it.”

Follow @jblumgart on Twitter.