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Josh Shapiro driven by ambition, desire to tackle big problems

September 18, 2018

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro developed a reputation as an ambitious politician eager to tackle big problems long before he detailed a grand jury’s explosive findings about child sexual abuse in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses, according to current and former colleagues.

Before gaining national headlines and the attention of the Vatican with the grand jury report’s release two weeks ago, Shapiro, 45, helped broker a landmark deal as a young state legislator in Harrisburg, balance a deficit-plagued budget in the state’s third-largest county and rebuild confidence in an attorney general’s office rocked by scandal.

“He’s driven by the fact that he thinks politics is the best vehicle he can undertake to help people, and I think that’s always been his driving force,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

“Is he ambitious? Sure he is, but ambition in those offices is a good thing,” Rendell said.

An unusual deal

Shapiro got into politics while still a student at the University of Rochester, becoming a congressional aide on Capitol Hill in 1994. He served as chief of staff for former Congressman Joe Hoeffel before winning a state House seat in 2004. While in Washington, Shapiro earned a law degree by taking night classes at Georgetown University.

In his second term in Harrisburg, Shapiro, a Democrat, engineered a deal to install Philadelphia Republican Dennis O’Brien as House speaker when Shapiro’s party assumed a one-seat majority in the chamber.

When Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese of Greene County couldn’t secure enough votes in his own caucus to ascend to the chamber’s highest-ranking position, Shapiro called O’Brien on New Year’s Eve to discuss a deal. O’Brien rejected a proposal to switch parties before Shapiro and Rendell agreed to try installing him as speaker to replace incumbent John Perzel, also a Philadelphia Republican.

O’Brien won the speakership by eight votes over Perzel, becoming the first minority-party speaker in modern history.

In return, Shapiro asked O’Brien to create a new title for him: deputy speaker of the House. O’Brien obliged.

At a time when several state lawmakers were being investigated for corruption, O’Brien made Shapiro co-leader of a Commission on Legislative Reform. The commission’s work helped bring changes to the House such as eliminating late-night voting sessions, making House proceedings more transparent, terminating private vehicle leases for members and requiring members under indictment to leave leadership posts.

“The House was really in a state of crisis,” O’Brien said. “And that unusual deal Josh had brokered (to install O’Brien as House Speaker) was very important.”

Amid turmoil

In 2011, Shapiro returned home to Montgomery County and, along with fellow Democrat and current PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards, won seats on the county’s three-member board of commissioners. It was the board’s first Democratic majority in decades.

Shapiro and Richards quickly discovered the county of 800,000 people was $10 million more in the hole than they thought, Richards said.

She said they balanced the budget by 2013, primarily by reducing spending. They combined departments, sold a community services building and took the unusual step of moving the county’s investments to a passive system of management rather than paying Wall Street money managers, Richards said.

“I feel like he gave me a very realistic way to look at things where you can make a real impact and not to get frustrated on days that you can’t,” Richards said.

Shapiro won a race for attorney general at a time when the office was in turmoil. Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, resigned in 2016 after being convicted of lying under oath to hide a leak of grand jury material that she had orchestrated.

“He took over an office that obviously was in real crisis and he turned it around very quickly,” said James Tierney, a Harvard Law School professor and former Maine attorney general who works with attorneys general around the country. “He’s shown real leadership.”

Shapiro, who defeated Republican state Sen. John Rafferty in the AG’s race, inherited the investigation of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy when he took office 20 months ago.

It wasn’t the first time Shapiro tackled the issue. He was in the state House when it passed reforms following the 2005 release of a grand jury report on abuse allegations in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Shapiro is now pushing for more reforms, including a two-year window in which victims could file civil lawsuits against the church over abuse that happened decades ago. Such claims aren’t possible now due to statute of limitations laws.

“This needs to change,” Shapiro wrote last week on Twitter. “We need more tools at my disposal to protect kids, not less.”

The latest grand jury report contained allegations of abuse by 301 priests against more than 1,000 children. Since the report’s release, more than 400 people have called an abuse hotline created by Shapiro’s office with additional information.

Shapiro, who declined an interview request from the Tribune-Review, has said the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

Joe Grace, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Shapiro “had the vision to lead, direct and move forward with this investigation starting in January 2017 when he took office.”

In addition, Shapiro has overseen criminal prosecutions and pursued lawsuits over drug companies’ alleged role in the opioid crisis and several of President Trump’s policies, including separating immigrant children from their families at the U.S. border with Mexico, creating a new citizenship question on the U.S. Census and rolling back contraceptive coverage.

Down the road

“I think he went into the office with the assumption and with the goal of making the attorney general’s office a place in which there’s a sense of accomplishment,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “He’s going to be a very activist attorney general.”

Since his time in the House, Shapiro’s name has come up as a possible candidate for offices such as congressman, senator and governor, said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Allentown’s Muhlenberg College.

Shapiro, who hasn’t lost an election since starting his political career, hasn’t yet pursued any of those offices.

“I have no idea if he wants to pursue some of those other electoral opportunities that will be available to him down the road, but he’s at this point elevated his profile dramatically, and that always is a great asset if you are trying to win statewide office in Pennsylvania,” Borick said. “He’s certainly built a lot of name recognition out of his work on the scandal.”

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