Josh Shapiro, Democrats’ Breakout Star, Is Running As A Pro-Police Crime Fighter

The Democratic attorney general running for governor of Pennsylvania hopes to turn what is typically a Democratic weakness into a source of strength.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a Philadelphia event hosted by the labor union SEIU on Oct. 15. The Democrat's prosecution of exploitative employers has endeared him to organized labor.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a Philadelphia event hosted by the labor union SEIU on Oct. 15. The Democrat's prosecution of exploitative employers has endeared him to organized labor.
Ryan Collerd/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA ― Pennsylvania Republicans have seized on an uptick in crime in Philadelphia to attack Democrats.

It’s an issue on which the GOP has an advantage in polls, and many Democrats would sooner not discuss it.

“Crime in Pennsylvania is a real vulnerability for Democrats across the board,” said a national Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

But Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, leans into his credentials as a crime fighter on the campaign trail and advocates for hiring more cops.

“When I’m governor, we’re going to hire more police for our community, but hang on ― because people both have a right to be safe and feel safe in our community,” the state attorney general told supporters in a speech Oct. 8 at the opening of a campaign office in West Philadelphia.

“Being safe” is Shapiro’s shorthand for using law enforcement to reduce crime. “Feeling safe” is how he describes the complementary need for residents, especially Black residents, to have confidence that they will not suffer violence at the hands of the very police officers sworn to protect them.

“We’re going to see police that are from the community, that are properly trained, that work hand in hand with our community groups to keep us safe, and that understand they’ve got to get out of their patrol cars, walk the beat, learn the names of our children and talk to the people who really run the neighborhood,” he continued, eliciting cries of affirmation from the predominantly Black crowd. “You know who that is: The grandmas on their porches. They run the neighborhoods, and we’ve got to make sure we build safe communities by working together.”

For Democrats in an election cycle when they stand a good chance of losing both the U.S. House and the Senate and are struggling to hold governorships in states as blue as Oregon, Shapiro’s candidacy is a rare bright spot.

“He inspires people.”

- Jack Stollsteimer, Delaware County district attorney

His lead over Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano frequently surpasses 10 percentage points in public polls. National Republicans, cowed by Shapiro’s massive fundraising edge over Mastriano, have effectively forfeited the race.

Coverage of the race has understandably focused on Mastriano, a Christian nationalist and participant in the election-denying rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. His hardline right-wing views, comments and associations ― he has sought to organize grassroots support on the Gab platform, a hub for white nationalists ― would make him a useful foil for any Democrat. Pennsylvania’s retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R) has declined to endorse Mastriano, even as he has heartily backed Republican Mehmet Oz to succeed him in the Senate.

But Shapiro’s strengths are equally notable: a record of outperforming other Democrats, a talent for public speaking and, perhaps most important, an ability to turn the issue of public safety into a political advantage.

“He inspires people,” said Jack Stollsteimer, the Democratic district attorney of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. “If he does win this race ― and I hope and pray that he does ― I do think personally that he has the kind of political skills and the governance skills to be president of the United States.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is joined by Shapiro at a news conference on Dec. 14, 2021, about a drop in crime in the city. Shapiro has been endorsed by a number of law enforcement officials and labor unions.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is joined by Shapiro at a news conference on Dec. 14, 2021, about a drop in crime in the city. Shapiro has been endorsed by a number of law enforcement officials and labor unions.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

‘More Police In Our Communities’

As attorney general since 2017, Shapiro has earned a reputation as a tough-on-crime moderate.

That label extends to Shapiro’s work combating white-collar crime ― or, in the case of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse, clerical-collar crime. Shapiro’s decision to pursue criminal wage theft charges against Hawbaker, a major construction contractor that does business with the state government, is a particular hit among union members. The $20 million in stolen wages that the company agreed to pay out to more than 1,000 workers is the focus of one of Shapiro’s TV ads.

At the same time, Shapiro is the kind of Democrat who is comfortable ticking off statistics that attest to his success fighting all kinds of lawbreakers. He takes credit for arresting more than 8,000 people for selling illegal drugs, 500 people for child trafficking and 400 people for gun trafficking, as well as seizing 3.2 billion doses of heroin and 4 million doses of fentanyl in his first term alone.

In response to a Fox News reporter’s question about how he would tackle crime, Shapiro emphasized his plan to hire 2,000 more police officers.

“We need more police in our communities, and we need to make sure that the police and the community are working closer together,” he responded to the reporter’s question at a press briefing after an organized labor canvass kickoff in Media earlier on Oct. 8.

It’s not exactly clear how Shapiro plans to achieve his vision of community-police cooperation. He shies away from more progressive ideas like taking on police unions ― many of which are supporting his gubernatorial bid ― and making it easier to impose consequences on police officers accused of misconduct.

Instead, he offers support for broad “carrot”-like incentives for better conduct without getting into too many specific details. He wants to encourage police departments to recruit more officers from the communities they patrol and improve police officers’ training so they are better equipped to de-escalate situations that could result in the use of force. In the name of pursuing the improved training, he suggests he’d expand the state’s accreditation program for state troopers to local police departments.

“It’s given us, as a community, a chance to somewhat heal and continue on the process of rebuilding and keeping our streets safe.”

- Cory Long, anti-violence advocate in Chester, Pennsylvania

“It’s not just physical fitness and using a weapon effectively, which is incredibly important, but also making sure that we’re talking to our law enforcement leaders and partners about mental health issues and also about the ways in which they engage with community ― doing so in a way that tries to mitigate violence and the risk of violence and instead wants to defuse different situations,” he told reporters at the Oct. 8 briefing.

Shapiro’s team pointed HuffPost to the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods, an anti-violence initiative in the small, impoverished city of Chester, just a few miles southwest of Philadelphia along the Delaware River, as a potential model for the kind of policing that Shapiro hopes to replicate statewide.

The Chester Partnership, launched in November 2020 and modeled on Boston’s Operation Ceasefire, identifies the fraction of young, gang-involved men most likely to engage in violence and targets them with an approach known as “focused deterrence.”

Under this strategy, the police department concentrates its resources on surveilling those men considered high risk and cracking down on any illicit activities. At the same time, community leaders backed by the government offer the young men help getting jobs, mentorships and access to social services such as mental health care ― should they choose to avail themselves of it.

Stollsteimer credits Shapiro for providing critical support for the Chester Partnership through political leadership and legal expertise, and even prosecuting some cases when necessary.

As a result, Chester is an anti-crime success story at a time when other cities in Pennsylvania struggle under historic spikes in violence. The city has experienced a 60% drop in gun-violence homicides since 2020, according to figures advertised by D.A. Stollsteimer’s office.

“The climate has changed tremendously,” according to Cory Long, a lifelong Chester resident and founder of an anti-violence nonprofit involved in the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods. “It’s given us, as a community, a chance to somewhat heal and continue on the process of rebuilding and keeping our streets safe.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a more progressive Democrat, has butted heads with Shapiro over the years.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a more progressive Democrat, has butted heads with Shapiro over the years.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Clashing With Krasner

Shapiro’s close cooperation with Stollsteimer and officials involved in the Chester Partnership for Safe Neighborhoods is something of a contrast with his relationship with Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Krasner, a reform-minded progressive Democrat significantly to the left of Shapiro, has been a target of law-enforcement and conservative criticism from the moment he was elected in 2017.

Krasner’s election prompted an exodus of more moderate career prosecutors to Shapiro’s office. And in July 2019, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that quietly gave Shapiro authority to prosecute gun crimes in Philadelphia without Krasner’s permission. In the state’s other 66 counties, local prosecutors still have to request the intervention of the state attorney general’s office.

A progressive state lawmaker who voted against the bill claimed that Shapiro pushed for the provision behind the scenes, but Shapiro denied it and emphasized his cooperation with Krasner on the Gun Violence Task Force.

“We did *not* seek this,” Shapiro wrote on Twitter. “And we do *not* plan to use it to act unilaterally or go around DA Krasner.”

Confronted by protesters at the progressive Netroots Nation convention in Philadelphia a few days later, Shapiro agreed to support the legislation’s repeal.

But Krasner was still furious. In an August 2019 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he compared Shapiro’s alleged advocacy for the legislation to someone stealing his wallet. He also said that he and his staff have jokingly dubbed Shapiro’s office “Paraguay” because the South American country took in so many former Nazis after World War II.

The two prosecutors’ frosty relationship continues many years later as Republicans seek to make Krasner the face of Democratic criminal justice policies.

The GOP-controlled state House of Representatives voted to hold Krasner in contempt in September for refusing to comply with a subpoena to testify about his prosecutorial policies. And Republicans are laying the groundwork for a vote to impeach Krasner, even though Krasner dispatched with a spirited primary challenge in 2021 and easily won reelection.

Now, as more progressive elected officials protest what they see as a Republican effort to persecute Krasner for political gain, Shapiro has declined to comment on the matter. (Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, who has taken more liberal criminal-justice stances than Shapiro, has also stayed silent.)

“It’s not an issue that comes before me as attorney general or even as governor,” Shapiro told HuffPost in an Oct. 8 interview. “That’s a legislative process, so I’ll leave it to the lawmakers.”

Shapiro has also elicited criticism from progressives in Pennsylvania for a range of other stances. Early in his first term, Shapiro agreed to have his office defend several state troopers accused of heinous acts of brutality rather than ask the state office of general counsel to handle them. He has opposed some “harm-reduction” strategies favored by drug reform activists, such as “safe” injection sites for intravenous drug users that advocates say reduce the risk of overdoses and disease transmission. And perhaps most notably, he has been reluctant at times to use his seat on the five-person board of pardons to grant clemency to people convicted of crimes.

“Shapiro is always gearing up for higher office.”

- Left-wing Pennsylvania elected official

In December 2017, for example, he was the lone “no” vote against commuting the life sentence of William “Smitty” Smith, a 76-year-old stroke survivor serving a mandatory life sentence for participating in a 1968 robbery in which his accomplice murdered someone. Since the board must vote unanimously for a commutation or pardon to proceed, the man remained in prison.

In Pennsylvania, the lieutenant governor chairs the board of pardons. After Fetterman took office in 2019, the number pardons and life sentence commutations recommended by the board jumped dramatically. Shapiro had a change of heart on Smith’s case, allowing his commutation to proceed early in 2019.

But on one occasion, Fetterman reportedly resorted to threatening Shapiro to secure his cooperation. Following a December 2019 meeting that yielded just two recommendations for commuted sentences, Fetterman told Shapiro that he’d run against him for governor in the Democratic primary in 2022 if he did not accede to more commutations, according to anonymous sources with knowledge of the matter cited in a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer in May.

A spokesperson for Shapiro denied that claim to the Inquirer, calling the suggestion that political pressure had swayed Shapiro “distasteful.”

“Shapiro is always gearing up for higher office,” said a left-wing elected official in Pennsylvania, who requested anonymity so as not to undermine Shapiro’s gubernatorial bid. “He’s always concerned about what his job here will do to benefit or hurt him in his next election. And that is the worst kind of public servant.”

At the same time, as a candidate for governor, Shapiro has courted Pennsylvania’s community of progressive criminal-justice reformers with a multifaceted proposal for overhauling the state’s sentencing and probation systems. He has promised to reduce the incidence of imprisonment for technical violations of parole, to allocate state funding for public defenders for the first time and to decline to sign off on use of the death penalty.

Shapiro has also vowed to sign an array of criminal justice reform bills ― should they pass the legislature. He would approve legislation ending mandatory life sentences for “felony murder” cases like the one involving Smith, legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those locked up for nonviolent marijuana convictions, and creating more opportunities for aging prisoners to seek “geriatric parole” on a case-by-case basis.

Philadelphia state Rep. Rick Krajewski (D), a self-described democratic socialist who helped organize the July 2019 protest against Shapiro at Netroots Nation, has appreciated Shapiro’s efforts to meet with former foes.

“He’s done a lot of listening,” Krajewski told HuffPost before delivering remarks at Shapiro’s Oct. 8 event in West Philadelphia. “He’s really taken in some feedback. I’ve seen it reflected in his platform.”

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