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Democrats in Pa. ‘row offices’ on a collision course for 2022 election

Democrats appear to have a wealth of contenders for governor and Senate in 2022.

Four Democrats holding statewide office in Pennsylvania -- Attorney General Josh Shapiro (clockwise from top left,) Treasurer Joe Torsella, Lt. Gov-elect John Fetterman, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale could be on a political collision course for the 2022 campaigns for governor or the U.S. Senate.
Four Democrats holding statewide office in Pennsylvania -- Attorney General Josh Shapiro (clockwise from top left,) Treasurer Joe Torsella, Lt. Gov-elect John Fetterman, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale could be on a political collision course for the 2022 campaigns for governor or the U.S. Senate.Read moreStaff and AP / Staff and AP photos

A federal judge in Texas recently issued a ruling declaring the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro quickly fired off a statement denouncing the “judicial activism,” knocking President Donald Trump as well and vowing to protect the law many know as Obamacare.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party responded, telling Shapiro to “stay in his lane and keep his focus on Pennsylvanians, not boosting his national profile by continually taking on the president.”

But that is Shapiro’s lane these days. And he’s driving in heavy traffic.

Two other ambitious Democrats elected to Harrisburg “row offices,” Treasurer Joe Torsella and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, also are building their political brands.

In an unprecedented situation, three row officers from the same political party are potentially on a collision course for the 2022 campaign cycle, when there will be races for governor and the U.S. Senate.

Add to that mix John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, who defeated Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III’s bid for a second term and will be sworn into office next month. Fetterman, who developed a devoted base during a failed 2016 bid for the U.S. Senate, also is expected to be a statewide candidate in 2022.

Shapiro and Torsella were elected in 2016, and first would have to win reelection in 2020 before turning their focus to 2022. DePasquale won a second term in 2016, so the two-term limits for row offices will leave him free to campaign when he leaves his current job in January 2021.

For now, the row officers are taking different approaches to talking about what comes next.

Shapiro led a state grand jury that investigated seven decades of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy in seven Pennsylvania dioceses; its report has grabbed international news coverage, shaken the church, and inspired similar probes nationwide.

Many political insiders see him as in the strongest position to seek and win the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022. Shapiro waited more than a week — and after he knew Torsella and DePasquale had granted interviews for this article — to decline to comment, with his spokesperson, Joe Grace, saying Shapiro’s current job was “the most impactful” in the state and his “singular focus.”

The unspoken message? He doesn’t need the attention as much as they do.

Torsella steered a conventional and cautious course, invoking advice from former Gov. Ed Rendell, his mentor, that it is “political malpractice” to shift focus from a current job to the next opportunity.

“To sort of state the blindingly obvious, which I specialize in sometimes, if a week is a lifetime in politics then 2022 is like 16,000 years away,” said Torsella, adding that he hasn’t even committed to seeking a second term as treasurer. “It’s been an amazing and consuming job. My focus has been on it, not thinking about it as a stepping-stone.”

DePasquale, with a shorter time frame until he is out of office, was more open to talking about what comes next.

“I’ll be talking to people in the next couple of years about where my talents are needed,” he said, acknowledging that governor and U.S. Senate are potential races for him. “I’ve got a great job here. So I wouldn’t want, in a sense, to go backward. Both of those offices, I think there’s a lot you can do for the people of Pennsylvania.”

Does leaving office first give DePasquale an advantage, or does losing that statewide platform while rivals still hold their offices cause him a problem?

“It’s both,” he said. “On one hand, you’re not in the paper as much doing the job. On the other hand, you’re free from people thinking you’re using a public job to run for a public job.”

The row officers have used their elected posts to stake out national positions. DePasquale earlier this month said the Auditor General’s Office, which conducts audits to make sure state money is spent correctly, would prepare a “special report” on climate change in the state.

Torsella in 2017 sent “an open letter to the international community,” calling Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord “one of the most foolish and shortsighted actions.” The Treasurer’s Office oversees about $100 billion in state assets.

Shapiro has consistently used his office to challenge and criticize the policy moves of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education. The Attorney General’s Office has perhaps the widest jurisdiction among the row offices, with divisions for criminal cases, civil lawsuits, and public protection.

Jack Wagner, an Allegheny County Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor while serving as auditor general, said voters see through attempts to use a state row office to raise a politician’s profile.

“If you go beyond, reach for an issue that is not within your domain specifically, I think the public understands that’s just a position you’re taking,” Wagner said.

Still, running for statewide office while holding statewide office is an advantage, he said.

“There’s no doubt, once you’ve been a statewide candidate, you understand the issues of the state, the politics of the state a little better,” Wagner said. “It gives you an edge over a congressional candidate.”

Tom Corbett, an Allegheny County Republican who was elected governor in 2010 while serving as attorney general, faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for public corruption probes he ran as the state’s top prosecutor, accused of grandstanding with an eye toward higher office. Those investigations sent Republicans and Democrats to state prison.

For Corbett, who lost his 2014 bid for a second term to Gov. Tom Wolf, the key is to balance ambition for the next job with the duty of the current post.

“As you perform your duty, it’s possible to look at other offices,” said Corbett, now practicing law in Pittsburgh and teaching at Duquesne University School of Law. “It’s almost natural to look at other offices, particularly if you’re in a row office and term-limited. You have to be able to keep your focus on your office and, in my opinion, let your actions speak for you.”