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Josh Shapiro Makes His Closing Argument

On the bus with the Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania.
by Jim Swift
November 7, 2022
Josh Shapiro Makes His Closing Argument
(Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Kingston, Pennsylvania
Josh Shapiro is beginning to lose his voice. With Election Day rapidly approaching, Pennsylvania’s attorney general is nearing the end of his “Big Fights Bus Tour,” crisscrossing the state campaigning for governor. It’s been a long day for Shapiro and the gang he brings with him: his father, Dr. Steve; his daughter Sophia, a college student at Pitt who runs Students for Shapiro; and his running mate, state Rep. Austin Davis, and Davis’s wife Blayre. With a cadre of well-prepared campaign staff and a phalanx of state troopers, both uniformed and plainclothes, in separate vehicles, the bus tour becomes something of a motorcade.

If the polls are to be believed, Shapiro is sprinting to the finish of a race he’s likely already won. Both the RealClearPolitics and Five Thirty Eight averages have him up by more than 10 points. It helps that his opponent is Doug Mastriano, a candidate largely out of touch with Pennsylvania voters except the most extreme MAGA Republicans, and whose positions and rhetoric have sent many Republicans and independents flying into the Shapiro camp. The owner of the roadside motel I stayed overnight in Lancaster before joining Shapiro’s bus for the day is a Shapiro voter. He likes the Democrat, and says “Mastriano is crazy.” Shapiro tells reporters in Lancaster, “Look, I’m feeling good, but I take nothing for granted. Those who know me know I run like I’m 50 points behind.”

Shapiro tells me that he is trying to meet people where they are by visiting them in their communities and listening, something he thinks Democrats often write off. And so we find his bus tour making one of its stops at an IBEW training facility in Kingston, a bit of a Democratic stronghold in deeply red Luzerne County, which went for Donald Trump in 2020 by 14 points. Shapiro was running for re-election for attorney general that cycle, and voters in the county chose him over his Republican challenger by a few hundred votes out of 145,000 cast, so he managed to win the county by 0.18 percent of the vote. (Statewide, Shapiro won by 4.6 percent.)

Shapiro delivers his stump speech with a cadence reminiscent of Barack Obama. As Frank Luntz says: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear—and the audiences in Lancaster, Whitehall, Stroudsburg, and Kingston eat it up.

Shapiro likes to tout how as attorney general he has stood up for Pennsylvanians. Whether it was scandals in the Catholic Church, securing settlements with student lenders and pharmaceutical manufacturers, investigating how frackers were permitted to violate the state’s constitution with pollution, or a major clash with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the message is: I fight, and I win.

Except for his remarks about unions, right to work, and abortion, there’s a lot in Shapiro’s speech that makes him sound like a moderate Republican from the early aughts. Here he is on policing: “Every single Pennsylvanian deserves to live in a community where they can both be safe and feel safe. So yes, we will hire more police in Pennsylvania. We’ll make sure they’re from our communities, they look like us, they’re properly trained, and they work together with our neighbors to make our community safer and stronger.” Shapiro is proud of his record as AG and highlights his plans to hire 2,000 more police officers in Pennsylvania.

And on schools, Shapiro is an opponent of standardized testing, and a proponent of bringing back “vo-tech”—vocational and technical education. Intriguingly, he promises to “sign an executive order doing away with the college-degree requirement for thousands of state government jobs,” thereby opening up “new opportunities for more Pennsylvanians on day one.”

By going on the offensive, Shapiro has muted what, in races elsewhere, has been an effective Republican line of attack on crime and education.

A crowd waits for Shapiro’s arrival. (Photo by Jim Swift)

One theme of Shapiro’s talk is his opponents’ clearly telegraphed plans to meddle in elections should he win. “I’m not letting Doug Mastriano take away your vote,” Shapiro says.

That is not how things work in this commonwealth or in this country. That’s not how our democracy works, and that’s not what freedom is all about. Yet this guy loves to talk a good game about “freedom” all the time. Right? We’ve heard that.

Let me tell you something, it’s not freedom to tell women what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Right? That’s not freedom.

It’s not freedom to tell our school children what books they’re allowed to read. That’s not freedom.

It’s not freedom to tell workers they can work a 40-hour work week, but they can’t be a member of a union. That’s not freedom.

And it sure as hell isn’t freedom to say, you can go vote, but he’s gonna pick the winner. That’s not freedom. That’s not how we do things here in Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Jim Swift)

For good measure, Shapiro brings up his success in defeating the election trutherism that Trump and his allies pushed in the courts following the 2020 election. After all, Mastriano was directly involved—remember that he dipped into his state senate campaign funds to bus people to Washington on January 6th—and continues to stoke the illiberal fires. In Pennsylvania, the governor gets to choose the secretary of state, who runs elections. Mastriano has essentially promised electoral chaos.

At the end of each event on his bus tour, Shapiro meets voters with a methodical efficiency. He signs everything that people want signed and takes selfies and moves on. He listens, but doesn’t let anyone bend his ear for too long.

After an event in Lancaster, a boy sharply dressed in a sport coat, dress shirt, bow tie, and pink wayfarer-style sunglasses—a Democratic version of Alex P. Keaton—approaches the attorney general with a poster that says: “Shapiro is the Hero!” Signing it on the young man’s back, Shapiro inscribes: “Thank you, Luke!” Afterwards, Luke’s mother tells her friends that this is probably one of the best days Luke has ever had.

Shapiro is not a tall man. But as he waits to speak in Stroudsburg’s Courthouse Square, he keeps his fists on his hips like Superman as he listens. At one point, he steps to the side to adjust the echo in the stand-up speaker as his running mate Austin Davis tells voters his inspirational story: son of a hairdresser and union bus driver in Pittsburgh, first person in his family to go to college, now seeking to make history as the state’s first black lieutenant governor.

This is a small but revealing moment: Most candidates would not be tinkering with the sound system themselves, especially if, like Shapiro, they have a top-notch political operation. It’s just that Shapiro is a perfectionist, and if he’s in the best place to fix a problem, he will. It’s simply his nature. Even if it seems weird that the would-be next governor of Pennsylvania is adjusting sound levels on the fly in front of a crowd of voters.

At each of the rallies I attend, a small pro-Mastriano contingent appears, but they appear content to just record video in the background, not causing a ruckus. (Other than the guy with a pickup truck in Lancaster with a massive Mastriano sign, honking his horn each time he drove by.) But halfway through Shapiro’s stump speech in Stroudsburg, a heckler appears with a megaphone. At first, this man is successful at interrupting the speech. An elderly man with a dog goes over to confront him. The heckler—much younger, tattooed, seeking to be intimidating—asks if he’s going to hit him. The old man says he is not; he’s just asking the heckler to be decent and leave. An undercover member of the state highway patrol begins to walk over, but a Shapiro supporter goes over to defend the older man, seemingly worried, and tries to take away the megaphone from the heckler.

A scuffle ensues. The young Shapiro supporter and the Mastriano supporter are separated, the megaphone no longer serving as an interruption. Neither man chooses to press charges against the other, and both are escorted away from the event in opposite directions. A good outcome. All the while, Shapiro, who told listeners not to pay attention to the heckler, pushes on with his speech before gladhanding supporters. These include an older black woman wearing a Lincoln Project hat who tells him she is a former Republican.

I’m not sure when inviting people to write on campaign buses became all the rage, but Shapiro’s white and blue bus is an appealing canvas. Unlike some of the obscene messages about Democrats written on Ted Cruz’s bus, most of the messages Shapiro supporters write on his bus are hopeful and sincere, notwithstanding one Owen R.’s message—“Kick Dougs Ass!” with an accompanying cartoon—and the scribblings of a few Mastriano trolls. On the door, where nobody else has written anything, Jen Eaton, Lancaster’s school board director, writes: “Keep opening doors in PA! Thank you Josh Shapiro!”

As we head to Revello’s Cafe in Old Forge to pick up Senator Bob Casey Jr. so they can grab some pizza—pizza is taken very seriously in this part of Pennsylvania—Shapiro sits down with me and a few other reporters for an on-the-record chat about a variety of topics.

I remark that Shapiro’s talk about an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” echoes the 2008-era Republican line. Mike Pence, who was a House member back then, gave tourists lectures on it going into the McCain/Obama race when gas prices were high. Unlike the Republicans of that era, Shapiro is not about to say “drill, baby, drill,” but it’s clear he recognizes that fracking has been beneficial for Pennsylvania even as he has raised environmental concerns about the practice.

(Photo by Jim Swift)

A former congressional staffer, Shapiro cares about the specifics of policy to a degree most politicians simply do not. When a Reuters reporter, Jarrett Renshaw, presses Shapiro about new gas pipelines, Shapiro instead talks about “infrastructure.” After Renshaw challenges him, Shapiro clarifies he’s not trying to dodge the question:

There’s a lot of existing infrastructure that exists in the east [of Pennsylvania] already. So when you ask me the question about building out more pipeline, that’s an example where you might not need more pipeline, but you might need more connectors. That’s why I used the term infrastructure. I wasn’t trying to not answer your question. I’m trying to be very specific in my answer.

I asked Shapiro about nuclear energy. It’s still controversial to some on the left. Pennsylvania is home to Three Mile Island, site of one of our country’s few nuclear incidents. I saw a pro-nuclear sign at one event in Lancaster, and it made me wonder: Are residents of the Keystone State ready for more nuclear power, an idea that has been deferred for the better part of four decades?

I think it needs to be on the menu of options. . . . We need to make sure that it is done safely. We need to think about the cost to the commonwealth if a company were seeking subsidies at any time.

So there’s a lot—there’s a lot that would need to be worked out. But in general, that should be on the menu of options.

I asked Shapiro about the voters he’s talking to, including the disaffected Republicans and independents—what are they telling him?

I mean, and it is really humbling when these Republicans come over to you and say—and it’s happened . . . several dozen times today. They’ll say, “You know, I’m a Republican. I’ve never voted for a Democrat before,” or “I’ve almost never voted for a Democrat before, and I’m voting for you.”

And I’ll say, “You know, thank you.” Why? It’s a combination of them having faith and trust in me, because of my track record that I can actually bridge the divide. It’s the fact that I’m in their communities and I’m showing them. They’re also citing to me just how extreme and dangerous Mastriano is. And, you know, they have different concerns.

For some of them it’s about the right to choose, it’s about his role on January 6th or his efforts to—what I hear more about is . . . his efforts to suppress the vote for 2024, which he’s already pledged to do.

Regarding outreach to these more moderate Democrats and Republicans, I ask him about Conor Lamb, an impressive House member about to leave office because he chose to run against John Fetterman in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat instead of running for re-election. Might someone like Lamb have a place in a Shapiro administration?

Here’s what I’ll tell you about my administration. It will be diverse, it’ll be bipartisan, and it will, I will surround myself with people—as I’ve done in the attorney general’s office—with folks who have different life experiences than me, but challenge me, and who aren’t “Yes people.” I don’t, I try really hard not to hire those kind of folks.

I mean, look at what I’ve done in the AG’s office. You know, my first deputy that I hired— that’s the top job in the AG’s office—she was a former Republican DA.

You get the sense that Josh Shapiro thinks through everything. His answers seem thoughtful, not canned. That quality—the appearance, if not always the reality, of reflectiveness—can give a politician gravitas, which can help sell a campaign.

And not just at the state level. When I heard Shapiro’s stump speech for the first time, I thought to myself: “Holy shit, this guy is gonna run for president.” As we were waiting for the scrum, I shared this observation with a local reporter, who did not consider it likely. But I put a bug in the reporter’s ear, because they in turn asked Shapiro if it’s something he’d consider, which precipitated a testy reply from the gubernatorial hopeful:

“Stop it. I’m running for governor, period. That’s all I want to do.”

Maybe so—for now. But being the governor of a mid-Atlantic swing state with nineteen Electoral College votes is not a bad starting place for a presidential candidacy. And the conventional wisdom is that Democrats have a bench problem: Who is next in line for the top job? Saturday Night Live even turned 2024 into a Halloween horror movie trailer. They have a point. It’s a political and actuarial nightmare.

But between what I saw in Pennsylvania on Friday and in Maryland last month, I’ve come around. The Democratic bench is plenty deep. The party’s sensible, moderate, up-and-coming names need to get through this crucial election before they start thinking about what comes next.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.