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Josh Shapiro, now a gubernatorial hopeful, showed an early political savvy

Chris Brennan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Looking back now, former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli said the amount of responsibility he gave the young legislative aide who was fresh off a college internship on Capitol Hill "seems ridiculous."

But Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, said the 24-year-old Josh Shapiro was capable of handling complicated tasks, such as planning foreign affairs tours in the Middle East and Asia, especially a tense trip to North Korea.

"He had good judgment at an incredibly young age and a real maturity," Torricelli said of Shapiro, now 49 and the Democratic nominee for governor in Pennsylvania. "No one ever worked for me who was as bright and focused, with such steely determination."

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From Capitol Hill to Norristown to Harrisburg, people who worked or ran with and against Shapiro all recall a driven technocrat, someone who figured out how things worked and then set them in play to work in his favor.

In his job as state attorney general and on the campaign trail, Shapiro is regimented in his messaging, arriving with the story he came to tell and ready to head off any distractions to that narrative.

Torricelli said he imagined the young Shapiro one day as a member of a president's cabinet, maybe U.S. attorney general. Shapiro, he said, was "never the backslapping, jovial political type."

But Shapiro's fans and detractors alike speculate that a win for governor would be the latest rung on a ladder, not the end of his climb.

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)

That first, lone loss

Classmates from Akiba Hebrew Academy, the Main Line Jewish day school Shapiro attended, still rib him about his first and only electoral loss, a bid in his junior year for school president.

He was defeated by basketball teammate Ami Eden. The two, along with Aaron Hahn Tapper, would captain the squad their senior year, leading it to the best record in the history of the school, now known as Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Shapiro was known as "Shaps" in school, Tapper recalled, and "the general" on the court for the way he managed the game. He stood out among the less-mature students.

"He had a decorum about him that certainly surpassed mine in the best of ways," said Tapper, the younger brother of CNN host Jake Tapper. "I was a smart-ass. He was a foil to that. He said appropriate things."

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Shapiro went off to the University of Rochester, where as a freshman he beat five juniors to become president of the student association.

"I put my heart into this, and I'm glad that the student body saw that," the political science major told the student newspaper.

Climbing the Capitol Hill ranks

Shapiro developed an early reputation for going directly at what he desired, and on Capitol Hill, he found a boss who years later felt burned by the young man's ambition.

Joe Hoeffel was a freshly elected member of the U.S. House, working out of a cubicle in a Capitol building basement in 1998 when Shapiro showed up, seeking a job.

"I don't even know how he knew I was there," Hoeffel said. "I didn't have an office set up. I didn't have a staff."

Shapiro, who'd grown up in Abington — part of Hoeffel's new district — got the job. Nights, Shapiro started classes at Georgetown Law.

Three months into that new job, Hoeffel's first chief of staff, an experienced hand on Capitol Hill, flamed out in personality clashes. Shapiro took over with ease.

"What he lacked in experience as a chief of staff he more than made up with the ability to network with people," Hoeffel said. "Josh was just terrific at reaching out to fellow staff and making connections, which was helpful to me."

More than a decade later, Hoeffel, who wanted the Democratic Party's backing for another term as Montgomery County commissioner, would feel displaced as Shapiro was pushed forward, instead.

"You don't want to turn your back on him," Hoeffel told The Inquirer in 2017. "Loyalty is not his strong suit."

Hoeffel still feels that way. But he supports Shapiro's bid for governor, in part because he loathes the Republican nominee, state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County.

"Frankly, we haven't cleared the air between us on those matters," Hoeffel said. "All that pales in comparison to the impact of Pennsylvania's next governor."

Outworking an opponent

Shapiro took his first shot as a candidate in 2004, seeking an open seat in the state House for a district that included Abington and Upper Dublin Township. He faced a well-entrenched Republican opponent.

Jon Fox had held the seat for seven years before being elected to the U.S. House, a seat he lost to Hoeffel in 1992.

Political consultant Neil Oxman, who worked for Shapiro's campaign, said Fox entered the race "with a gigantic lead" in polling.

Shapiro "was running against a guy who had 100% name recognition and in Abington Township was very popular," Oxman said. "At the beginning of the campaign, no one thought he had a chance. He just outworked everybody."

Shapiro knocked on more than 10,000 doors, campaigning on increasing education funding, providing better access to health care, preserving open spaces and protecting doctors for rising liability insurance costs. He also supported then-Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to legalize casinos as a way to raise money to lower property taxes.

Fox received about $200,000 in campaign contributions. Shapiro, seen as a "newcomer," brought in $383,000. Shapiro won by nearly 10 points.

Gamesmanship in the state House

Harrisburg gave Shapiro his first exposure as a political operator.

Democrats held a one-seat majority at the start of 2007 but then-House Speaker John M. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, was courting some Democrats and seemed to have won their support in his bid to remain in the post.

Bill DeWeese, the Democratic majority leader, did not have the votes to overcome Perzel. So Shapiro called state Rep. Denny O'Brien, a Philadelphia Republican, to pitch the idea of making him speaker.

There was a sticking point: O'Brien wanted to be speaker but would not switch parties. The whole deal could have come crashing down. But when the time came, DeWeese went to the House chamber and nominated O'Brien.

"I said to Josh, 'What do we do now?'" O'Brien recalled about hearing his name in the chamber. "Josh said, 'I guess we just make it up as we go along.'"

The maneuver stunned a state legislature where seniority was seen as sacrosanct. Some grumbled that Shapiro, still a backbencher, took the lion's share of the credit.

O'Brien disagrees. Shapiro made the call. He was in all the meetings. He was rewarded with the post of deputy speaker, a job that hadn't existed, and set his sights on reforming the legislature.

"I just recognized that he had extraordinary leadership skills from the get-go," said O'Brien, still a Republican but now backing Shapiro for governor. "He didn't have to spend a decade understanding [how the legislature works]."

Even Perzel, who thought he had secured enough Democratic support to prevail, gives credit to Shapiro for the defeat.

"It was clever," Perzel said. "Something I would have done myself."

Another mentor angry

Trouble was heading for DeWeese and Perzel, with both eventually swept up in a sprawling Attorney General's Office investigation into the use of state tax dollars for political operations. Both would eventually serve time in prison.

Shapiro did not wait for charges to be filed against DeWeese, holding a Capitol news conference in the summer of 2008 to call on the majority leader to resign from that post.

Shapiro called DeWeese "a symbol of a broken system." DeWeese, who had seen himself as Shapiro's mentor, said he was saddened by the "personal attacks."

DeWeese still respects Shapiro's drive, though he notes that he twice approached Shapiro for potential appointments to state posts and received no help.

Said DeWeese: "I doff my hat to the punctilious exactitude of his 20-year journey from freshman legislator to gubernatorial nominee."

'A fine administrator'

Democrats in Montgomery County started talking in 2011 about replacing Hoeffel on the County Commission, which was controlled by Republicans.

But commission chair Jim Matthews, a Republican, had iced out Bruce L. Castor Jr., a Republican and former district attorney, aligning instead with Hoeffel. Dysfunction and scandal ensued. Shapiro was floated as a replacement for Hoeffel, disappointing his former boss.

Shapiro and Whitemarsh Township Supervisor Leslie S. Richards became the first Democratic majority since 1882.

Castor was reelected and now voices nothing but praise for Shapiro, who was voted commission chair. Castor said Shapiro divided the commission duties into three columns based on expertise. Castor would oversee public safety and policing issues. Richards, who went on to run PennDOT and then SEPTA, handled roads and planning. Shapiro stuck to social services and administration.

"I'll tell anyone who asks me that Josh Shapiro was the best county commissioner I ever knew, including me," Castor said. "He's a very fine administrator, and he's very good at arriving at consensus."

That, Castor said, amounts to the best possible training to be governor. Still, he hasn't decided who he will vote for on Nov. 8.

"That's a tough call for me," he said. "I don't believe I've ever voted for a Democrat."

Back to Harrisburg

In 2017, Shapiro went back to Harrisburg, having won his first term as attorney general with a strong showing in the 2016 three-candidate primary — and a three-point win in a general election in which Donald Trump became the first Republican to win Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988.

Shapiro garnered more votes that year than Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president. He repeated that in 2020, winning more votes than Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

In a bruising primary, Shapiro called in a big favor, landing the endorsement of then-President Barack Obama. Shapiro had known Obama since 2006 and endorsed him early in the 2008 race. Still, a sitting president weighing in on a competitive primary for a state attorney general race sent an unusually aggressive message.

Former Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who always ran third in polling behind Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., hammered away at Shapiro's lack of courtroom experience, painting him as a politician, not a prosecutor.

Morganelli, now a Common Pleas Court judge restricted in political activity and commentary, in a statement, said he "really took it to Josh in our debates. I was an experienced trial attorney and prosecutor and I was aggressive." Still, he said, Shapiro was gracious as attorney general when he worked with Morganelli's office.

Next stop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Shapiro won a second term in 2020, defeating Pittsburgh trial lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh by 4.5 points in an election when the presidential race was again very close and voters chose Republicans for the other state row offices, treasurer and auditor general.

Heidelbaugh cast Shapiro in a campaign ad as a climber, with his sights set on the 2022 race for governor while still running for a second term in the office he held. She tweeted in 2020 that Shapiro has "hinted that he wants to become president" and was using his post as "a stepping stone."

"I certainly still believe that," Heidelbaugh said, asked recently about Shapiro.

Torricelli says a future run for president is plausible for his former aide.

"I think his potential is unlimited," Torricelli said. "He has that natural ability."

Shapiro, who runs a campaign the way he ran a basketball game, will not commit the foul of looking past the contest now on the ballot.

"Look, I want to be governor," Shapiro told The Inquirer last week. "I'm not running for anything else. And I'm focused only on serving the good people of Pennsylvania."