Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Newly minted Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is stocking his executive staff of advisors, mediators, and policy experts with political veterans and loyal allies.
Unlike department secretaries, the Democrat’s top staffers won’t need to be confirmed by the state Senate. But they have some of the most important jobs in the new administration, and will work behind the scenes with Shapiro to help him implement his plans as governor.
These people include campaign operatives, people who worked with Shapiro at the attorney general’s office, and a onetime Republican lawmaker who supported former President Donald Trump in 2016.
The executive staffers will help the governor strategize, offer policy expertise, and serve as his representatives in talks with the legislature, departments, and interest groups as he tries to deliver on key campaign promises. Balancing state budgets, cracking down on illegal guns, and raising the minimum wage are some of his key pledges.
“You’re putting out fires all the time,” said Mary Isenhour, who served as both legislative director and chief of staff for Shapiro’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Isenhour said offering recommendations was part of her job, though she added of Wolf, “I wasn’t giving advice, because he’s the one with the Ph.D.” She often helped the governor make tough calls, telling Wolf, “OK governor, here are our options … we can do A, B, or C. You’re the governor, you get to decide.”
The new administration’s chief of staff, Dana Fritz, has been with Shapiro since his days in Montgomery County government, where she first managed “finance and political efforts” for the then-county commissioner, according to Shapiro’s transition team.
She was deputy campaign manager in Shapiro’s 2016 bid for attorney general and stayed with him after he took office, working over several years in communications and as deputy chief of staff. She next managed his 2020 reelection campaign, then his 2022 campaign for governor.
Shapiro’s secretary of policy and planning, Akbar Hossain, likewise comes from a top campaign job — in his case, policy director — and will continue to serve in a similar role, helping set Shapiro’s agenda.
Hossain served as executive director of Shapiro’s transition, and was the first person of Asian American or Pacific Islander heritage to have that role in Pennsylvania, according to transition staff.
Before working with Shapiro’s 2022 campaign, Hossain was a government investigations attorney at major Philadelphia-based law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and clerked for a U.S. district judge.
Shapiro’s incoming secretary of legislative affairs, Mike Vereb, is one of the new governor’s closest — and for a powerful Democrat, most unusual — allies.
A former police officer who also worked in corporate security, Vereb is a Republican who held a Montgomery County state House seat from 2006 to 2016. Shapiro served in the lower chamber from 2005 to 2011.
Vereb also chaired the Montgomery County GOP committee from 2013 to 2015, years when Shapiro was a county commissioner.
As a state representative, Vereb drew his party’s ire for being willing to consider tax increases.
In many instances though, he voted the party line in ways that clash with the current Democratic party platform. He supported a 2011 bill — as did a number of Democrats at the time — that would have barred abortion coverage in state health care exchanges, and opposed Wolf’s death penalty moratorium. He also was one of the first Pennsylvania politicians to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Vereb did not seek reelection in 2016, instead becoming the only person not involved in Democratic politics or Shapiro’s campaign to be appointed to the new attorney general’s staff, where he has since served as director of government affairs.
In his new role, Vereb will be Shapiro’s primary liaison with the legislature. Isenhour said this duty was a difficult part of her job during the Wolf administration.
“You’re trying to coordinate between agencies, advocacy groups, the legislature — and the legislature was challenging,” she said.
She noted that Republicans no longer have the firm hold on the state House that they did during Wolf’s tenure. She thinks that Shapiro, whom she has known for 25 years, is well-positioned to negotiate.
“I think this moment was made for Josh,” she said. “Believe me, I had this on my bingo card 25 years ago.”
Other top appointments include the people who will oversee state budgeting, provide legal counsel to the entire administration, and back up the chief of staff.
Uri Monson, currently the Philadelphia School District’s chief financial officer, will serve as budget secretary. Pennsylvania’s legal representation will be overseen by Jennifer Selber, who already worked closely with Shapiro as executive deputy attorney general in charge of the office’s criminal division. And campaign operative Larry Hailsham Jr., who was political director on Shapiro’s bid for governor, will be the new executive deputy chief of staff.
Also joining Shapiro’s staff are six deputy chiefs of staff who will work on particular policy areas, and liaise between the administration, departments, and interest groups. All of them have extensive experience in state politics.
Joseph Lee, a onetime CIA intelligence analyst who worked under Wolf as acting secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of General Services, will be deputy chief of staff for administration and opportunity. Former Pennsylvania Planned Parenthood political operations leader Lindsey Mauldin, who previously held roles in the Wolf administration’s departments of Human Services and Health, will now be the deputy chief of staff working with both of those agencies.
Danielle Okai is currently deputy director of public engagement at the U.S Department of Commerce and previously worked in the White House, on President Joe Biden’s campaign, and in the Wolf administration. She will serve as Shapiro’s deputy chief of staff for economic development. Former Centre County Commissioners Chair Michael Pipe, who often focused on public safety issues during his time in county government, will be the deputy chief of staff for public safety.
Wolf administration veteran Sam Robinson, who among other roles worked as the former governor’s deputy chief of staff focused on environmental policy, will stay in a similar role in the Shapiro administration, serving as deputy chief of staff for consumers and the environment. Former labor union political director Tori Shriver will work on labor issues for Shapiro as deputy chief of staff for education and workforce development.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.