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The Once-Lofty Shapiro; Has He Been Brought Down a Few Pegs?

November 26, 2008 By:
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Josh Shapiro

State Rep. Josh Shapiro's (D-District 153) rapid rise in Pennsylvania politics -- described by some observers of Harrisburg as unprecedented -- appears to have hit a roadblock, or at least a significant hurdle.

When the next legislative session begins in January, the 35-year-old Shapiro will lose his deputy-speaker post. The incoming House Speaker, state Rep. Keith McCall (D-District 122), announced that he was eliminating the position, essentially created for Shapiro two years ago and affording the second-term representative an outsized role in setting the House calendar.

Perhaps more problematic for Shapiro is the fact that the young Montgomery County lawmaker has made enemies with a former political ally, state Rep. Bill DeWeese (D-District 50), a highly influential Harrisburg fixture.

In August, Shapiro became the most-prominent Democrat to publicly call on DeWeese to step down as his party's majority leader. That was due to an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general's office into illegal bonuses paid to legislative staffers, an affair known on the banks of the Susquehanna as "Bonusgate."

DeWeese has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But detractors also claim that improprieties in the Democratic caucus went on under his watch.

"We need leaders who are committed to transformational reform. We need a monumental shift, and we need it now," Shapiro said in an August press conference.

In the next session, DeWeese won't remain majority leader, but he will still be part of the House leadership, serving as Majority Whip, the third-most-powerful position in the chamber; and, if he chooses, he could make lawmaking more difficult for Shapiro.

It remains to be seen where this turn of events leaves Shapiro in terms of influence and how it affects the prospects of one of his top legislative priorities: mandating that state pension funds divest from firms doing business with Iran or Sudan.

"It's a non-issue," said Shapiro of his troubles with DeWeese. "My belief is he should not be in leadership. My caucus voted him back in, and that is their prerogative. I will work with my caucus ... to fix our economy and promote government reform."

Just a Temporary Job
He added that his job as deputy speaker was always meant to be temporary.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, wasn't as quick to downplay events.

"Is he stronger than he was two years ago? Probably not. The question is: Do you think his future rests with being a member of the General Assembly?" posed Madonna.

Madonna said that pundits have tossed around Shapiro's name as one of a number of potential Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Other possible contenders include U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13), U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) and TV host Chris Matthews. Shapiro would not comment on his plans.

Madonna pointed out that Shapiro still enjoys a good relationship with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and, perhaps most important of all, with President-elect Barack Obama. Shapiro was a fixture at Obama campaign events in the region and played a leading role in outreach to the Philadelphia Jewish community.

He's the product of Philadelphia-area Jewish days schools, whose own daughter attends Perelman Jewish Day School.

It was in the first days of his second term in 2006 that Shapiro emerged as a statewide player. Along with DeWeese and state Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 203), he hatched a scheme to elect a Republican, state Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R-District 169), to preside over a body in which the Democrats enjoyed a 102-101 advantage.

That maneuvering prevented state Rep. John Perzel (R-District- 172) -- no favorite of House Democrats -- from remaining House Speaker. As part of the deal, Shapiro assumed the new post of deputy speaker at the start of his second term, something that observers said ruffled the feathers of more-senior colleagues.

With the Democrats widening their lead in the House on Election Day, their need for O'Brien as speaker disappeared.

A Push for Divestment
Shapiro has used his influence to push for divestment as a means to use Pennsylvania's purse to hamper Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and Sudan's ongoing genocide in Darfur. Divestment became a central component of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition's legislative agenda. PJC lobbies on behalf of Jewish federations across the state.

Back in June, the House passed the Protecting Pennsylvania's Investment Act, but talks to move the bill through the Senate fell apart in September, with the full onset of the financial crisis, according to Hank Butler, executive director of the Jewish coalition. With the economy in chaos, skeptical lawmakers became even more reluctant to fiddle with the pension system.

With a new session beginning, the bill will have to start from square one. Madonna said it will face an uphill climb, but that has more to do with the economy than any perceived backlash against Shapiro.

State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182), who initially clashed with Shapiro over the best approach to divestment, but later struck a compromise with him, has vowed to reintroduce the bill next year.

"I imagine there will be more resistance, given what is happening in the market," said Josephs, who added that she still maintains cutting ties with firms that do business in nations, such as Iran and Sudan, is sound fiscal policy.


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