As this year comes to a close, The Lever is resurfacing some of our best, most important reporting of 2022. We will return to our normal publishing schedule in the new year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As an aura of doom settled over Democratic candidates in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, we zigged where others zagged. David Sirota traveled to the “vast red ocean” of central Pennsylvania to shadow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, who just happens to be his old high school buddy.
Sirota wasn’t just reliving old times — he had a feeling that Shapiro “may have found the recipe I’ve spent a quarter century hunting for: the one that channels working-class rage away from culture wars and into populist economics, rather than insisting the rage is deplorable or pretending it doesn’t exist.”
Sure enough, Sirota came away from the experience feeling somewhat hopeful, “believing that whether it is Shapiro or anyone else, those in politics who take time to learn the job, get experience, climb the ladder, and genuinely try hard — they aren’t all fraudulent tryhards, even if they are far from perfect.” And sure enough, hardworking progressives beat the odds in the November elections, demonstrating that sometimes, substance really can overcome spectacle and complacency. And when it fails to do so? We’ll be there to expose it.
The Democrat Who Picks Fights With Bad Guys
Josh Shapiro is a Ted Lasso-style politician who does the one thing most Dems never do: He names the villains.
Nov 7, 2022
By David Sirota
On a foggy autumn morning in the heart of the region that handed Donald Trump the presidency, Josh Shapiro is quoting Hebrew scripture to a boisterous throng fearing the worst in the upcoming election.
“I do what I do because of my faith,” the Democratic gubernatorial nominee tells the rapt crowd at the Cro Club, a Croatian bar and bowling alley that’s smelled of beer and cigarettes since before Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills closed a half century ago. “My scripture says no one is required to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it, meaning each of us has a responsibility to get off the sidelines, get in the game, and do our part.”
The rhetoric is half rabbi and half motivational speaker, and the white hairs and union guys here in Donora cheer it on like screaming fans at a rock concert, which is funny because Shapiro doesn’t look the part of a rustbelt folk hero.
This short, clean-shaven, bespectacled Jewish pol from a leafy suburb on the other side of the state should be a fish out of water in this West Virginia-ish part of Pennsylvania long written off by the national Democratic Party. But instead of emanating an outsider’s off-putting, John-Kerry-asking-for-Swiss-on-a-cheesesteak vibe, Shapiro somehow fits in. He exudes a mix of Huey Long populism and Ted Lasso can-do-ness, rousing the crowd with jeremiads against “student loan companies that rip off our students” and “the greed of pharmaceutical company board rooms” that sowed the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.
Already being mentioned as a future Democratic presidential contender, Shapiro, 49, is campaigning in Republican territory in the final days of the gubernatorial race for his so-called “Big Fights Bus Tour” — and the battles he has waged as Pennsylvania’s attorney general are top of mind among the cheering crowd.
One old timer tells me Shapiro’s barrage of lawsuits against health care and fracking companies shows “he’s the only one who seems like he’s doing anything in Harrisburg.”
Giving me a tour of the building’s ancient duckpin bowling lanes, Cro Club owner Jim Brandemarte confides that he’s a practicing Catholic but likes that Shapiro “had the guts to go after the priests” — a reference to the biggest case Shapiro ever brought as the state’s top law enforcement official.
Watching the scene, I can’t help but think Shapiro — my old Junior Jewish Basketball League buddy from the Philly suburbs — may have found the recipe I’ve spent a quarter century hunting for: the one that channels working-class rage away from culture wars and into populist economics, rather than insisting the rage is deplorable or pretending it doesn’t exist.
I first caught a glimpse of that recipe back in the late 1990s when I was Bernie Sanders’ press secretary, watching the self-described socialist bash billionaire greed and rack up votes in Vermont’s conservative Northeast Kingdom. I saw the recipe again in the mid 2000s when Canadian health care proponent and anti-corruption crusader Brian Schweitzer bus-tripped, cow-branded, and shot-glassed his way into becoming the wildly popular Democratic governor of deep red Montana. I even published an article likening the quest for the elusive recipe to a hunt for the Da Vinci Code.
But that political formula — people-versus-powerful populism that names the corporate villains — has all but disappeared from a Democratic Party whose politicians, pundits, and affluent NPR-soothed voters seem to pine instead for a return to a pre-Trump epoch of West Wing etiquette and Barack Obama bromides about bipartisanship.
Though he hails from the comfortable Philadelphia suburbs, Shapiro has eschewed the stereotype of an effete complacent liberal dripping with “cling to their guns or religion” condescension toward small-town Pennsylvania. From his clashes with Wall Street money managers, fossil fuel companies, predatory lenders, and other bad guys, he’s built a reputation as a competent crusader trying to stop the boot endlessly kicking the face of the little guy.
He’s evaded some necessary battles over energy and clashed with some in his party over criminal justice issues, but his recipe of carefully selected “big fights” with powerful institutions helped make him his state’s top vote-getter in 2020 and deterred a contentious gubernatorial primary two years later.
Now with this year’s general election the stakes are even higher — which is why I traveled halfway across the country back to hang with him in the state where I grew up. At a time when so many Democrats seem unserious about stopping right-wing authoritarianism, I wanted to see if my childhood friend could be the exception in his race against the most conservative gubernatorial candidate in the country.
So far, things look good: Shapiro has been defying the national trends and leading in the polls. Then again, survey data has been increasingly unreliable. Last year, the Democratic governor of neighboring New Jersey — a much bluer state than Pennsylvania — was unexpectedly almost defeated by a virtual unknown. Shapiro’s current polling advantage is only a bit larger than Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2016 — and we all know how that turned out.
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If things break bad this week and Shapiro doesn’t overperform in the so-called Pennsylvania T — the vast red ocean we’re traveling through between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and along the northern tier of the state — his 20-year electoral winning streak could come to an end.
And so could American democracy.
“I Could Decertify Every Machine In The State”
You wouldn’t know there’s so much at stake in this gubernatorial race by Shapiro’s demeanor this chilly overcast morning in a parking lot behind a motel near McKeesport. He is standing in front of a camera waiting for a CNN interview, passing the time by cracking self-effacing jokes.
“This woman came up to me and said I’m usually so boring on TV, she says she couldn’t believe I’m an okay public speaker,” he recounts to his staff, then, with a healthy dose of dad energy gleaned from being the father of four, tests out understated campaign mottos. “Shapiro for governor: Eh, he’s OK… Shapiro For Governor: Have you seen the other guy?”
When the interview kicks off, he’s repeatedly pushed to weigh in on national issues, but he deflects with a practiced aw-shucks routine about being just a local guy focused on local stuff.
“I’m not paying a whole lot of attention to what the president’s plan is or what people in Washington, D.C., are paying attention to or talking about, I’m focused on what Washington County, Pennsylvania, needs,” he says in a typical rejoinder.
The segment ends with anchor Don Lemon complimenting Shapiro’s black jacket, and Shapiro replying: “Well, Don Lemon knows how to dress, so if you like the Ted Lasso puffy coat, that’s a good deal here, Don.”
It’s a light moment in an otherwise dark political war that has an Inglorious Basterds intensity to it. Shapiro presents as the cheery mensch your Jewish grandmother really wanted you to be. He is up against Republican state senator and January 6 organizer Doug Mastriano, the kind of martial supervillain that your Jewish grandfather insisted was coming to kill you in the night.
Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, at a campaign event in York, Pa., on Oct. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
If that seems overstated, consider that a few years after a gunman massacred worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Mastriano — a former Army colonel and Christian nationalist — had his campaign pay thousands of dollars to court support from users of a far-right social media website that’s been a haven for white supremacists, including the synagogue shooter. Mastriano has cited Shapiro’s childhood schooling at a Jewish day school to depict him as an elitist. He also dressed up as a Confederate soldier for a photo, and spearheaded Trump’s attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election — an effort thwarted in part by Shapiro.
Now Mastriano is campaigning for governor on a promise to work with Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature to outlaw abortion and to crush unions with so-called “right to work” laws. He’s also threatening to use gubernatorial power to overturn presidential election results he doesn’t like.
“[As governor] I get to appoint the Secretary of State, who’s delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs, and everything,” Mastriano said in March on a local right-wing radio station. “I could decertify every machine in the state with a stroke of a pen.”
“I’ve had a lot of tough elections,” Shapiro tells me on his campaign bus as we drive past the faded brick facades and hollowed-out main streets of the mill towns in the Mon Valley, named after the Monongahela River. “But never one against an opponent this dangerous, never one where I’m scared about what the opponent would do to our institutions if he wins.”
Earlier this year, those fears were whipsawed against Shapiro himself, after his campaign sponsored ads that seemed to boost Mastriano — the most extreme GOP candidate — in the final days of the Republican primary. Critics suggested the Democrat’s desire for a general election contrast prompted him to play with fire and help the most dangerous potential candidate secure the nomination and get one step closer to winning the governorship.
So far, though, the gambit seems to have worked — Shapiro has relentlessly spotlighted Mastriano’s most incendiary statements and behavior in ad after ad, so successfully portraying him as a dangerous extremist that a mere eight years after Pennsylvania had a GOP governor, the national Republican Governors Association has declined to spend money on the race.
With a war chest full of union money, Shapiro has outspent Mastriano on TV ads by a count of $26 million to about $2 million, according to data from AdImpact — and the polls reflect that advantage.
“Josh is a good candidate and very skilled,” says U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who served in the state legislature with Shapiro. “But it’s also the case that when Mastriano won the primary, we were all like, ‘Wow, this is great, the Republicans just ceded it to us.’ We definitely got lucky in this environment.”
The Slow, Steady Climb
If Boyle’s analysis holds on election day, it will be another victory in a streak of Shapiro decisions that have — so far — successfully navigated a state with some of America’s most fractured racial, reproductive, gun, environmental, and economic politics.
Pennsylvania has large and vibrant Black communities, while ranking atop the list of states with hate groups. It is the home of pro-choice suburbs, but also of Catholic communities who in the 1980s helped elect history’s most famous anti-choice Democrat, Gov. Bob Casey. It is a state whose old-money neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh abut crushing poverty. Survey data show Pennsylvania’s electorate generally wants limits on fossil fuel development and gun control, but its most politically pivotal swing counties remain deeply tied to coal and natural gas, and the state also has had among the highest gun ownership rates in America.
These contradictions produce their own oxymorons in politics: a congressional delegation split between the parties, and a Democratic governor facing a Republican legislature. Such complex terrain tends to reward shrewd politicos like Shapiro, whose commitment to retail politics and to methodically ascending the political ladder seems downright quaint in the modern age of self-funded first-timers, celebrities, and carnival barkers running shoot-the-moon candidacies for high office.
Josh Shapiro addresses a crowd in Bloomsburg, Pa., on Nov. 3, 2022. (Photo credit: David Sirota)
Shapiro’s political journey began with one of the few discernible stumbles in his life.
He grew up in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, now infamous for being the fake home of New Jersey TV doctor-turned-Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, and the stomping grounds of private equity billionaire Steve Schwarzman, one of the Republican Party’s largest donors. After graduating from a local Jewish high school, he tried to follow in his pediatrician father’s footsteps, but flunked out of pre-med at the University of Rochester. Soon after, he just missed making the school’s Division III basketball team. That’s when a friend of his told him to run for student government.
“I asked him why should I do that?” he reminisces with a smile. “And he says, ‘Well, what else do you have to do now?’”
The rest of the story writes itself: Shapiro out-hustled his older opponents to become the first freshman elected student body president. Upon graduation, he worked for two Democratic senators, and then, after marrying his 9th-grade sweetheart, Lori, he became chief of staff for his new hometown Democratic Congressman Joe Hoeffel, only the second Democrat elected to the suburban congressional seat in the previous three decades. Three years later, with a Georgetown law degree in hand, Shapiro headed from D.C. back to Montgomery County and began winning elections in years that were otherwise tough for his party.
First up, 2004: While George Bush was getting reelected in the middle of the Iraq War, Shapiro was bootstrapping a successful campaign to unseat the local Republican icon, state Rep. John Fox — an affable moderate known mainly for constituent service and for showing up to anything and everything in town.
“He had 99 percent name ID and was super popular,” Shapiro recounts. “Every organization was run by Republicans, so they wouldn’t even let me speak. I remember coming home all pissed off, and then like she’s done to me throughout my life about this stuff, Lori yelled at me and told me, ‘You better figure out some other way to talk to people.’”
The lecture worked.
“The next day I put on a comfortable pair of shoes, and I started knocking doors,” he says. “I knocked on 18,000 doors myself. On Labor Day, we did a poll and we were losing by literally 40 points. But I ended up winning.”
Once in office, Shapiro refused to internalize Harrisburg’s go-along-to-get-along culture, instead helping engineer the overthrow of the existing Republican House Speaker (who was soon after indicted). The jiu-jitsu resulted in ethics reforms, initiatives to open up the secretive legislature to more transparency, and Shapiro getting himself named deputy speaker of the lower chamber.
Next up, in 2011, as Democrats were being tossed out of state and local offices all over the country, Shapiro led Democrats’ takeover of the Montgomery County commission for the first time in history. He pulled it off with a campaign for commissioner that promised more budget discipline and no new taxes — a record he touts in his gubernatorial race, though he later softened his tax stance to add back funding to the county’s community colleges. Shapiro also made headlines firing the financial firms that had been charging county workers’ pension fund high fees for weak returns.
Then came the attorney general race in 2016 — another terrible year for Democrats. With the support of teachers’ and nurses unions, Shapiro defeated a Pittsburgh-area district attorney and his powerful machine in a hard-fought statewide primary, and then became Pennsylvania’s largest vote-getter in the same general election that Trump won the state and the presidency.
Now atop his party’s 2022 ticket, Shapiro still defies simple labels. Interviews with Democratic politicos yielded descriptions of him as progressive, centrist, right-of-center, and center-left — the latter of which came from one of his former colleagues in the legislature.
“He’s very organized, he works incredibly hard, but I think it’s fair to say he’s maintained a center-left profile the whole time, and I think that’s critical to winning statewide in Pennsylvania,” says former state auditor Eugene DePasquale, who served with Shapiro in the state Assembly. “But when you see Josh, you don’t think ‘Whoa, he’s out there way on the left,’ because stylistically, he doesn’t present like that. And I think that’s more what people want as a governor.”
DePasquale tells me this while cheering Shapiro on at a nighttime campaign rally in the parking lot of the Pittsburgh Steelers stadium. At the same rally, one of the state’s best-known progressives suggests to me that Shapiro’s label-defying profile reflects a skill of particular value this election cycle.
“Josh has been doing a great job of unifying a party in a state where things really, really go badly and things with another candidate could have been completely different,” says Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee, the progressive who won tough primaries for legislature and Congress. “But from the primary to now, Josh has navigated it masterfully. There’s so many other races for governor [where] we’re seeing a Republican surge, but to see Josh being able to avoid that speaks to his skill.”
In that style and presentation, Shapiro is a throwback to an earlier age: a disciplined, non-celebrity, no-schtick, big-D Democrat — without a conditional adjective anchoring him to one or another party faction. He has forged a brand that is “ambitious without being ruthless, principled without being rigid,” as Philadelphia Magazine put it 15 years ago.
He’s also something of a unicorn in American politics: Though he ascended in the Clintonian era of political triangulation, he is a serious Democratic politician who doesn’t make a show of punching left, even when he disagrees with his party’s base. That tracks with his disdain for his national party’s reputation for condescension.
“Have you ever noticed how Democrats talk about college and student debt?” he says to me on our way to a rally at Bloomsburg University. “They say, ‘Well, maybe college just isn’t for everybody.’ And it’s like they’re looking down at people.”
His approach seems to have trickled down to the voter level as an image of competence. At every event on this bus tour, attendees describe him first and foremost as down-to-earth and capable — and not a novice or a bomb thrower. A workhorse, not a show horse.
“He doesn’t deal in fearmongering,” a retired retail worker named Bernadette from Indiana, Pennsylvania, tells me. In the Mon valley, a retired welfare department worker named Rick Pankiewicz tells me Shapiro is “a fair-minded politician who supports the law — that’s the crux of what an attorney general should do.”
Western Pennsylvania state Rep. Pam Snyder (D) put it this way: “Josh has been a state representative. He was county commissioner of one of the largest counties. You know, if I go to the doctors today, and they tell me I need brain surgery. I don’t want the guy that’s gonna miss. I want the guy who knows what he’s doing and who understands people.”
A cynic might say there’s a House of Cards quality to Shapiro’s journey — cold, calculating, cutthroat. He certainly remains just as hyper-competitive as I remember him from our Jewish basketball league days — indeed, when I ask if he still plays, Lori says his problem is that whenever he and his four kids play, he always has to try to win.
Shapiro’s rise, though, has not been marked by thumb-in-the-wind equivocation. His record isn’t full of betrayals on matters like gun control, abortion, union rights, education funding, or protecting jobs. Those are Shapiro’s central issues, and always have been — even when the political winds were shifting.
“He is focused, ambitious, and careful, there is no doubt about that,” said Jordan Marks, who served in former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration and has known Shapiro since before he first ran for office. “He also really has core values that have propelled him to where he is today.”
As attorney general, Shapiro had the opportunity to take an easier path that many Democrats favor. He could have merely fought Trump’s 2020 election lawsuits, basked in the cable TV glory of those victories, cast himself as a #Resistance Liberal, and avoided clashes with powerful opponents who often play hardball in elections.
He chose the opposite.
“I Know Something About Big Fights”
Outside a carpenters’ union training center in Republican-dominated Blair County, Shapiro is getting to what is clearly his favorite part of his stump speech. It comes after all his cheery Lasso-eque aphorisms imploring voters to “get in the game.” You can tell he loves this other part, the chip-on-the-shoulder, tough-guy part. His pace picks up, and his voice rises to the edge of hoarseness.
“We need a governor who knows how to take on big fights,” he tells the union crowd. “I know something about big fights.”
Josh Shapiro at a campaign rally in Clearfield, Pa., on Nov. 2, 2022 (Photo credit: David Sirota)
Over the last few days, he’s filled this particular section of his rallyfesto with stories of his time in the attorney general’s office. Today, it’s the tale from one of his television ads of busting open “the largest Davis Bacon wage theft case in the history of the United States” — a case where he criminally charged a government construction contractor “who took advantage of Pennsylvania workers who were doing back-breaking work on Pennsylvania roadways and ripped them off to the tune of $21 million.”
Then he takes it a step further, pivoting to a tough-on-crime message that sounds like it’s about to echo Trump’s “American carnage” lingo.
“We’ve locked up 8,200 drug dealers, who brought poison into our communities — you bring those poisons into our communities, especially when you sell to our kids, we will arrest you,” he says.
Then he adds a twist: “But this opioid crisis we’re dealing with today wasn’t manufactured on our street corners here in Blair County. No, it was manufactured by the greed of pharmaceutical company executives in their boardrooms. So I took them to court and won and brought a billion dollars of their ill-gotten gains back to Pennsylvania.”
From the moment he was sworn in, Shapiro seemed to appreciate that the attorney general’s office comes with a political downside and an upside. You run the risk of being blamed for a rise in street crime that you might have little power to stop. However, in the era of rage at unaccountable elites, you can use the office to pursue the bad guys and brag about it.
The latter strategy is less frequently used by many politicians, because it can enrage business interests that bankroll super PACs and dark money groups. But from the get-go, Shapiro leaned into the enforcer role, forging the “big fights” reputation that has become one of his gubernatorial campaign themes and that distinguishes him from the typical consensus-venerating, norms-worshiping Democrat.
Out of the gate, he made international headlines exposing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — not necessarily a politically safe move from a Jewish elected official in one of America’s most Catholic states.
Shapiro then sued one of the state’s largest health care systems to force it to stop denying medical care to nearly 2 million people in Western Pennsylvania.
A little while later, he successfully sued a fracking company for polluting Washington County, in the process exposing what his office called a “systematic failure by government agencies” to regulate the industry.
Last year, he used a lawsuit to beat back Trump’s attempt to help corporations weaken wage protections for tipped workers.
Then came the case against student loan giant Navient. Despite the potential electoral risk of targeting such a huge company headquartered in his own state, Shapiro led the $2 billion lawsuit accusing the company of misleading student borrowers away from a more affordable repayment program.
Finally, this summer, he won a major redlining settlement against a multi-state mortgage lender, and convicted one of the country’s largest pipeline companies on criminal charges related to water pollution.
When parts of these stories are recounted in his ads and in Shapiro’s stump speeches, he and his campaign sound almost Republican, only because this is the thing Republicans have mastered and today’s Democrats almost never do: lean into conflict and name bad guys.
That strategy has extended to Shapiro’s campaign against Mastriano. In both his speeches and his $26-million ad campaign, he has cast his battle against the Republican as another “big fight” — portraying the GOP state senator not merely as an extremist, but as a crazed and dangerous villain who allies with monsters and is willing to break the law.
At a time when so many Democrats wish their party would run the kind of ruthless campaigns against the GOP that Republicans always run against them, Shapiro has actually done that — insinuating that Mastriano is essentially a criminal, but one Shapiro frames as just another perp on his fight card.
“I’m not done with the big fights because in six days we got another one when we all come together and defeat Doug Mastriano,” he tells the crowd. “This guy must be defeated. He is uniquely dangerous. If you don’t think like Doug Mastriano, if you don’t look like Doug Mastriano, if you don’t vote like him, if you don’t worship like him, if you don’t marry like him, then you don’t count in his Pennsylvania.”
“What The Hell Are We Doing Here?”
As his red-white-and-blue bus rolls through the twisty back roads of coal country in the late afternoon, Shapiro looks like he’s about to puke. I tell him I’ve finally discovered this perpetual election winner’s kryptonite: car sickness.
“Is that going in your story?” he asks with a chuckle.
He agrees to take some meds from Lori, who is sitting one row ahead of him on the bus, as long as it’s non-drowsy — understandable, since we’re headed to another nighttime rally, this one in downtown Harrisburg.
It’s the last leg of my three-day road trip with the campaign, and Shapiro thanks me for coming back east to hang with him. Throughout the journey he’s been texting me pictures he’s snapped of me talking to folks at rallies and meet-and-greets, reminding me that “it’s good to be with real people and out of the bubble” and not focus so much on what he calls “the bullshit.”
“We get too caught up in the bullshit of what do people look like, what are they wearing, where do they come from, but I focus on showing up and making sure people know that I’ve got their back,” he tells me. “We get so caught up in things that don’t matter, but I always keep in mind that at the end of the day, what matters is: Do you have a record and do you have a plan to make things better for people?”
My jaded internal narrator might have eyerolled that — but after a few days out here, I’m feeling a tad less cynical.
The truth is, after working on so many demoralizing campaigns and being let down by enough politicians, I was hesitant to take this trip because I felt blackpilled. I didn’t want to do the one thing Ted Lasso — and Josh Shapiro — really want you to do: believe.
But my swing through my old home state has made me believe, at least a little bit.
No, I don’t believe Shapiro is above criticism. For starters, while he’s led some major criminal justice reforms, he’s elicited the ire of criminal justice reformers with his unwavering support for police — something he’s plugged in a major ad buy. Prosecutors in the state’s two biggest cities also slammed him for an opioid settlement they said was too small.
Meanwhile, among his inflation relief plans, Shapiro is proposing a corporate tax cut that could deprive the state of some resources and help companies already reaping windfalls — business-friendly perhaps, but not exactly working-class populist.
Then there’s this: While Shapiro tells me my climate-themed apocalypse movie freaked him out, and he has rightly slammed his GOP opponent’s climate denialism, in fracking country I see Shapiro tout his support for an “all of the above” energy policy, and it remains unclear what he would do about the brewing conflict between his union and environmental allies over climate policy in a state that is one of America’s largest fossil fuel producers.
“The stuff he talks about everyday — workers rights, education funding, reproductive freedom, voting rights — I know in my bones that he will always fight for those things,” says Marks, the Democratic operative. “But there are other things that we don’t know how he’ll govern on, and he tries to walk a very fine line on those things, whether it is energy or corporate tax subsidies. These are areas we don’t know exactly where he will be.”
State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat who represents part of Shapiro’s own Montgomery County and has pressed Shapiro to get tougher with the fossil fuel industry, echoes that sentiment. She tells me that while she credits Shapiro for his fighting spirit in the battle against polluters, “I’m concerned that some of the battles are performative and designed to get headlines with no real follow-up. He’s incredibly calculated and makes decisions in a very strategic way. But the governor’s office is about follow-up and details.”
So yeah, if Shapiro wins, big fights and unanswered questions remain.
And yet, here is what I came to believe as I traveled from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg: Shapiro is the kind of politician a functioning democracy should probably reward.
If you’ve read this far, this is likely the point where you expect me to tell you Shapiro is a messianic savior on his way to the White House. In our culture of followership and fandom, that would probably generate more clicks.
But as much as I like Josh and as well as I know him, the line from his own stump speech is correct: It’s really not about believing in him. It’s about believing in something bigger.
It’s about believing that whether it is Shapiro or anyone else, those in politics who take time to learn the job, get experience, climb the ladder, and genuinely try hard — they aren’t all fraudulent tryhards, even if they are far from perfect.
It’s about believing that regardless of the midterm election results, politics should not preference “the bullshit” — it should not reward spectacle over substance, complacency over “getting in the game,” or conflict avoidance over “big fights.”
It’s about believing that politics should boost rather than destroy the Josh Shapiros when they take calculated risks and take the work seriously, even if they will not alone complete the task of fixing the mess called America.
Josh Shapiro supporters sign his bus after a rally in Duncansville, Pa. on Nov. 2, 2022 (Photo credit: David Sirota)
The teachers, firefighters, nurses, retirees, and blue-collar union folk who have penned notes of hope and desperation and encouragement on the sides of Shapiro’s campaign bus at the end of his rallies — they and everyone else need a politics that believes in the risk takers, fighters, and scrappers.
Whether or not that politics exists — or can exist — remains an open question, but one that I can tell weighs on Shapiro by what he says to me right before we parted.
As the bus turns past another huge Republican billboard calling Shapiro weak on crime, I ask him why he does what he does — day after day, rally after rally, fight after fight — when there are probably easier ways to live, and easier ways to be a career politician.
He takes a beat, giving himself a moment of contemplation amid the staff bustle as the rally’s “Shapiro for Governor” sign edges into view from the window.
“The thing is, you work so hard to earn these positions of trust, so really, what the hell are we doing here if we’re not going to take on these big fights and actually get something done?” he says with a defiant clip in his voice. “Powerful interests don’t want things to change because the status quo is working for them. But the status quo isn’t working for a whole bunch of people. It’s ripping people off and hurting the little guy. So I’m sure as hell not going to back down to any of these powerful corporations, any of these big donors, or any of these people who love the status quo.”
I want to ask him whether that makes him a progressive, a populist, or something else. But before I can, he zips up his Ted Lasso coat and steps off the bus and back into the fight.