LOCAL

Is Josh Shapiro really the most talented politician in Pennsylvania

Julia Terruso and Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Doug Mastriano, John Fetterman, and Mehmet Oz have all drawn the national spotlight this year.

But Josh Shapiro is quietly running the strongest campaign — and potentially building the biggest future.

With a relentless and largely by-the-book effort, Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general, has built a double-digit lead over Mastriano in the governor’s race, according to all major recent public polls. If that holds up, and he wins big, it would be an eye-catching swing-state victory that could vault him to national prominence.

Some people are already forecasting that Shapiro, 49, could be the first Jewish president.

“The Democrats nominated probably their A1 guy in the country, and the Republicans kind of sent in a replacement player,” said Ryan Boyer, leader of the Laborers’ District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia & Vicinity, a 40,000-strong union group in Philadelphia and its collar counties. “I think that Josh is probably a potential presidential candidate one day.”

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Shapiro, of course, isn’t talking about that before he even sets foot in the governor’s mansion. But few who know the meticulous and ambitious attorney general doubt that he has plans for the biggest prize in American politics.

Even a top adviser to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, another likely future presidential candidate, recently tweeted that if Shapiro wins by as much as polls suggest, his campaign will be one for Democrats to learn from.

“Josh is the most focused and talented politician and elected official in my lifetime in Pennsylvania,” said Larry Ceisler, a longtime Democratic insider.

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's Democratic nominee for governor, speaks to the crowd during a campaign event at Adams County Democratic Party headquarters, Sept. 17, 2022, in Gettysburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Ceisler compared Shapiro’s focus and intensity to the same qualities he witnessed in the late Kobe Bryant while sitting courtside at a Lakers-Sixers game.

That Mamba-like approach has helped Shapiro go from a congressional aide to state legislator to Montgomery County commissioner to attorney general in an inexorable climb. (Shapiro, a wannabe baller from the same home county as Kobe, would probably particularly appreciate that compliment).

It has helped that Shapiro has a far-right opponent running a sometimes shambolic campaign. Shapiro actively advertised to help Mastriano in the GOP primary, calculating that he’d be easier to beat. Mastriano has taken maximalist positions on abortion and voting laws, is an avid election denier, and has associated with antisemites. His scant fund-raising has allowed Shapiro to pound Mastriano and promote his own accomplishments on TV with little pushback.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race is perhaps the most consequential in the country. The next governor could sign, or veto, severe restrictions on both voting rights and abortion rights (as Shapiro reminds supporters). He would appoint the commonwealth’s secretary of state, who could decide if democratic rules hold during the 2024 presidential election, when Pennsylvania is again likely to be a pivotal battleground.

Republicans say Shapiro is benefiting from a weak opponent, not an extraordinary campaign. Some argue he has yet to withstand a truly tough election, and that a politician as ambitious as Shapiro will have his weaknesses exposed if and when he faces real opposition.

But Shapiro has also won over some prominent Republican supporters (though they are mostly from an earlier, pre-Trump version of the GOP), as he builds a sweeping coalition and works seemingly every room.

While Fetterman has his memes and unorthodox persona, Oz has built-in celebrity, and Mastriano draws attention like a car crash, Shapiro — campaigning in the classic weekend political uniform of jeans and a button-down (sleeves rolled, of course) — has done what you’d normally expect from a major statewide candidate in Pennsylvania. While others might have more flash, Shapiro is often described as simply “a machine.”

He has pledged to be a firewall against restrictions on voting and abortion. He’s pitched a vision of funding schools, expanding internet access, hiring more police, raising the minimum wage to $15, and supporting labor rights.

And he’s kept a tireless schedule that has taken him not just to Democratic strongholds but also to rural areas where his party has struggled. Sunday alone, he made four stops, all in small cities and small towns in the Northeastern part of the state.

He’s even a rare Democrat who got a standing ovation from business executives at a recent Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce event, when he pledged to speed up plans to cut the state’s corporate taxes.

It was a sign of the broad platform Shapiro may claim if he really does win.