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For years, Bret Grote of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center has been pushing a progressive criminal-justice reform agenda for Pennsylvania that aimed to end mass incarceration while highlighting specific abuses such as solitary confinement, or the state’s over-reliance on life-without-parole sentences.
It could be a lonely fight at times...at least until May 25 of this year, when the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd sparked a nationwide protest movement that has captivated the left half of American politics and put radical change on the front burner. When I reached out to Grote this week to ask him where he thinks Pennsylvania’s top law-enforcement officer — Attorney General Josh Shapiro, favored for re-election this fall and widely seen as the Democratic front-runner in the 2022 governor’s race — fits into justice reform, he didn’t mince words.
“Shapiro’s record on criminal justice issues looks like that of Kamala Harris’ record, which is to say he is a servant of a racist system of policing and punishment who occasionally makes hollow statements or marginal reforms for purposes of political branding,” Grote told me by email. He said evolving public views on crime and punishment could derail Shapiro’s hopes of winning a Democratic primary to succeed Gov. Wolf. “The base of the Democratic Party has shifted and [Shapiro] remains stuck in the Willie Horton-paradigm. That will spell defeat in Philadelphia if there is a challenger on his left.”
The good news for the Montgomery County Democrat is that no clear progressive 2022 challenger has emerged...yet. The bad news is that if one does, the AG will be on the defensive on issues like his ties to Philadelphia’s main police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. The FOP has twice endorsed his campaigns to be top prosecutor and in 2020 has donated $25,000 toward his re-election. Although the FOP’s backing has — historically — been highly sought, police unions’ support for President Trump as well as for cops accused of brutality has made them pariahs to much of the Left. And that was before the flap about members of the Proud Boys hate group rallying at the FOP lodge in Northeast Philly.
Since Floyd’s killing, a growing chorus of activists as well as some progressive district attorneys have urged a ban on prosecutors accepting campaign donations from police unions. With that in mind, I asked Shapiro’s 2020 AG campaign manager Dana Fritz if the Pennsylvania AG was willing to give back the FOP’s $25K. The answer was, in so many words, no.
Fritz lumped the donation with Shapiro’s support from roughly 60 other unions and large-scale backer of criminal justice reform (including billionaire George Soros). She said the candidate “will continue fostering dialogue among all of these parties—whether they are his political supporters or not—to bring real change to our criminal justice system and keep our communities safe.”
Of course, FOP backing isn’t the only count in the Left’s political indictment of Shapiro. He’s angered many liberals with “no” votes that are effectively vetoes on releasing long-time prisoners at the state Board of Pardons, where he’s crossed swords with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is popular with progressives. He’s also had a rocky relationship with the state’s top advocate for radical reform, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and even hired some of the prosecutors who left Krasner’s office over his left-wing pivots. On opioids, Shapiro has angered some advocates with opposition to a Philadelphia supervised-injection sites and prosecutions of those who gave drugs to overdose victims.
A rising progressive tide elected Krasner and democratic socialist state lawmakers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Will 2020′s leftward swing on justice issues undercut Shapiro’s good publicity for taking on abusive priests or his (albeit overhyped) knock at the fracking industry, which made him the presumptive 2022 gubernatorial front-runner?
Shapiro says he’s getting a bad rap. In a quote supplied by his staff, the AG told me that “[c]hanging our criminal justice system does not happen with only tweets or soundbites—it happens by building coalitions with those you may not always agree with.” Calling systemic racism “unacceptable,” Shapiro and his aides said that — despite his Board of Pardons differences with Fetterman — he’s supported more commutations than the AGs of the last 25 years combined, and that his coalition-building paid off in this summer’s enactment of a police-hiring database aimed at identifying problem cops.