What Josh Shapiro’s transition team says about how he’ll govern, and why some picks are raising eyebrows

The transition team helping governor-elect Josh Shapiro prepare for office is wide-ranging and, in some cases, controversial.

A close-up of Josh Shapiro speaking.

Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania speaks during his first Capitol news conference after the election, Nov. 16, 2022, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

The transition team helping governor-elect Josh Shapiro prepare for office is wide-ranging and, in some cases, controversial, offering a glimpse into the way he hopes to govern the commonwealth and court members of the GOP in the legislature.

The team of nearly 300 people includes lobbyists, activists, attorneys, executives, and former elected officials, and not all are obvious choices for a Democratic administration. There are, for instance, policing advocates who want more aggressive law enforcement, people seen as hostile to public education, and a number of prominent Republicans.

But there are also prison abolitionists, public education activists, patient advocates, and progressive labor organizers.

Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive, said the range of political persuasions reflected in the group is intentional, and that it’s useful to have influential people who are invested in the administration’s success on both sides of the aisle.

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“There is somebody sitting on that transition committee who is going to go back to a regular job, and then two years later something will happen, and then that person will be engaged,” Ceisler said.

Shapiro, who built a broad coalition in the election to beat Republican challenger Doug Mastriano by a sizable margin, will have to walk a fine line. Progressives will be looking for him to deliver wins on major Democratic issues in return for their support, while Republicans will be seeking to advance their priorities in return for allowing any of Shapiro’s to move.

In short, it’s going to be hard to please everyone.

Already, Shapiro has faced criticism for including representatives from both parties who have either been accused of sexual harassment or accused of not doing enough to stop it.

Eric Rosso, an activist with the left-wing Working Families Party, said he’s also concerned the team so far lacks the voices who would help Shapiro pass policies, such as a minimum wage increase, that appeal to the left’s base voters.

“Progressive power is really rising,” Rosso said. “If the calculation is the way for his agenda to pass is to lean into the conservative side of the [Democratic] party, it is the wrong calculation.”

But Chris Nicholas, a GOP campaign consultant, said the Shapiro administration seems more focused on winning allies than previous governors have been at the start of their administrations. Shapiro “is casting a wider net than [outgoing Democratic Governor Tom] Wolf,” Nicholas said.

So who are the people Shapiro wants on his side as he prepares to take executive power? Spotlight PA takes a look at eight members of the transition team, what they tell us about the governor-elect’s policy plans, and what they may want from him in return.

  1. Philadelphia FOP President John McNesby
  2. Abolitionist Law Center Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook
  3. Cheyney University Chief Diversity Officer Pamela Keye
  4. Susquehanna International Co-Founder Joel Greenberg
  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine professor Ravi Gupta
  6. Former Pa. Republican Party head Val DiGiorgio
  7. Conservation Voters of Pa. political director Katie Blume
  8. Former Pa. Democratic Party head Marcel Groen

John McNesby

McNesby is the longtime president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police, and will serve on the transition’s public safety committee with a focus on law enforcement policy.

An FOP endorsement was once a political necessity for Philly politicians, as well as candidates running statewide. But in recent years, the role of the union — which represents 14,000 active and retired police officers — has become more fraught.

In the ongoing conversation about how criminal justice should be handled in Pennsylvania, McNesby and the FOP have come to exemplify opposition to measures that, according to their supporters, would increase police accountability. He has also opposed other systemic shifts such as an attempt in Philly under progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner to reduce pre-trial detention.

But Shapiro, who has himself repeatedly clashed with Krasner, has a very different relationship with McNesby. The Philly FOP has consistently endorsed Shapiro since his first bid for statewide office in 2016.

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In a statement this year explaining the Philly FOP’s decision to back the attorney general over his GOP opponent for governor, McNesby said of Shapiro, “Every time we pick up the phone, he’s there to help us with whatever we need to do as far as law enforcement.”

He added, he’ll support “whoever is out for police.”

McNesby declined to comment on his work with the transition team. He’ll work alongside a number of other law enforcement officers, though others on Shapiro’s public safety advisory committee have extremely different philosophies when it comes to criminal justice.

Robert Saleem Holbrook

One of those people is Holbrook. He is the executive director at the Abolitionist Law Center and will work on the transition’s public safety committee with a focus on community safety.

Many of the people helping Shapiro prepare for office are longtime friends and allies. Holbrook is an exception. He recalls that his first real interaction with the soon-to-be governor came in 2019, when he and other law center members protested Shapiro’s appearance at a conference and pressed him on his criminal justice positions.

Holbrook himself was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1990, when he was 16. He got out in 2018, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court found mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional. People like him and the organization he works for don’t often get a seat in policy talks, he said. They’ve had to fight for it.

“The reason [Shapiro] heard us is because we had the political power to impact him,” he said. “We had the ability to show him and we had the ability to move politicians.”

But he gives Shapiro a lot of credit. After that 2019 protest, “we both arranged a sit-down, we sat down, we talked about his criminal justice reform platform. And there were areas that he agreed with us on, and there were areas where he disagreed with us.”

Shapiro has since committed to lots of the law center’s priorities, including ending mandatory life-without-parole sentences for second-degree murder, opposing new mandatory minimum sentences, and maintaining a death penalty moratorium.

“Our goal in this transition committee is to hold him accountable to the criminal justice platform that he put out, that we helped contribute to, and help him in implementing it,” Holbrook said.

Pamela Keye

Keye is the chief diversity and compliance officer at Cheyney University, which is the country’s oldest historically Black college or university. She’ll serve on the transition’s education and workforce committee, with a focus on higher education.

Cheyney is also a public university, and along with the rest of Pennsylvania’s state system of higher education — or PASSHE — it depends on state money to operate and offer students relatively affordable tuition.

Ensuring that “affordability is not a barrier,” Keye said, is a crucial part of her day job and her role on the transition committee. She is looking for all kinds of diversity, she said, including in the kinds of students people expect to see at a Pennsylvania university.

“The number of 18-year-olds… coming to college is decreasing, and the rate of the adult learner is increasing,” she said. “Who the students are in the commonwealth is changing, and it’s not a one size fits all.”

She called Shapiro’s education committee “inspiring,” and noted that she was pleased with the diversity of the team.

“I’m encouraged that representation, as a diversity officer, isn’t going to be our issue,” she said.

Joel Greenberg

Greenberg, who will serve on the transition’s education and workforce committee and will focus on K-12 policy, will bring a very different voice to the committee. He co-founded the major global high-speed trading firm Susquehanna International Group.

Susquehanna is known for its secrecy, for an early bet on TikTok that paid enormous dividends, and for its founders’ ability to pay unusually low federal income tax rates. It’s also known for its deep-pocketed ties to the movement to fund alternatives to public schools.

One of its co-founders, Jeff Yass, is arguably the commonwealth’s single biggest conservative political donor. While he primarily gives to Republicans, he crosses partisan lines for candidates who support charter schools and private education. For instance, Yass and his co-founders have given millions of dollars to Philadelphia Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams’ political runs.

Greenberg, who made billions in his trading career, retired from Susquehanna in 2016, but before that, he was involved in Yass’s political giving along with their third co-founder, Arthur Dantchik.

This giving has made Yass and Susquehanna — and by extension, Greenberg — extremely well-known in Pennsylvania politics. Greenberg could not be reached for comment.

But Greenberg has a long relationship with Shapiro. When he first ran for attorney general in 2016, Students First — a PAC associated with Yass, Greenberg, and other Susquehanna executives — gave him $125,000. Shapiro didn’t get any money from the group in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Ravi Gupta

Gupta is a primary care physician and an assistant professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine. He’s based in Philadelphia and will serve on the transition’s health and human services committee, with a focus on health care.

He said his goal on the committee is “to bring the patient perspectives to the table.”

Gupta’s research primarily focuses on “access and affordability,” he said. He has written about barriers to treatment for opioid use disorder, for instance, and said he thinks a lot about making sure preventative care is available for people in all segments of the population. The rise in telehealth during COVID-19 is a good example — he said it’s made it easier for some of his patients to make appointments, and he’d like to see it strengthened.

“You have to be thinking a lot about equity, both along race and ethnicity lines, but then also thinking about equity in terms of class, socioeconomic lines,” Gupta said. “Especially for those populations that have historically been neglected and haven’t been able to access many of these programs and policies.”

He reached out to Shapiro to share some of these perspectives, he said, and got an invite to help with the transition. He’ll make health care recommendations in a group that includes representatives from major health systems, health care unions, and the insurance industry.

Val DiGiorgio

DiGiorgio, who will be on the transition team’s finance and insurance team, currently works as a consultant and general counsel for the public relations firm BSI Consulting. But he’s better known in Pennsylvania politics as a former leader of the state Republican Party.

A South Philly native, DiGiorgio helmed the state GOP from 2017 to 2019, working to improve the party’s waning prospects in the southeast. But that tenure was abruptly cut short after allegations of harassment, effectively ending DiGiorgio’s formal role in politics.

DiGiorgio resigned after reports that he’d traded sexually explicit messages with a GOP candidate for Philadelphia city council (he said the messages were consensual; she said they amounted to harassment). After DiGiorgio’s resignation, a woman who had chaired an Allegheny County young Republicans group also accused him of “unwanted, wildly inappropriate sexual advances,” and said other GOP officials didn’t help her deal with the situation.

DiGiorgio didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For years, he operated in the same Montgomery County political circles as Shapiro and has said he considers the governor-elect a friend. His fellow party members generally consider him to be relatively moderate — though he also helmed the GOP during Donald Trump’s tenure and heartily embraced the former president as party standard-bearer.

Katie Blume

Blume works as the political director for Conservation Voters of PA, a group that runs the commonwealth’s biggest environmentally-focused political action committee. She’ll work on the energy and environment committee in the transition, with a focus on the environment.

She said her overarching goal is to uphold Pennsylvania’s environmental rights amendment and make sure people “have access to clean air and water, [and a] safe environment.”

Before being named to the committee, Blume previously told Spotlight PA she had “concerns about some of the folks on the list” of people advising Shapiro on energy policy. But she added — then and now — that she appreciates that it’s a diverse group.

Blume will work alongside fellow environmentalists and representatives from and lobbyists for Pennsylvania’s powerful fossil fuel industries.

One of Blume’s critiques of outgoing governor Tom Wolf was that — though she often agreed with his priorities — he tended to “decide first, then go to people.”

“Shapiro,” she said, “is more collaborative.”

Marcel Groen

Groen, a retired attorney, is serving on the transition team’s economic development advisory committee and will focus on business policy.

He chaired Montgomery County’s Democratic Party for over two decades, helming the organization during the county’s shift from the most deeply Republican-controlled part of the state to one of the Democrats’ biggest assets. He then served as the leader of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party until 2018.

He has deep connections to Shapiro, having known the incoming governor since Shapiro was a child, when Groen and Shapiro’s father attended the same synagogue. He worked closely with the younger Shapiro as the Democrat rose through the political ranks, from Montgomery County state representative, to county commissioner, to attorney general.

But he’s also a fraught choice for Shapiro’s transition team.

Groen took over as state Democratic party chair in 2015 but resigned after three years amid allegations he had ignored sexual harassment allegations.

Gwen Snyder, a #MeToo advocate who vocally criticized Groen’s leadership, was frustrated that after working “very, very hard to create a culture of accountability in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party,” he was given any sort of official role on the team.

Groen “enabled predators and downplayed the trauma of women and folk who experienced assault and harassment,” Snyder told Spotlight PA. “When we start letting enablers creep back into the party, we’re paving the way for predators to creep back.”

Groen responded that he is “very proud of my record of opening up Montgomery County” after years of GOP control, and that he strove to dramatically increase the numbers of women in county leadership positions.

Groen declined to elaborate on his transition work, noting that it’s still early in the process, but said he’s happy to be helping.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA contributed to this report.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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