This story originally appeared on WESA.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro made his long-awaited campaign for governor official in Pittsburgh Wednesday morning, solidifying his status as the Democrats’ almost-certain nominee in a state where the party has little margin for error.
Shapiro took the podium at a Wednesday-morning kick-off event on a riverfront park along the city’s North Side, following short speeches by Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Shapiro recounted his previous work pushing UPMC and Highmark to a 10-year agreement on health care access, and his pursuit of a grand jury investigation of the Catholic clergy for sexual abuse.
“The powerful have been put on notice, and the people have been heard,” said Shapiro. “I’ve stood up for them … and got things done. …That is why today, here in Pittsburgh, I am announcing my campaign to be the next governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
During the speech, he laid into his potential Republican opponents: “The Republican candidates for governor, they’re not focused on these challenges. Instead, they’re peddling the Big Lie … and they’re pandering to the special interests. They’re not thinking about any of you.”
Because Republicans are expected to hold both houses of the legislature, winning next year’s gubernatorial race is considered crucial for Democrats and their allies on fronts ranging from abortion rights to election rules. This summer, for example, current Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed bills that pared back the executive branch’s power to enact health rules during a pandemic, and tightened voting procedures in ways that critics said could depress turnout.
Meanwhile Republicans — including several who could be their party’s gubernatorial nominee next year — are pledging to press for more abortion restrictions after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to immediately halt a Texas law banning abortions after 6 weeks. That’s a point at which few women even know they are pregnant.
At his announcement, Shapiro noted that he would be a bulwark against a Republican-dominated legislature: “If they come for your voting rights, if they come for your reproductive rights…I won’t hesitate to use that veto pen to protect you.”
“Obviously the stakes are very high. The legislature is very hostile to abortion rights, and Gov. [Tom] Wolf’s veto pen has been our last line of defense,” said Signe Espinoza, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. “With Gov. Wolf’s tenure coming to an end, we know we need Josh in the governor’s office.”
Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania is expected to endorse Shapiro in the very near future, and Espinoza says the group has “a strong relationship” with Shapiro that includes his advocacy on a number of issues involving access to reproductive services including abortion.
Other Democrats wasted little time rallying to Shapiro’s banner. In a campaign video dropped hours before his announcement, state Rep. Ed Gainey — identified as “Pittsburgh’s next mayor” — touts Shapiro’s work on voting rights and saying, “Josh will work to build a more just society.”
“We’re at a critical time in America, here in Pennsylvania too,” Shapiro himself says in the video. “Already there are Republicans running for governor who want to lead us down a dark path, undermine free and fair elections, strip away voting rights, and permanently divide us.”
The video also touts Shapiro’s work to release a damning 900-page grand-jury report on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The grand jury’s investigation identified over 300 “predator priests” and called out efforts to shield them from scrutiny: The investigation began during the tenure of Shapiro’s predecessor, Kathleen Kane. Shapiro brought the work to completion and fended off the church’s efforts to delay or limit the publication of its findings.
Mary McHale, a sexual-abuse survivor from Reading, lauds Shapiro in the video as being “Finally someone who had the guts to take on the Catholic church.”
In a marked contrast to the crowded field for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat that will also be on next year’s ballot, no other prominent Democrat has launched a bid, or is expected to. That’s arguably a testament to how long this bid was in coming.
Shapiro’s political pedigree dates back more than two decades: After serving as a top aide to former Congressman Joe Hoeffel, he was elected to the state House four times and later became a commissioner in Montgomery County.
And Shapiro has proven to be a political juggernaut even in difficult political times. He won re-election over Allegheny County Republican Heather Heidelbaugh by 4.5 percentage points in 2020, a year in which Democrats lost two other statewide races on the ballot but won the race for president. He finished the 2020 election year with $2.7 million on hand — and the fact that he is likely to coast to the Democratic nomination means he can bankroll that money, and any other contributions that come in for the next several months, for a general election.
When he first ran for attorney general in 2016, he pledged to pursue a more expansive vision of an attorney general’s powers. And some of his most notable accomplishments have fallen outside the realm of public-corruption and criminal prosecution cases in which many AG’s make a name for themselves.
In Shapiro’s first term, he filed a lawsuit to preserve in-network access to UPMC facilities for patients carrying Highmark insurance, and vice versa. The suit was met with mixed results in court, but four months after Shapiro filed it, the two health care behemoths agreed to a 10-year extension of that arrangement in 2019.
“That was the only break we got on that fight,” said Erin Kramer, who heads the political advocacy group One Pennsylvania. “He stepped in and refereed when not a lot of people did. His office’s work to get those folks to the table were the only things that stopped us from having effectively a health care monopoly.”
One Pennsylvania has not endorsed a candidate in the race, and Kramer lamented that a spirited primary seems unlikely next year. “Primaries are an important part of the process, especially in a two-party system,” she said. She also said she wished that Shapiro had been more enthusiastic about pardoning people convicted of crimes. Still, she said, “I think he wields the power of the office in a way that has been productive, and he doesn’t pick small fights.”
Those fights have included taking on environmental issues: Shapiro has filed criminal charges against Pittsburgh’s water authority for excessive lead levels in drinking water, and has pursued a grand-jury investigation and criminal charges against the state’s fracking industry.
Republicans, predictably, were less impressed by Shapiro’s entrance into the race, and appear likely to try to link him to Wolf, who is term-limited.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association said Shapiro “has stood by Tom Wolf and his failed Covid policies that endangered Pennsylvania seniors, crushed the economy, and left the Keystone State with an unemployment rate well above the national average.” (The state’s unemployment rate of 6.4% ranks 41st nationwide.)
And at least one flashpoint in the race may already be emerging: While Shapiro’s video hails his work taking on the Catholic Church’s legacy of sexual abuse, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lou Barletta said Shapiro’s positions “are dictated to him by leftist activists” and that he “was motivated by power and authority — even trying to tell Catholic nuns they must pay for birth control in their health insurance policies.”
That is a reference to Shapiro’s efforts to overturn a Trump administration policy that expanded a religious exemption to employers who didn’t want to provide workers with health insurance policies that include coverage for contraception. The Little Sisters of the Poor joined that legal fight, even though their own exemption had already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court: Shapiro has said that the suit was directed not at faith groups, but businesses whose leaders cited their own personal beliefs as a basis for denying the benefit.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!