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HARRISBURG — Democrat Josh Shapiro won big in Tuesday’s election, outperforming John Fetterman at the top of the ticket — and even President Joe Biden in 2020 — in almost every Pennsylvania county.
But as he prepares to step into the state’s top job with an ambitious and lengthy policy platform, he faces a new challenge: navigating a state legislature that has often served as a foil to gubernatorial agendas.
Budget battles and fights over environmental regulation, election access, and education spending will almost immediately test the reputation Shapiro’s crafted over nearly two decades in public office as a compromise-seeker.
Key to his success will be whether the state House of Representatives flips to Democrats for the first time in more than a decade. The Associated Press hasn’t yet made a call on which party will control the chamber, and there could still be litigation over several close races.
But state House Democrats on Wednesday declared victory, citing a slew of unexpected victories and their own analysis of county results.
Shapiro having one chamber on his side would, at the least, blunt the GOP’s strategy in recent years of using constitutional amendments to circumvent vetoes by a Democratic governor, a move Republicans used successfully to narrow Gov. Tom Wolf’s powers.
Still, Democrats and those familiar with Shapiro’s career say he is not unbending as a leader and will make one of his first priorities engaging Republicans.
The latter, in particular, is critical, said Steve Crawford, who served as former Gov. Ed Rendell’s legislative affairs secretary and chief of staff.
“Governing is not a philosophy. It’s a practice, and you have to be willing to engage, in a pretty sustained and aggressive way, the legislative branch,” said Crawford, who now runs a top lobbying firm in Harrisburg.
Republican leaders in both chambers were not available for comment Wednesday. Shapiro’s GOP challenger, state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, also did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mastriano had not conceded the election as of Wednesday afternoon. His only public activity since the race was called for Shapiro has been several cryptic posts to social media, including a photo of himself on a horse captioned, “Saddle up.”
As a candidate, Shapiro tried to stake out a middle ground on some of Pennsylvania’s most contentious issues. At times, such as with school choice, he left the door open to Republicans who have long advocated for redirecting taxpayer money away from underperforming public schools and giving it to students to attend private ones instead.
It was likely a calculated choice. A longtime student of the art of government and politics in the state Capitol, Shapiro saw Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf spend his first two years in office mired in messy impasses with Republicans who controlled both legislative chambers. Often, those disagreements centered on spending, particularly on public schools.
But as governor, Shapiro will also have to strike a balance with members of his own party, some of whom are far more progressive and may be less willing to compromise ideals for the sake of a deal.
Firm Democratic allies like teachers’ unions and conservative mainstays like monied school choice groups both say they’re watching carefully to see how Shapiro handles education — particularly when it comes to the so-called “lifeline scholarships” he indicated he’d support as a candidate.
Matt Brouillette, who runs the conservative Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs and routinely helps pump millions of dollars into Pennsylvania races, noted Shapiro’s past support for the scholarships in a comment to Spotlight PA.
He said that he expects Shapiro to “keep his word and sign legislation that allows money to follow the child so every child, regardless of zip code, has access to the best education that meets their needs, whether that education be public, private, charter, parochial, homeschool, or other.”
Commonwealth Partners’ political action committees get millions of dollars from billionaire Jeff Yass, who himself has a complicated history with Shapiro. During his 2016 run for attorney general, Shapiro took money from Yass.
During this year’s GOP primary, a Commonwealth Partners PAC overwhelmingly bankrolled by Yass funded anti-Shapiro ads. The organization reached out to Spotlight PA after the publication of thus article to insist it used other funds, and not Yass’ money, on those ads. The PAC did not give any money to Mastriano.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a prominent Shapiro backer, said it too is keeping a close eye on lifeline scholarships.
“PSEA disagrees with Attorney General Shapiro on the issue of lifeline scholarships,” union spokesperson Chris Lilienthal told Spotlight PA. “We’ve made that clear to him. PSEA would oppose any type of tuition voucher program and we have no intention of changing that.”
He added that Shapiro has also been a firm supporter of increasing public school funding and routing that money through a formula designed to more fairly allocate resources. Despite disagreements, PSEA sees Shapiro’s election as an unequivocal victory — especially, Lilienthal said, because of Shapiro’s proven negotiation skills.
On the campaign trail, Shapiro avoided saying whether he would keep Pennsylvania in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a plan popular with Democrats in which energy producers purchase allowances to emit carbon dioxide, with the profits going to renewable energy investments.
That’s something Rob Altenburg, a policy analyst with environmental group PennFuture, said he’s watching. He also wants to see Shapiro “make a strong commitment to even higher climate targets than Gov. Wolf.”
But, he adds, he understands why Shapiro is being pragmatic on energy.
“To get where we need to go is going to be a process. It’s not surprising that Shapiro wasn’t running on a fracking moratorium,” Altenburg said. “He has stressed that he understands the reality of the climate crisis.”
That pragmatism is what allowed Shapiro to mostly avoid conflict with environmental groups like PennFuture, and win endorsements from organizations that environmentalists sometimes clash with, like the building trades.
Jim Snell, business manager with Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia, looks at energy politics in terms of jobs. Lots of his members work in the natural gas industry, so he finds it difficult to back candidates who want to end fracking or make it harder to build pipelines.
Even though Shapiro criminally charged a pipeline developer as attorney general, Snell said he has few concerns about the Democrat’s coming governorship.
“Let’s face it, Josh has some of his supporters from the environmental groups, but he also has the building trades…there’s a fine line, there’s a balance,” Snell said. “Sitting down and talking to Josh, he gets it. He understands what is beneath our feet.”
These aren’t the only areas where Shapiro will have to continue to walk a political tightrope once he takes the oath of office in January of next year. Others include reaching a deal on a long-debated election law overhaul, negotiating spending in the next budget, and, potentially, ushering in changes championed by good government groups, including a gift ban.
His next few weeks, at least, will be far less precarious.
In the coming days, the Democrat is expected to announce his transition team. That group historically has been made up of dozens of people who are tasked with scrutinizing every state department, drafting recommended policy changes, and, sometimes, helping choose and vet top administration personnel.
Shapiro is also expected in the next few weeks to begin announcing his choices for cabinet positions (which are subject to state Senate confirmation), as well as his executive office. And he will soon move to form a committee to assemble plans for his inauguration in January.
Larry Ceisler, a longtime Democratic consultant, said attracting top talent to Harrisburg has historically been a heavy lift. In previous administrations, for instance, it was a running — if inside — joke that few big names wanted to move to the state’s capital.
Shapiro, he believes, can change that equation. Look no further than Shapiro’s campaign, said Ceisler, who called it “the best campaign that I have witnessed” since the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, beat back a fierce challenge three decades ago by the late Lynn Yeakel.
It was 1992, dubbed “The Year of the Woman” in politics, and Yeakel nearly unseated Specter over his relentless questioning of Anita Hill during U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearing.
Specter, like Shapiro, ran a grassroots campaign high in retail politics, reaching out to local leaders and residents in every county.
“He worked like nobody else worked,” said Ceisler of Shapiro. “People want to be around that energy.”
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