Is This The Moment Josh Shapiro Has Been Waiting For?

The attorney general and Montco native has plans to run for governor of Pennsylvania in 2021. Is his style too old-school for this modern age—or is it the only way to get things done in this state?

josh shapiro

Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

On a chilly Saturday in early February, I sit in Josh Shapiro’s driveway in suburban Abington next to a firepit as we talk, mask to mask. There’s a basketball hoop and an open garage full of sports equipment, and when I got there, his son Reuben was going long up the snowy backyard for Hail Mary passes from Dad, only to get tackled by their seven-week-old goldendoodle. Shapiro and his wife, Lori, have four kids, ages 10 to 19; as Conservative Jews, they observe Shabbat every Friday at sundown. On their rancher’s front porch is a big sectional couch they bought online last year to give them more room (until it was too cold to hang there), given that all those kids, and even Dad the attorney general, have been stuck at home for the past year.

It’s here, during a nationwide pandemic, sitting on a folding chair in the waning hours of the Sabbath, that Shapiro admits what everyone has long suspected. I tell him that his buddy Senator Bob Casey says Shapiro is running for governor next year. “Did Bob say that?” he asks, surprised. Then he comes clean: “I expect to be a candidate. And if you tweet that tomorrow, I’m going to be very upset.”

Lori joins us for a bit in the driveway. She has never been interviewed over the course of Josh’s two decades in elective office, as state rep, commissioner in Montgomery County, and now AG, which is surprising. Lori and Josh met as high-school freshman in Abington, and save for “a break” when they went off to college, they’ve been together ever since.

Josh has said that “Lori kicks my ass” when it comes to making the hard decisions about, say, running for an office — though at the moment, they’re teasing each other about Lori not giving him the time of day at first in ninth grade, and Josh deciding “I’m not going to screw this up” when Lori got an internship in Washington. Josh had moved there right after college, and that’s where they got back together for good. By the time he was 25, Shapiro was Congressman Joe Hoeffel’s chief of staff.

I have a serious question for Lori:

Does it feel at times that your husband’s energy, ambitions and talents could be put to better use outside the messes of Harrisburg or Washington? Do you ever discuss him getting out of politics?

“I think Josh is really good at solving problems,” Lori says, “and there’s a lot of problems. And we live in this world, and our kids live in this world. There’s no one I’d rather … ” Suddenly she bursts out laughing and turns to Josh, sitting close to her. “This is the nicest thing I’ve ever said about you.”

With that, two things are established: Josh Shapiro has a sweet marriage, and if there was any doubt in his world about the path he’s on, forget it. He wants to be governor, and the home front is all in.

Many observers who know Shapiro and have watched his career say this has been his endgame since he first ran for the state legislature in 2004. A diligent, competent politician — one with a record of getting things done, who pushed for ethics oversight in Harrisburg, balanced Montgomery County’s budget as lead commissioner, and as AG has been willing to work on unsexy issues like consumer protections — he’s also a man of great ambition.

The deal Shapiro offers to voters has always been this: I’m working for you, and I’ll get things done — as long as they benefit me as well, on my timeline, in a way that makes me look good.

Now, though, as what we expect out of our politicians, especially self-proclaimed progressives, is shifting, voters will have to decide if that’s a deal they want to make when it comes to the top job in the state.

Lori goes back inside, and Shapiro begins talking about taking on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2017, which helped establish his bona fides as a progressive, activist attorney general. Though really, his national profile had already been rising through the PR gift that was Donald Trump. In early 2017, during his first month as AG, Shapiro joined other attorneys general fighting the President’s travel ban; later that year, a Shapiro injunction stopped Trump’s birth control rollback.

The sexual abuse scandal greeted Shapiro on his first day in office, when he learned of an ongoing grand jury investigation in its early stages. “There were allegations of a very small number of priests who might have been abusing some children,” Shapiro says. “So it really was very unformed. And part of the decision we were making early on was, do we go forward with this grand jury investigation? I said that not only should we go forward; we should put a lot of resources into this.”

Shapiro reminds me of Robert McNamara, the Johnson-era Secretary of Defense — not in belief, but in bearing, with his rimless glasses and compact build and hair cropped precisely short: a persona etched in stone. Careful and controlled, in public he can seem wooden, even boring. In person, he comes across as warm and easy, especially spinning out his own story.

There was risk in taking on the Catholic Church. A Georgetown Law classmate Shapiro is still close to says, “You could see him sort of wrestling with it.” As horrendous as the allegations were, the church is a daunting foe.

Shapiro claims he never hesitated, and the probe soon grew from a handful of investigators to 150 out of the AG’s office. But it was an intensely difficult enterprise. “This was bishops lying — lying to the media, lying to law enforcement, lying to their parishioners,” he says. “They were working under seal, which means in secret. To stop our investigation.”

Part of the challenge, Shapiro knew, was convincing the public that the church wasn’t being singled out — that a massive coverup was an integral part of the story. He met secretly with Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie — the only bishop to testify before the grand jury — in an airport hangar there and convinced him to make a statement calling for the release of the report. That changed the public dialogue.

josh shapiro

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

In Shapiro’s second year as AG, as he waited for the legal wrangling to play out, he felt removed from the victims he was trying to help: “We were in this horrible situation where we’ve completed our work. We’re trying to do the right thing and share the truth, but we couldn’t. And so I said to our team, I want to sit with these victims.”

Shapiro drove to Bethlehem to sit in the backyard of one victim, a man named Bob Corby: “He was an 83-year-old who was victimized when he was 13, 14, 15 years old, kept it secret for 60-plus years. He never told his wife. She died not knowing that he had been victimized. He couldn’t hug his kids his whole life.

“I’m going to cry,” Shapiro says, as his words slow.

“You asked me, what was the hardest thing to do. It was the legal fight. But it was also shouldering the emotional burden of these victims. And in some ways, they comforted me.”

The report that Shapiro’s office issued in July 2018 didn’t break new ground but still had an important effect. “It was an anatomy of systemic rot,” says Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the first major exposé of sexual abuse in the church. “And I think even though there had been many grand jury reports previously, the depth and just the texture of the report really angered many people who were now unwilling to just say, okay, this all happened 50 years ago or 20 years ago.”

“It is really the first thing I’ve worked on in my political career,” Shapiro says, “where I would have been okay losing my job over it. Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt.”

With that claim, Shapiro has just admitted something else as well: that there was nothing he worked on before the church abuse scandal that wasn’t part of a political calculus.

Nearly two decades ago, after four years as chief of staff for Congressman Hoeffel — and with a law degree from Georgetown he’d gotten at night and his first child, Sophia — Shapiro had a choice: stay in Washington, become a lobbyist, and get rich, or go home and run for something.

A no-brainer: Shapiro ran for state legislator from his home district, which had traditionally skewed 60 percent Republican. The seat was open, and Shapiro beat former Congressman Jon Fox by almost 10 percentage points after knocking on thousands of doors and delivering his advocate-of-the-people message in hundreds of living rooms. It was 2004.

Harrisburg might be a place where many young, smart, ambitious wannabes wither on the vine, but not Shapiro. Still a backbencher starting his second term in 2007, he instigated something of a leadership coup. To hear Shapiro tell it, he was the one who decided to convince a Republican, Dennis O’Brien, to run for Speaker.

At the time, Democrats controlled the majority of seats by one vote but couldn’t coalesce around a candidate to replace Republican Speaker John Perzel, who would eventually be sentenced to 30 months in prison on various corruption charges. Shapiro agonized and complained to Lori, who advised him to “do something about it.” What, Shapiro thought, if I could get a different Republican to become Speaker — one we can control? He called O’Brien, a Philadelphia representative he was friendly with, and asked if he’d be interested. Uh, yeah.

The story has many twists and turns but features Shapiro plotting with Governor Rendell and Reps Dwight Evans and Bill DeWeese and scores of others, then staring down O’Brien when the Republican got cold feet: “I said to Denny — I was very calm — I said, ‘You’re going to do this. You gave me your word. I put in motion a number of things, and you’re going to do this.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not. It’s going to ruin my political career. I’m not doing this.’”

“Fine,” Shapiro says he told him, “can you meet me at the Governor’s residence? You tell the Governor and me to my face.”

Rendell was ready that morning, in the basement of the mansion, with a couple other stakeholders. When O’Brien arrived and sat down with them, Shapiro said, “Denny, look at the Governor and tell him you’re not doing this.”

There are a couple problems, however, with this story: Other legislators paint a more collaborative picture, saying that Shapiro was one player among many in anointing O’Brien. And O’Brien, for his part, says there was no demand from Shapiro. (He does, by the way, speak highly of his time working with him.) That meeting in Rendell’s basement, O’Brien says, wasn’t about him backing out, but a contingency: He was not going to switch parties to become Speaker, as he feared he would be forced to. “I took that off the table,” O’Brien says. He would serve as Speaker until 2008.

We might give Shapiro points for getting his hand in, as young and fresh as he was in the legislature, to do Rendell’s bidding, which got him the reward of a made-up position, deputy Speaker, allowing him to launch ethics reform. The legislature was certainly in desperate need of it.

But that wasn’t quite enough for Shapiro, who also had to cast himself as the hero of the tale.

“He is the most focused person I have ever met,” says political consultant Larry Ceisler. “Nothing will get in his way or distract from that focus. No matter if it’s a friend or a political supporter or a colleague. That’s the way he is.”

Public affairs consultant Larry Ceisler, a longtime friend of Shapiro’s, recalls going to a Sixers-Lakers game during the Kobe Bryant era, with seats next to L.A.’s bench. He was amazed by Bryant’s focus: When coach Phil Jackson talked, there was Kobe, dialed in intensely. “That is Josh — even more so,” Ceisler says. “He is the most focused person I have ever met.” With a quality that sounds a little chilling: “Nothing will get in his way or distract from that focus. No matter if it’s a friend or a political supporter or a colleague. That’s the way he is.”

I certainly haven’t seen that side of Shapiro — at least, not yet. I was privy to a day of him in Zoom meetings, and he comes across as the nicest guy in the room, lobbing questions to his staff or local DAs or other various advocates like a genial professor.

But a colleague from that time with whom Shapiro is still friendly alludes to his “destructive aggression.” To get where he wanted to go, Shapiro didn’t play ball with business as usual — certainly not in Harrisburg. He was too ambitious for that.

And it didn’t matter who got annoyed along the way. According to a former high-level staffer for a Republican in the Senate, “Shapiro is very calculated. He calculated that it’s better to be up on the mountain preaching about what should happen rather than in the scrum, compromising. That, to me, is calculating: What in it is best for me? That is Shapiro. It’s very important to him — his image, persona — and that is the definition of ‘calculated.’”

josh shapiro

Shapiro shooting hoops outside his home in Abington. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

The ex-staffer complains about Shapiro’s lack of sophistication in deal-making — that instead of getting some of what he wanted and living for another day, Shapiro always wanted it all. As with ethics reform: Legislators under indictment, Shapiro proclaimed, would give up their leadership posts; no more secret votes at 3 a.m.; and he stopped lawmakers from leasing cars on the state’s dime. Too much! Negotiate so you can fight another day!

When I run that example of overzealousness past Shapiro, he just smiles: Of course he wanted to clean up the mess in Harrisburg. Of course he wanted it all.

There’s a consistent pattern that I hear about Shapiro from many people: He’s overly ambitious, yes, but he’s good at his job. Joe Hoeffel agrees with this assessment. He had a beef with Shapiro in 2011, when Shapiro, his former protégé, refused to run with him for commissioner in Montgomery County. (Candidates can run jointly on a ticket.) Hoeffel dropped out of the race; Shapiro won, and Hoeffel told the Inquirer, “You don’t want to turn your back on him. Loyalty is not his strong suit.”

Hoeffel doesn’t back off now from that assessment, but he praises Shapiro’s work as his chief of staff in Washington two decades ago. Shapiro was a fantastic networker within Congress, he says, and he thinks Shapiro is doing a fine job as AG.

Ambition, and results, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive. By most accounts, Shapiro was a strong Montco commissioner, determined to stop the infighting among the group and to remake the budget from scratch in order to stop wasting money. He introduced zero-based budgeting and eliminated all charitable giving by the county, meaning that he had to suffer through a public meeting at which an eagle came in on the arm of a zookeeper from the defunded Elmwood Park Zoo.

Shapiro works hard. He’s proactive. He does get things done.

Becoming AG was another opportunity to remake an office, one previously destroyed by the tenure of Kathleen Kane. Shapiro took on Trump and the sex abuse scandal and pushed initiatives in consumer protection and programs on the opioid crisis. He’s only too happy to tell you those things, just as he was only too happy to have a press conference attended by victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church when his report came out. It was good for the victims to have their public moment. And it also happened to be good for Josh Shapiro.

The Catholic Church investigation raised Shapiro’s profile substantially, as did several dozen lawsuits filed against President Trump’s various initiatives over four years, culminating in Shapiro’s team making mincemeat of Texas’s challenge to the validity of Pennsylvania’s presidential election results.

Shapiro was a cool anti-Trumpian spokesman, going on CNN and other outlets to explain things well for the non-expert, striking just the right note of controlled moral outrage. That national exposure will certainly help with fund-raising as Shapiro runs for governor next year.

Ed Rendell says that Shapiro’s nomination for governor has grown from likely to certain barring any major negative press or unforeseen circumstances — that there’s no one in a position to threaten him, including on the far left. “It would cost $15 million to mount a challenge to Josh,” says the ex-governor. “No one has that.”

For all his measured calculation, however, there have been a few variables that Shapiro couldn’t have anticipated.

As AG, Shapiro sits on the state’s Board of Pardons, along with the lieutenant governor and three appointed experts. The board votes on who should be granted clemency from state prison, and the vote must be unanimous; those recommendations then go to the governor, who has final say.

For years, the Board of Pardons has been the place where hope goes to die. From 1995 through 2014, it recommended that only 10 people serving life sentences be released; of those, six pardons were granted.

That caution makes cold political sense. In 1992, the then lieutenant governor, Mark Singel, voted for the release of 27 prisoners. One of them, Reginald McFadden, went on a crime spree that left three people dead, ending Singel’s bid for governor. Since then, Pennsylvania’s board has been a cowering nonentity.

But now there’s John Fetterman, on a crusade to change that. As head of the Pardons Board, the current lieutenant governor is a staunch advocate for releasing once-violent prisoners who have served many years, who are remorseful, and who seem to pose no threat to anyone. “The board should err on the side of mercy,” he has said, and he’s been going around the state urging long-term prisoners to apply for freedom.

Josh Shapiro has a more traditional approach. “This is a process where you have to be cautious,” he says. “You have to be careful. I literally won’t sleep the night before a vote, because I recognize the gravity, as I assume the other board members do.”

Fetterman was beside himself after the board’s vote in December of 2019, when Josh Shapiro turned down 11 out of 14 clemency applications, more than any other board member.

Where Shapiro is all calculation and competence in a dignified blue suit, Fetterman represents a newer kind of politician, at least for Pennsylvania — one who speaks to the demand that left-leaning leaders get behind righteous causes. More brash, more progressive. Six-foot-eight, tattooed, with a shaved head and often wearing work shirts during public appearances, Fetterman got elected lieutenant governor after four terms as mayor of Braddock, a predominantly Black, desperately poor steel town just outside Pittsburgh. Fetterman risked getting impeached as mayor by officiating a same-sex marriage before they were legal, was pro pot legalization before it was mainstream (Shapiro had been largely silent on the issue until he came out in favor of legalization in late 2019), and doesn’t just get behind causes, but makes them crusades. Fetterman calls a reasonable minimum wage “one of the great moral debates of our time” and has become a nationally beloved figure of the progressive left for his fiery and candid tweets.

Pennsylvania is a solidly purple state — liberal areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs counteract the conservative votes in the rural parts. That makes statewide elections tight, with just a few percentage points in either direction swaying the results. So if you’re someone who likes to plan, who figures out the system and how to work within it, it used to make sense to hew close to the center. Try to achieve as much as you can based on your policy beliefs, and promise enough to win support from the base, but without attracting a reputation that will put off voters on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

That’s been the formula for as long as Shapiro has been in office. And then came Donald Trump. Then came Larry Krasner, the Philly DA trying to blow up from the inside how we administer criminal justice. Then came John Fetterman.

The playbook is changing. And as the window on incarceration has obviously shifted, Shapiro hasn’t shifted with it. It’s curious, especially because being tough on crime hasn’t been a big part of his persona. He’s an activist AG, not Tom Corbett. Though perhaps Shapiro’s 2020 Pardons Board votes are a signal that his view is finally evolving: He voted yes on releasing 17 prisoners, no on 10 others. (Fetterman voted 22-5.)

But criminal justice reform advocates remain adamant that he needs to do much more: “It’s just inexcusable for Shapiro, who styles himself as a progressive, to not do everything in his power to end mass incarceration,” says Sean Damon at the West Philly-based Amistad Law Project. “He lacks the political courage to do what’s necessary.”

Where once it made sense to play it safe, now the system seems to reward risks — and authenticity.

“It’s just inexcusable for Shapiro, who styles himself as a progressive, to not do everything in his power to end mass incarceration,” says Sean Damon at the West Philly-based Amistad Law Project.

“Shapiro’s biggest threat may be from himself, because he is so nakedly focused on his own political advancement,” a longtime Philadelphia-based political operative emails me. “Voters are instinctively wary of politicians who too openly give the appearance of being in it for themselves instead of for the public.”

So if Shapiro comes off as too cautious — or, worse, as too calculating, even given all that he’s accomplished — that could end up undermining his run for governor.

Sitting in Shapiro’s driveway that cold Saturday in February, I ask him about his votes on the Board of Pardons. For example, in 2018, a man named Craig Datesman applied for clemency. He’d been in prison for 35 years, serving a life sentence after shooting another man dead in an argument over money. End of story. Except …

Datesman, by all accounts, got himself together in prison. In 1991, the Inquirer wrote about him running Graterford’s participation in Youth at Risk, a national delinquency intervention program. In 2014, he gave a TED talk from Graterford: “How do you tell someone how sorry you are for doing something that can never be undone? Sorry seems to be much too simplistic a word. All you can do is to try and live an honorable life and keep searching for ways to become a better human being, someone who’s worthy of redemption.” Two sisters of his victim became his advocates, urging the Board of Pardons to commute Datesman’s sentence. The state Board of Corrections was in favor of it, too.

The Board of Pardons decided in 2018 to keep Datesman, now 67, in prison by dint of two votes against his release, one of them cast by Josh Shapiro. One of the victim’s sisters wrote an angry op-ed for the Inquirer after testifying at the hearing: “Who wouldn’t show compassion when two sisters of the victim were calling for it? … If Craig is not worthy of commutation, then who is?”

Shapiro says now that he doesn’t remember the Craig Datesman case. (When asked to dig into it, Shapiro’s office emails: “In this case, the Board was shown conflicting information on the individual’s likelihood to reoffend.” When pressed for something more incisive, Shapiro’s rep says the information is confidential.)

I press him on the general criticism, especially from criminal justice reform advocates, that his Pardons Board votes are still too cautious — that he’s playing politics instead of letting lifers who should be freed out of prison.

Now it emerges: that focus, that lasering-in quality I’ve heard about. He squares his chair to mine, next to the firepit. Josh Shapiro has been waiting for this.

“If they’re charging me with being cautious, then guilty as charged,” he says. “These decisions weigh on me. You’re either voting to recommend somebody gets released from prison, in which case you damn well better be sure that they’re not a threat to public safety and that they warrant release, or you’re voting to deny them that opportunity for freedom at this time. Neither one of those things is easy.

“I think I’m the only board member,” Shapiro goes on, “who has articulated publicly what my criteria are for analysis, and it’s important that you understand them. Number one, I go through the facts and the judicial process. Was there something wrong? Did something go awry? Did someone not get adequate counsel, whatever the case may be?”

Shapiro continues in that vein for some time, and his preternatural sunniness has evaporated.

“It is one thing to talk about these things; it’s a whole other thing to actually do something about it,” he says. “And as you’ve seen throughout my entire political career, I am someone who favors getting something done, as opposed to just talking about it.”

A longtime observer of Shapiro compares him to Arlen Specter, the Philly-based U.S. Senator who switched parties late in his career in a desperate attempt to retain his seat. Specter would do anything to win and then was terrific at working the levers to get things done once he was in office. Ed Rendell, who’s a Shapiro supporter, agrees there’s something to the Specter comparison. (“Though Josh wouldn’t do anything to win,” the ex-governor says.)

And that, perhaps, is the best reason for someone like Josh Shapiro to run, and to keep running, even in an age of gridlock and polarization: The single-minded focus on success, for better or worse, means Shapiro is one of the few politicians who may actually be able to make some progress in this state.

It may not be the social-media-friendly, paradigm-shifting change that those to the left of him favor — a go-big-or-go-home approach to politics. Instead, Shapiro will push and scrape and govern, with that unyielding focus, until he gets a result — one he can then issue a press release about.

The single-minded focus on success, for better or worse, means Shapiro is one of the few politicians who may actually be able to make some progress in this state.

The firepit is doing a poor job at breaking through the cold, and as Shapiro makes the case for his style of leadership, he zeroes in on me in a way that demands I look back: “More than a year ago, before the world knew the name George Floyd, I had convened a conversation in my Harrisburg office with the leaders of law enforcement and the leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus and other reform advocates.”

In Shapiro’s telling, this was the first time the groups had ever met — and at that meeting, he was the driving force. He made a little speech: “I’ve heard from reform advocates about the need to get bad cops out of the system and make things more fair and just. And for years, I’ve heard from my law enforcement partners about not wanting to work with bad cops and wanting the system to be more fair and just, so I thought it would be good for us to have a conversation,” he says he told the assembled group. And then he got to work. “I quietly, methodically worked with the advocates and my law enforcement partners to begin to create a statewide database of police misconduct in Pennsylvania.”

When George Floyd was killed, Shapiro saw it as an opening — the right thing to do, and a perfect window in which to push through his agenda: “I went to our law enforcement partners, including [Philly FOP head] John McNesby, and said, ‘Guys, it’s time.’”

What resulted was a small, concrete thing, one that earned unanimous bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was favored by unions and criminal justice advocates alike: a bill signed by Governor Wolf last July that requires police departments to use a statewide database to track officers who have been dismissed for misconduct or incompetence, to make it harder for them to bounce around from force to force. It’s a step.

The big irony of this political moment is that so much change is now demanded and so little gets done. But this is what you get with Shapiro — forward progress, no sudden moves or daring agendas, done with an eye to his image and future success. (Shapiro for president down the road? There are rumblings he’s said privately it’s his goal, though he denies it: “I have never talked about that.”)

It leaves a question to be answered next year: At this moment, in this political atmosphere — as he gears up to run for governor — is Josh Shapiro’s method good enough?

Published as “Is This the Moment Josh Shapiro Has Been Waiting For?” in the April 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.