PHILADELPHIA — One bright spot for Democrats on a generally gloomy Election Day was the election of Josh Shapiro to the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives.
In his first run for public office, Shapiro, 31, won with 54% of the vote, despite having to campaign in a suburban Philadelphia district with more registered Republicans than Democrats. Shapiro was boosted by support from Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, as well as campaign appearances by Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and former presidential candidate Howard Dean.
“It is a very exciting prospect to have someone of Josh Shapiro’s youth, energy and intelligence in the legislature,” Rendell said. “I predict he will be one of the stars of the legislature in the years to come.”
Shapiro, who has worked for several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, seemed destined for a career in public service from a very young age. When he was only 10, he became active in the fight for Soviet Jewry, working to free several Jewish families. Shapiro’s first actual political campaign came several years later, when he launched an unsuccessful run for student body president at Akiba Hebrew Academy.
Shapiro recovered from his first political setback after enrolling at the University of Rochester, where he successfully lobbied for money to keep several athletic programs afloat on campus. Then he was encouraged to run for student body president and became the first freshman to be elected president at Rochester. Shapiro subsequently changed his major from pre-med to political science.
After graduating at 21, Shapiro went to work as a legislative aide to Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat. He subsequently served stints as a foreign policy aide to Rep. Peter Deutsch of Florida and Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey before becoming chief of staff to Rep. Joe Hoeffel of Pennsylvania.
“Most people who are in that position either stay on in Capitol Hill, go into the administration or into lobbying,” Shapiro said. “While I very much enjoyed my time working for Joe Hoeffel, I was also interested in offering my own views.”
Hoeffel, who chose not to run for re-election, failed last week in his bid to unseat four-term incumbent Senator Arlen Specter.
During the recent campaign, Shapiro estimates he knocked on 17,000 doors. Asked why he was able to succeed in a district with a Republican majority, Shapiro said, “If you work hard and you appeal to the highest common denominator and you give voters a reason to vote for you, then you can win.”
In truth, it was tougher than that cliché-ridden explanation makes it sound. “The first poll showed me down, probably 40 points.”
Among the congratulatory calls he received after the election was one from Lieberman. “He’s a real mensch,” Shapiro said. “We both believe we need to move our party back to the center, and if we work from the center out, that we can strengthen our party and bring more people in.”
Shapiro is targeting “the lack of affordable health insurance” as the main issue on which he will focus during his first term. “Perhaps this is my Jewish upbringing talking, but I think we have a moral obligation to make sure that we provide health care to all of us, young and old.”