Updated: Friday, October 6, 2017, 6:01 AM
At a June gathering in Colorado of intellectual and political elites, Josh Shapiro explained why he resisted entreaties to run for the U.S. Senate, waxed philosophically about interpretations of the Constitution, and took aim at President Trump.
Since Trump’s inauguration, attorneys general have “probably” become “the most important elected officials in our democracy,” Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general, said during a panel appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The statement may have been self-serving, but, at least to the progressive left, it had a kernel of truth. In his first nine months as the commonwealth’s top law enforcement officer, Shapiro has seized on the left’s anti-Trump enthusiasm, taking more than a dozen legal actions against the administration and writing scores of letters in protest.
Shapiro has also crisscrossed the state, traveling to nearly half its 67 counties, holding news conferences on drug busts and convening meetings on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. Shapiro says he’s made a concerted effort to visit “forgotten” counties in rural Pennsylvania.
Shapiro’s brisk schedule, clashes with Trump, and courting of the media suggest a grand design. He’s considered a leading contender for governor in 2022; some of his longtime friends whisper about the White House.
Intentionally or not, Shapiro is hewing to a model established by other prosecutors who have leveraged their office. As U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Chris Christie regularly bashed Trenton as a corrupt culture while the cameras rolled, then parlayed that seven-year stint into a two-term governorship.
In New York, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo each jumped from attorney general to governor, as Tom Corbett did in Pennsylvania. Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general turned U.S. senator, is on Democrats’ short list for the 2020 presidential race.
There’s a certain logic to the trend: A lawmaker accrues a record subject to brutal cross-examination, but a law enforcement gig guarantees high-profile, nonpolitical attention, and can inoculate the officeholder from criticism (think: guns, subpoena power).
Some believe Shapiro has trod too carefully. In many cases, he’s followed the lead of other states in the politically charged litigation against Trump.
“I thought he’d come out of the chute a little more aggressively,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who also parlayed a prosecutor’s job into higher office.
Shapiro chafes at suggestions he plays it safe, saying he has taken a leading role in investigating Equifax for the credit-reporting agency’s data breach, and in suing the Trump administration over its initial travel ban.
“I want the office of the Pennsylvania attorney general to be seen as one of the premier AG offices in the country,” he said, adding that litigation was more effective with “broad coalitions.”
Asked about his aspirations, Shapiro said he was focused on his current job.
But as his security detail drove him to his daughter’s soccer game on Monday, Shapiro, asked about dysfunction over the budget in Harrisburg, said multiple administrations and legislatures had failed to make “the tough choices at the critical junctures” that the state needs.
The soccer game was a brief respite from the position’s demanding schedule. A father of four, the Abington resident coaches his son’s basketball team and watches NBA highlights with his kids.
“Last night we watched highlights of Jordan as a Wizard going against Kobe as a Laker,” he said. “Unbelievable, epic game.”
He says he reads the news from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., scans prominent state news websites in the morning, and checks Twitter between conference calls. (En route to the soccer game, he turned on CNN radio and praised the journalist Jake Tapper, a high school classmate at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.)
But Shapiro says he rarely has downtime.
On Tuesday, for example, he stopped at the Harrisburg Patriot-News for an interview, made his way to Philadelphia for a vigil for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, then headed to Washington to testify the next morning before a Senate panel about scams against senior citizens.
Shapiro promised in his campaign last year to clean up the mess left by his Democratic predecessor, Kathleen G. Kane, who was convicted of perjury and abusing the power of her office. He has won high marks from former prosecutors and Harrisburg observers across the political spectrum.
Roy Zimmerman, a Republican who was the state’s first elected attorney general, said Shapiro “has done a lot to help restore the morale and the confidence of the people there.”
Zimmerman and others pointed to Shapiro’s hiring of experienced prosecutors, such as Michelle Henry, a Republican former Bucks County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Kane.
Attracting top talent to the office was seen as especially important for Shapiro, given that he had no prior prosecutorial experience. Shapiro oversees about 800 employees and a $95 million budget.
At age 44, he has risen from Capitol Hill staffer (he traveled to China and the Middle East as a foreign policy adviser) to state representative (he brokered a deal in 2006-07 to elect the House speaker) to chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners to one of the commonwealth’s five statewide-elected officials.
Among them are two other young Democrats — and possible future rivals — State Treasurer Joe Torsella and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
Shapiro describes himself as progressive, but he isn’t a liberal rubber stamp. He opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, privatized services as county commissioner, and declares himself a “big believer in states’ rights.”
Speaking in Colorado, he suggested that the same federalism argument Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a conservative, used in 2012 to strike down a provision of the Affordable Care Act that compelled states to expand Medicaid also applied to Trump’s threat to withhold funding from so-called sanctuary cities.
He has butted heads during his rise. One of his first jobs was as chief of staff for Joseph M. Hoeffel III when Hoeffel was a U.S. representative, but Shapiro later replaced Hoeffel as a county commissioner candidate when Montgomery County Democrats decided to dump him from their ticket in 2011.
“You don’t want to turn your back on him,” Hoeffel said. “Loyalty is not his strong suit.” Hoeffel, though, praised Shapiro as hardworking, and other Shapiro supporters said the criticism was unfair.
Shapiro declined to comment.
Shapiro campaigned with Hillary Clinton, but Trump’s election almost certainly elevated his profile. Just as Republican attorneys general used their power to fight President Barack Obama tooth and nail, Democrats are now using litigation to try to block Trump’s immigration restrictions and rollback of the Obama regulatory apparatus.
The lawsuits seek to stop the administration from lifting Obama-era regulations on fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, student loans, and other rules. Shapiro also sued Trump over his rescinding of protections for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican strategist, said Shapiro isn’t leading but rather “taking a playbook handed to him by the national Democrats.”
He added: “I think you can try to push the pin into the Trump balloon one too many times.”
To that end, Shapiro notably decided in April not to join other states’ challenge to the president’s revised travel ban. “The guy is looking at the law,” said John Morganelli, the Northampton County district attorney who ran against Shapiro in last year’s Democratic primary. “Even though he didn’t agree with Trump,…,he felt the president” had acted within his authority.
Shapiro said he was guided by the rule of law, not politics.
His other big cause — a priority for just about every politician — is the opioid epidemic.
On Monday, Shapiro sat in the living room of Marissa Wadsworth’s Collegeville home, where a support group had gathered to share stories about loved ones who had died from overdoses or were in recovery.
One woman whose son died from an overdose lamented that there was no way to fight pharmaceutical companies and doctors who have a financial stake in manufacturing and prescribing opioids.
“These lobbyists and these powerful people have screwed around in the halls of Congress for too damn long,” Shapiro told the group.
He added that his office had charged scores of drug dealers and also doctors for illegally diverting prescriptions. Shapiro and about 40 other attorneys general are investigating manufacturers and distributors of opioids.
That’s an important issue, but Shapiro still hasn’t made a big policy splash, supporters and others say.
Kane, in her first months as attorney general, closed a controversial gun loophole and announced she wouldn’t defend in court a state law that effectively banned same-sex marriage.
“She made a lot of bold policy statements. Josh has yet to do that. I think he will as time goes on,” Rendell said. “That’s not criticism. I think it’s probably consistent with Josh’s personality. He studies things, and studies them thoroughly before he decides to act.”
He’s careful to consider how his actions might affect his image. When he travels to news conferences, he sometimes stands in front of a giant blue backdrop showing the state seal and the words “Attorney General Josh Shapiro.” It looks good on TV.
“I think he is an ambitious fellow, but deservedly so,” said Bruce L. Castor Jr., a Republican who served with Shapiro on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.
Castor used a baseball analogy: “These are opportunities for him to be at bat to show what he has.”
“If he falls on his face,” Castor continued, “people will notice that, too.”