Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County commissioners and a rising Democratic star, will bypass 2014 races for governor and Congress already congested with ambitious pols and instead launch his own political action committee to try to influence campaigns and issues around the state.
Keystone Reform, the name of the PAC Shapiro plans to announce Monday, will raise money to fund what he called "pragmatic, results-oriented" Democrats who believe in fiscally efficient and accountable government.
Another, unspoken aim: to make Shapiro a statewide player.
"I want very much for myself and my supporters to have a voice in the broader political debate," Shapiro told The Inquirer in an interview.
Some in his party had mentioned Shapiro as a possible candidate for the 2014 nomination to challenge a seemingly vulnerable Gov. Corbett. Others urged him to run for the 13th District seat in the U.S. House, due to come open next year because incumbent Allyson Y. Schwartz of Jenkintown is running for governor.
But Shapiro, just 16 months into his four-year term as a county commissioner, said, "There is a lot of work left to do." He also has four young children and said he wants to be a "serious presence in their lives."
With Shapiro and Commissioner Leslie Richards, Democrats have the first 2-1 majority on the county board in 170 years. Shapiro can boast that his regime has closed a $49 million deficit (out of a $409.7 million budget), cutting costs via layoffs, new procurement rules, and pension-fund changes.
Such talk sets off grumbling from former Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, a fellow Democrat who says much of the fiscal groundwork was laid via a tax increase and other measures before Shapiro arrived and took credit.
Even so, Shapiro points to these steps taken: "We eliminated every single Wall Street money manager from our [pension] portfolio, and every consultant, and saved over a million dollars just on the fees we were paying."
He said he would like to use Keystone Reform to advance approaches such as that and zero-based budgeting. He said he also could see the group advocating to make the state's highly politicized legislative redistricting system into a nonpartisan process, for example, or pushing for gun-control laws.
"Sometimes it'll be as simple as encouraging folks to write a letter. Other times, it might be a rally," Shapiro said.
Of course, the PAC also should help advance Shapiro's political fortunes, keeping his name out there, meeting important party activists, piling up IOUs. He's said to want to be governor someday.
"I love public service," said Shapiro, who turns 40 next month. "Just as there were prospects and opportunities this time, I presume that would occur in the future."
Others are even less restrained.
"He's a superstar now, let alone down the road," said Marcel Groen, the veteran Montgomery County Democratic chairman. "His potential is unlimited."
Kevin Washo, former executive director of the state Democratic Party, agrees. He called Shapiro a team player.
"Josh was one of the elected officials the state party always relied on for fund-raising purposes and as a surrogate," Washo said.
Shapiro has been in a hurry from the beginning of his political career.
A former congressional aide, he was elected to the state House in 2004 at age 31 in an upset over a well-known Republican candidate - former U.S. Rep. Jon Fox. Down 21 percentage points in his own polls, Shapiro knocked on 9,000 doors to win.
When Democrats could not agree on who should be House speaker after they won the majority, Shapiro hatched the deal that made Dennis O'Brien - then a state representative from Philadelphia and now a city councilman - the consensus speaker of a closely divided House.
Shapiro was appointed deputy speaker and cochaired a bipartisan committee charged with making Harrisburg more open.
Leaving the legislature to run for, and ultimately win, a seat on the three-member commission that runs the state's third-largest county has given Shapiro executive experience - as well as a chance to advance faster than in the step-by-step culture of the legislature.
"Tactically, it was a very smart play," said G. Terry Madonna, the pollster and political historian at Franklin and Marshall College.
Establishing a political committee, too, is a time-honored way of climbing the ladder.
Democrat Milton Shapp, for instance, used his committee to gather data and churn out policy proposals before he was elected governor in 1970, Madonna said. And Tom Ridge, then an obscure Erie congressman, established the Fund for Pennsylvania Leadership in 1991, three years before he was elected governor. Ridge used it to support Republican candidates across the state, banking goodwill.
As for Shapiro, "supporting candidates carries some risk of stepping on toes in the party," Madonna said.
But the pollster said it could also pay off big in a future run for governor: "He will have created a network of people with the same policy predilections he has."