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How Josh Shapiro locked down the Democratic nomination for governor without even announcing he would run

It is a feat virtually unprecedented in modern Pennsylvania Democratic politics. Strategists couldn’t recall another open-seat gubernatorial primary election in which there was no serious challenge.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

In July 2019, a group of left-wing protesters interrupted a panel on legal fights against the Trump administration during a national progressive conference at the Convention Center.

Upset about a new state law they feared would dilute District Attorney Larry Krasner’s authority, they demanded to know where Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, stood on the issue. “Yes or no!” they chanted.

Shapiro, a Montgomery County Democrat, insisted that he had no interest in undermining Krasner. The protesters walked away skeptical but willing to give him a chance.

Two years later, Shapiro is on the cusp of announcing his long-expected campaign for governor, having effectively cleared the Democratic field before he even launched his bid. Far from facing any challenge from the left, he has unified his party more than a year before the general election — in sharp contrast with the crowded Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, where questions of identity and ideology are at the fore.

It is a feat virtually unprecedented in modern Pennsylvania Democratic politics. Veteran strategists could not recall another open-seat gubernatorial primary election here in which there was no serious competition.

And yet, the 48-year-old Abington resident’s march to the nomination is not much of a surprise. It has been a project almost two decades in the making, as Shapiro has ascended from congressional staffer to state rep to board chairman of the state’s third-largest county to second-term attorney general and presumptive nominee for governor.

Party leaders praise him as a skilled communicator, prodigious fund-raiser, and strong leader with a record of nonpartisan accomplishments — such as turning a spotlight on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse — that can cut through a polarized electorate in a purple state.

And it’s crucial that he’s a proven winner in statewide elections: In both 2016 and 2020, he got the most votes of anyone on the ballot in Pennsylvania, including Joe Biden.

Shapiro’s campaign announcement could come as early as this week. A spokesperson for him declined to discuss his plans. And it’s impossible to know what the political climate will be like a year from now; his campaign strategy depends in part on which candidate emerges from the crowded GOP primary.

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Republicans have already been trying to hold him responsible for Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence and tied him to Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic-related business shutdowns. They say the Democrats’ unabiding faith in Shapiro is misguided.

“Democrats will regret giving him a free pass,” said Mark Harris, a GOP strategist based in Pittsburgh whose client, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), is seen as a possible contender in the race.

But even despite getting a highly unusual, if offhand, public endorsement from the sitting governor three years before the election, he has occasionally faced blistering criticism from Democrats on criminal justice issues, including from two of the biggest names — Krasner and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

Still, Democrats say he’s their closest thing to a safe bet at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to deliver a major setback to abortion rights and Donald Trump is hinting at another White House bid — raising the specter of another attempt to subvert democracy.

Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the state legislature, though that could change after the midterm elections, and Democrats say their biggest priority is retaining Wolf’s veto pen after his term expires in January 2023. It’ll be a tall order: Neither party has won three consecutive gubernatorial elections since 1950.

“We as Democrats know if we do not have a Democratic governor to replace Wolf, we will become Texas or Georgia or Florida. We have an out-of-control legislature who is trying to destroy democracy, they’re engaging in a sham recount,” said Jill Zipin, a party activist from Montgomery County who has known Shapiro for years. “Democrats understand that democracy is on the line, and we’re not playing games here. And that Josh will be a defender of democracy and that Josh will be able to protect us.”

‘Not a glad-hander’

There are lots of ambitious people in politics. So when there’s an open seat for statewide office or a chance to run against an incumbent from the other party, usually there’s competition.

Wolf, once a little-known businessman from York, had to spend $10 million of his own money in the 2014 gubernatorial primary to beat prominent rivals including former U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and then-State Treasurer Rob McCord.

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In 2010, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato beat state Auditor General Jack Wagner, State Sen. Anthony Williams, and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel for the nomination. Before them, Ed Rendell had to beat Bob Casey, the auditor general and son of a popular former governor.

And so on.

So how’d Shapiro get to this moment?

As with most things in politics, he pulled it off through a combination of skill, luck, and hard work, according to interviews with more than a dozen advisers, party leaders, lawmakers, and strategists.

Perhaps no single event or inflection point made Shapiro the de facto leader of the party.

Rather, it was the accumulation of political capital, accrued over years of networking and party-building, and a relentless drive. That sometimes meant sidestepping an old ally, as when the Montgomery County Democrats showed Commissioner Hoeffel the door a decade ago in part to pave the way for Shapiro, who’d served as his chief of staff in Congress.

“Democrats are the party of herding cats and he’s worked hard at opening his door, listening carefully to input and responding,” said Williams, the Philadelphia state senator. “He’s not a glad-hander. He’s more of a let’s-get-to-know-one-another. And if there’s an issue we share common ground on, he follows through.”

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As a young state representative in the mid-2000s, Shapiro developed a reputation as a reformer, working to pass new ethics legislation and playing a key role in brokering a bipartisan power-sharing arrangement for House leadership. Long before the rest of the Philadelphia suburbs turned deep blue, Shapiro and running mate Leslie Richards helped Democrats take control of the county government for the first time, in 2011.

Zipin called that “a really, really big deal,” recalling how Shapiro went to countless picnics and fund-raisers and took the time to meet local candidates. “What a lot of people don’t understand who aren’t involved in politics: Politics is really grassroots, and candidates develop at the very local level,” she said. “Josh understands that.”

Good timing has also helped. The 2016 resignation of attorney general and onetime Democratic star Kathleen Kane, after her perjury conviction, opened the door to his first statewide bid.

Despite lacking courtroom experience, Shapiro won a three-way primary that spring, beating Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County district attorney and son of a former Supreme Court justice who had the support of Philadelphia’s powerful union leader John J. Dougherty. Then Shapiro won the general election even as Donald Trump won the state for the presidency.

In the ensuing months and years, Trump offered a useful foil to Democratic attorneys general across the country. Shapiro was no exception, filing lawsuits against Trump’s travel ban and scores of other policies and burnishing an image with liberals as a check on the White House.

Shapiro also “took on the big fights,” as he’s put it, releasing a damning grand jury report on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal and helping resolve a dispute between two Western Pennsylvania health-care giants that he claimed had left many patients excluded from a major network of doctors and hospitals.

“He clearly made it known under no circumstances are the men and women of Western Pennsylvania going to be casualties in this battle,” said Darin Kelly, president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council.

In his most recent election, Shapiro outperformed Biden and other Democrats in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, and surrounding counties, as well as in parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania where the party has struggled in recent years.

» READ MORE: The survival of U.S. democracy may hinge on this decision by Pa.’s next governor | Will Bunch

Bumps along the path

His electoral success notwithstanding, it didn’t always look as though Shapiro would run uncontested.

Not long after Krasner was elected Philadelphia district attorney on a progressive reform platform in 2017, he started lashing out at the new attorney general. After some assistant prosecutors left Krasner’s office and took jobs under Shapiro, Krasner has said, staffers in the DA’s Office started jokingly referring to the AG’s Office as “Paraguay,” a reference to the South American country where Nazis sought refuge after World War II. Krasner wasn’t seen as a likely gubernatorial rival, but his criticism seemed to suggest a level of discontent with Shapiro, at least in the criminal justice reform movement.

Fetterman, who once openly considered running for governor, repeatedly clashed with Shapiro on the Board of Pardons, a panel on which they both serve that can recommend commutation for people convicted of violent crimes who have since reformed or maintained their innocence. Shapiro at times opposed Fetterman’s push to recommend commutations.

Fetterman has since decided to run for U.S. Senate.

Shapiro has noted that he voted in favor of many commutations but said of his critics: “If they’re charging me with being cautious, then guilty as charged. These decisions weigh on me.”

His allies point out that after the police killing of George Floyd last year, the attorney general helped strike a deal on legislation establishing a confidential state misconduct database aimed at preventing problem cops fired by police departments from getting jobs at new departments.

It was a modest measure, but won the support both of progressives and the Fraternal Order of Police.

More broadly, Shapiro has maintained a dialogue with key progressive legislators over the years. “He seems willing to reach out to folks who may disagree with him on things and have an open conversation,” said J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s former press secretary.

There were efforts in some progressive Democratic circles to recruit a female challenger, though those plans never went anywhere, according to people familiar with the matter.

After winning a second term as attorney general last November, Shapiro established himself as the front-runner.

In the weeks that followed, Shapiro got even more of a boost from Trump and his allies who were determined to challenge or overturn the election in Pennsylvania.

In the tense weeks before Biden’s inauguration, Pennsylvania’s attorney general became a ubiquitous presence on MSNBC and CNN and defended the state’s secretary of state in court.

“That just cemented such a sense of recognition for him and identifying with what he stood for,” said Kathy Bozinski, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Luzerne County, in the northeastern part of the state. “I think candidates saw that and said, ‘Hey, that’s a juggernaut we probably can’t overtake.’”

It’s a card Shapiro has already shown he intends to play when the campaign gets up and running. “Make no mistake,” he posted on Twitter last week. “In 2022, the Big Lie will be on the ballot — and we’ve got to vote against it.”