Why you should care

Because the law is only as good as he who wields it.

With a thin crew cut and minimalist glasses, Josh Shapiro has a Philly ’burb straightness to him. The progressive talks aspirationally of tackling fracking companies, of beating the heroin epidemic, of standing up to the gun lobby. Most of all, the 42-year-old promises to restore integrity to the sullied attorney general’s office.

Yet in the final debate before today’s crucial primary vote here, Shapiro found himself flanked on all sides — by fellow Democrats, no less. He’s too ambitious. He hasn’t sniffed a grand jury courtroom yet. One challenger’s even floated the specter of ethics violations (we’ll return to that one). Yes, Shapiro wants to be the white knight that Pennsylvania desperately needs. But is he really the one the state wants?

A person with character and integrity [who] represents a new generation of progressive leadership.

President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Shapiro

Before this particular push within politics, Shapiro batted back pleas from his party to run for governor and the Senate. Why the interest? Well, balancing the third-biggest county’s budget after years of shortfalls, expanding public services and passing wide-sweeping ethics reform will shine any hometown boy’s star. As a 5-foot-8 high school point guard — who got cut from the basketball squad at the University of Rochester, where he then discovered politics — Shapiro may be more familiar with an underdog role. But now, the Governor’s endorsed him. The Democratic senator too. Plus nurses, teachers, plumbers and, oh, the sitting president. “A person with character and integrity,” President Barack Obama has said, in an exceedingly rare down-ballot nod from the White House, adding that Shapiro “represents a new generation of progressive leadership.”

Bluntly handsome and reform-minded, Shapiro is ascendant, says Franklin & Marshall College’s Dr. G. Terry Madonna, a well-known expert in Pennsylvania politics. After managing Montgomery County’s $370 million budget as its first Democrat chairman in 150 years, Shapiro now says he’ll fix an office gutted by scandal and poor management. “The law can be the great equalizer for people,” he says. At times, his crusading has derailed a traditional political path. He opposed a late-night pay raise voted by legislators (for legislators), and spearheaded efforts to expand open records laws and end perks such as taxpayer-funded car leases, which inspired Philadelphia magazine to call him “a blast of oxygen in the smoke-chocked backrooms of quid-pro-quo Harrisburg.”

That earned him enemies in the statehouse, Madonna says, which precipitated Shapiro’s unconventional move from state rep to county commissioner. (Shapiro’s said, in the past, that his move was to get executive-office experience.) But now it’s a big part of his pitch: How many politicos can say they were so pure that they were run out of office? It’s certainly better than being run out of office for multiple counts of felony perjury and obstruction of justice, with which standing Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who is awaiting trial, has been charged. (Her legal representation didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

All told, three of the last five elected attorney generals have been mired in controversy. “The office, quite bluntly, is in shambles,” says Charlie Gerow, a Republican political strategist in Harrisburg. For its part, the Attorney General’s spokesman Jeffrey Johnson disagrees, noting, “The vast majority of the people who work for the office of the Attorney General continue to fulfill their mission of working on behalf of Commonwealth residents.”

Yet that backdrop paints everything in this race. In one corner there’s Shapiro, a Georgetown-trained lawyer with little court experience who claims the beleaguered bureaucracy needs a savvy admin. Then there are his opponents, including Northampton County’s John Morganelli and Allegheny County’s Stephen Zappala, longtime district attorneys who each argue the state needs an experienced trial lawyer at the helm. Like his father, a pediatrician who often lent a hand in his middle-class neighborhood, Shapiro believes public service can ease the pain of a world often defined by income, address and race. “We have a lack of fairness in our system,” he says.

Which is troubling because Pennsylvania faces difficult legal challenges. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, vaulted the oil and gas state into becoming the second-largest producer of natural gas in 2015, behind only Texas. All that gas comes at an environmental and human cost though, activists say, and Shapiro says too many companies have been given a “free pass” — and that he’d make sure companies would be held criminally liable in certain cases. He’d also follow the work of others, such as Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, in fighting heroin and opioid abuse. Sure, he may have to defend some things he doesn’t like. But he’s got an activist mind-set — the type that has conservatives decrying a lack of constitutional values, and liberals evoking the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage.

Can Shapiro enact the change he wants? An online poll has him in this race’s lead, and he’d take on a Republican opponent in November. Obama’s backing could help … or hurt, in a state where the president’s favorability often lags behind the national average. And the clean-cut image Shapiro has built could be tarnished by accusations from one rival, Morganelli, that he awarded county business to companies while accepting campaign contributions from them on six occasions. The charges are unlikely to stick, says Madonna, the political scientist, and Shapiro calls them “absolute nonsense,” because all bids go through a public vetting process.

For his part, Shapiro believes he can use transparency to make his career — not break it. “We can’t deal with any other challenges” until integrity is restored, Shapiro says. “If you have a strong attorney general, they can be a force for positive change in a way few other people can.”

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