Josh Shapiro is aiming for a reset with Pa.'s Republican legislators as he prepares to become governor

Andrew Seidman
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Josh Shapiro is about to inherit a state government so divided that the parties can't even agree who controls the Pennsylvania House.

So as Shapiro, a Democrat, prepares to be sworn in next month as the state's 48th governor, he's seeking to mend relations with Republican legislative leaders who were often at odds with outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf.

That's partly out of realpolitik: Republicans will control at least the Senate. But Shapiro has built his career as a consensus builder and pragmatist, sometimes clashing with his party's activist left. And his campaign and postelection pronouncements suggest he's continuing that strategy.

Shapiro, the state attorney general, won a landslide election after running a campaign aimed squarely at the political middle: highlighting his support for law enforcement, vowing to veto abortion restrictions, pledging to lower costs, and straying from liberal orthodoxy on education and the environment.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro won the gubernatorial election, defeating Republican Doug Mastriano last month. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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He's named prominent Republicans to his transition team and will hold his inauguration in GOP-leaning Lancaster County — a move that hearkens back to Shapiro's general election campaign kickoff in Johnstown, a postindustrial city in rural Western Pennsylvania.

Following contentious pandemic restrictions and acrimony over the 2020 presidential election — and divisions that have lingered ever since — Shapiro's approach amounts to an attempt at rapprochement with the opposition party.

"I'm convinced we'll find common ground," he said at a news conference about his transition.

Some Harrisburg observers see a focus on personal relationships and knack for politicking that contrasts with Pennsylvania's two most recent governors: Wolf, a Democrat, and Tom Corbett, a Republican.

"There's a real opportunity with a bunch of new players on the field to hit reset and see what they can get done," said Jim Schultz, a Republican lawyer who worked for Corbett and is now on Shapiro's transition team. "The governor-elect has been very clear he is interested in working across party lines."

It's not unusual for a new administration to preach about finding common ground. No one knows how long the good vibes will last or whether they will actually translate to policy success. It seems unlikely, though, that Shapiro and the legislature will find themselves in the kind of monthslong budget standoff that marked the beginning of Wolf's tenure. (For one thing, the state's fiscal outlook is stronger now.)

That said, Shapiro also made abortion and voting rights — key Democratic priorities — central to his campaign, pledging to veto any GOP attempt to curb access.

At least for the moment, though, Shapiro and GOP leaders appear to share an interest in bipartisanship.

The fight for the state House will be an immediate challenge to Shapiro's vision

Shapiro's efforts to recalibrate the relationship between the governor's office and legislature may benefit from his background as a former state legislator who developed a reputation as a savvy operator in a closely divided House. But they face an early test amid a power struggle over control of the House.

Republicans continue to control the Senate, but Democrats won the slimmest possible majority of House seats — 102 to 101 — last month. Three Democratic vacancies, though, have left them with 99 members to Republicans' 101.

That's prompted a fight over which party controls the chamber and when special elections will be held to fill the empty seats. (Republicans want to hold two of the elections with the May primary — a move that would give the GOP control for at least the first few months of Shapiro's administration.)

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County said Democrats' claiming of the majority "does a lot to sow mistrust and will make it very challenging going forward."

Still, he said in an interview: "I don't blame the governor-elect for the House Democrats' actions."

Whatever happens, the outcome of the fight — and any ill will that comes with it — could set the tone for budget negotiations and other legislative priorities.

For example, a Republican-led legislature could advance constitutional amendments that would ask voters to consider stricter voter ID requirements and make it easier for the legislature to reject regulations. Another amendment, seen as less likely to advance, would ask voters to decide whether the state constitution includes abortion rights.

Passing amendments is a long process that isn't easy — but they go directly from the legislature to voters, bypassing the governor.

To be sure, Wolf and GOP lawmakers had plenty of bipartisan successes, including record education funding, a major election overhaul law, and corporate tax cuts.

But when Republicans believed that they had no other options after months and even years of trying to work with Wolf on some issues, they say, they pursued the amendments.

Chafing at Wolf's pandemic restrictions, Republican lawmakers passed constitutional amendments last year that rolled back the governor's emergency powers. Voters approved the changes.

But pushing amendments at the outset of Shapiro's administration isn't exactly a vote of confidence in working with the new governor. And as a practical matter, such a move could make it harder for Republicans to deal with Shapiro on, say, a broader election reform package.

Democrats largely oppose those amendments — which first passed the legislature in July and would need to pass again in the new legislative session to make the ballot.

"All of a sudden, does that poison the well for the rest of the legislative session?" asked Berwood Yost, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.

In an interview, Cutler said a GOP House majority may pursue the voter ID and regulation amendments, as well as a broadly popular one that would provide a window for survivors of childhood sex abuse to sue.

No matter which party ends up controlling the House, the narrow majority will likely present challenges to governing. Any partisan legislation can be foiled by just one or two representatives. In theory, that could empower centrists in both parties to build big coalitions. But both parties will also face pressure from their bases — whether that's abortion restrictions on the right or a $15 minimum wage on the left.

Shapiro pledged in his victory speech to "repair divisions" in the state, saying his election showed voters had discarded their "red jerseys" and "blue jerseys."

"You chose to do that not because we agree on everything ... but what we agree on is that we have to keep working at it together," he said.

In a recent interview, incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said she had spoken with Shapiro and thinks "we can get things done to help people."

"Most of the things that are helping people are not to the right or the left, when you look at the economy, health care ... changes that help businesses employ people," she said.

Cutler said he thinks he and Shapiro "will be able to work together on some issues."

Cutler pointed to potential policies that Shapiro highlighted at a state Chamber of Business and Industry dinner during the fall: speeding up business tax cuts that are set to phase in over several years, expediting the permitting process for businesses, and expanding educational opportunities such as vocational and technical schooling.

How will Shapiro's efforts at bipartisanship play with Democrats?

Shapiro brings a track record favoring incremental progress that attracts broad support over big structural change.

As chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, he boasted of leading a fiscal turnaround. As attorney general, he helped broker legislation in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder that established a state police misconduct database aimed at preventing problematic officers from getting hired. That proposal even gained the endorsement of police unions. Some Democrats and activists had been hoping for more sweeping police reform measures that had less support.

At the same time, Shapiro spoke during the campaign of taking on the "big fights" as attorney general — investigating child sex abuse by the Catholic Church, for example — and pledged to do the same as governor.

Shapiro said at a news conference last month that his priorities include "creating jobs and growing our economy, making our communities safer, and ensuring Pennsylvania children get a high-quality education."

"In sum, creating opportunity for all," he said, adding that he wants to cut taxes and invest in apprenticeship programs.

He was hardly using the language of the progressive left.

Shapiro's challenge will be translating campaign rhetoric into a governing agenda that can win Republican buy-in without alienating the liberal base.

Some of Shapiro's ideas have traction among Republicans but face resistance from many Democrats. On the campaign trail, for example, Shapiro voiced skepticism about Wolf's decision to join a regional greenhouse gas emissions compact and expressed support for more nontraditional public schools.

In the Trump era, the Democratic Party shifted to the left as progressives, especially from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, were elected to the legislature. And if Democrats control the House, those lawmakers may be able to exert more influence than they did in the minority. That could complicate any deals Shapiro may try to strike with Senate Republicans on such issues as education, where liberals and powerful teachers unions will likely oppose charter school expansion. (Shapiro has said he's open to a scholarship program that's been touted by Republicans.)

State Sen. Vince Hughes of Philadelphia, a veteran Democrat, said it's too early to assess how negotiations over educating funding might play out. But he noted that the state has a multibillion-dollar surplus that could help policymakers "really do some important things that transcend every geography in Pennsylvania."

In addition to education, Shapiro may face tension with fellow Democrats on issues such as regulation of the natural gas industry, gun control, and election reform. While Shapiro and Democratic lawmakers largely share similar views on those issues, they may differ on how big they should go — and when to compromise with Republicans.

Hughes said Shapiro "wants to do big things" but has "not been cavalier with spending" during his career.

"We really do have an opportunity," he said, "to get some stuff done."