A look at Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro's 'common ground' approach in one of the nation's most politically divided states
PHILADELPHIA — On an unusually warm morning in late March, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro's convoy of black SUVs followed a winding gravel road down to a ninth-generation family farm in Lancaster County.
He had a message to deliver, in concert with top Republican lawmaker Sen. Scott Martin, who also ran for governor last year, about how the state is responding to one of the worst avian flu outbreaks in decades. One of the most conservative lawmakers in the state House, Rep. David Zimmerman, joined them.
"This is how government is supposed to work," Shapiro said, standing in front of a small tractor and a few stacked hay bales while cows grazed on the early spring grass nearby.
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Shapiro, 49, has earned a national reputation as an ambitious pragmatist after a landslide victory last year. Leaders from both political parties describe him as one of the most qualified and politically savvy governors the state has ever had. Every step in his career led him to the governorship — and could keep leading him higher up the political ladder.
He's taken the wheel in Pennsylvania with opportunities that his predecessor, fellow Democrat Tom Wolf, never had. Now he has to figure out how to execute his bipartisan promises.
The Philadelphia Inquirer spoke with some of Shapiro's current and former colleagues for this portrait of the governor, as he tries to bring one of the nation's most populous states — and the most politically divided — to a new future.
Across political parties, those who have worked with Shapiro over his career describe him as someone who at his core wants to solve problems and find common ground.
"If you try to romanticize it, when you look up in the sky and see a billion stars up there, (Shapiro has) always been the one who's been able to connect them," said Lee Soltysiak, the chief operating officer of Montgomery County, who first worked with Shapiro in former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel's office.
"I think that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has trained better during their adult life to hold the position of governor," said Bruce Castor, a former Republican Montgomery County commissioner who later defended former President Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.
As Shapiro approaches his 100th day in office, few in Harrisburg will criticize him (though many said his $44 billion budget proposal was too pricey). For now, he's still enjoying a honeymoon period during which the state Capitol is brimming with hope for compromise.
'He worked at it'
Those close to Shapiro say they've known he would be governor since first working with him. The former state attorney general was angling to succeed Wolf from the time Wolf began his second term in 2018, many in Harrisburg recall.
"He got there because he worked at it," Castor said. "I thought he would be [governor] if he wanted to be. He was as good of an administrator in that commissioner's role as I'd ever seen. I thought he was a better commissioner than me."
Now in the governor's office, there's a photo on his desk of his family — his wife, daughter and three sons — in front of the governor's mansion, a 30,000-square-foot home on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg. The photo was taken when Wolf was still governor and he invited the Shapiro family to visit.
Shapiro's family now lives in the mansion. (Wolf chose not to live there and stayed at his family's home in Mount Wolf, York County, for the entirety of his governorship.)
Despite the grandeur of the office in the state Capitol building, Shapiro is comfortable. He'd been in office for only a month when The Inquirer sat down with him, but his understated confidence made it seem as if he'd been there for much longer. Several portraits gaze at him at his desk: William Penn looking at him straight ahead, Benjamin Franklin to his right, and a number of Pennsylvania's 47 other governors around the room and out the door.
If a man fills his office with the things that represent his values, Shapiro is surrounded by photos of family, a union-made metal American flag, a framed photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's front page following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.
Another core view for Shapiro: He views Pennsylvania's residents as customers — and believes that state government should respond to residents' needs, Soltysiak said.
"Those small, early wins in identifying things that should be better, showing your team and our constituents that government can change for the better — that's a credibility that gives you the traction to climb your way up the ladder to the harder-to-change issues," Soltysiak added.
Shapiro's administration includes a Republican legislative liaison and a Republican nominee for secretary of state. In his first executive action as governor, Shapiro removed college degree requirements for most state government jobs, pleasing the state's business community and Republican lawmakers. Olive branch after olive branch.
As he travels the state, he invites local lawmakers, no matter their party. For example, when Shapiro appeared with Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in Northeast Philadelphia earlier this month, Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, attended the event.
An early test
Just two weeks into his administration, Shapiro got his first 3 a.m. call.
A train carrying toxic chemicals had derailed in Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection called to alert him of the derailment, which included one car filled with vinyl chloride.
That one car turned into 11.
And that dangerous toxic chemical turned into multiple hazardous materials that mixed together — eventually requiring some residents in Beaver County to evacuate while the rail company slowly released the toxins into the air to prevent an explosion.
Shapiro has since been working on a unified response with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, taking calls from President Joe Biden and being "focused like a laser beam" on residents of western Beaver County.
Disasters can be defining moments for governors: Hurricane Sandy for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or COVID-19 for Wolf. It's too early to say how this will define Shapiro, but he acknowledged it's already been a proving ground.
"We were tested; I was tested as a governor," Shapiro told The Inquirer in February, just after he got back from visiting the crash site.
Shapiro spent most of his time as state attorney general pursuing corporations taking advantage of Pennsylvania residents. Now he's using his background as the state's top prosecutor to make demands of rail company Norfolk Southern. So far, the administration has collected $7 million for the area — what Shapiro called a starting point.
Since the derailment, the Shapiro administration has been attentive and helpful to those affected, said state Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver, who represents the area.
"I expected Gov. Shapiro to do well, and he's probably exceeded my expectations already," he said. "Gov. Shapiro's style and tone are on target with what the governor's office should do."
Marshall told Shapiro that first responders needed more equipment, and that Darlington Township residents didn't want to have to go to Ohio to receive services. He's been able to text Shapiro's legislative liaison, former Republican Rep. Mike Vereb, to get the area's resource center open longer.
"And he did it," Marshall said.
Martin, a Republican from Lancaster County and the top leader of the Senate Appropriations committee, said it's "refreshing" to work with Shapiro's administration after several frustrating years with Wolf's administration.
"In the past, we would reach out, and we would get no response (from the Wolf administration), no willingness to engage on these things," Martin added. "Maybe that's the beauty of why the executive branch is set up the way it is. Eight years can be a long time, and sometimes things go stale. You need a new leadership style or willingness to potentially compromise on certain issues. I see a lot of hope."
That doesn't mean Shapiro is without criticism from Republicans: Martin noted GOP lawmakers won't budge on a number of issues: energy policy, tax increases, school choice and maintaining the state's "rainy day" reserve fund.
That's the heart of the challenge ahead. Shapiro will need to navigate a split legislature with a one-seat Democratic House majority and a strong GOP Senate majority.
But there's hope from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"On all these topics, I think there's definitely an appetite from what I've seen from all parties, to really engage in the discussion, trying to find common ground," Martin added.
A different style
Wolf and Shapiro don't differ much politically. Both portray themselves as moderate Democrats willing to work across the aisle.
But how they got to the top spot — and the state of Pennsylvania's finances once they got there — couldn't be more different.
Wolf, a businessman with a doctorate in political science who self-funded his first campaign, had never held elected office before. He entered the governorship with a massive budget deficit, and his first budget proposal led to a nine-month impasse with the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Shapiro, in contrast, rose through the ranks as a state lawmaker to a county commissioner of one of the most populous counties to state attorney general. Pennsylvania's coffers are overflowing, with $5 billion in the state's "rainy day" fund after years of federal COVID-19 relief money and better-than-projected revenues. He'll have a Democratic majority in the state House — albeit by just one seat — for the first time in Pennsylvania in 12 years.
How they interact with the General Assembly also differs: Wolf often made grandiose budget proposals, seeing what might stick. In his last budget, he proposed a $1 billion increase to the state's K-12 education funding.
Shapiro said that's not his style.
"My focus is more on finding ways to bring people together and find that common ground, while staying true to your principles," Shapiro added.
His budget proposal embodied that delicate dance. Shapiro avoided controversial topics like legalizing recreational marijuana and school choice and focused on pleas to top lawmakers to negotiate.
Berwood Yost, a government professor and the executive director of Franklin & Marshall's College Poll, said this is what voters want. The college's poll has shown for years voters are increasingly concerned about the partisan divide and want it bridged.
"Voters want things to get done," he said.