In some ways, Pennsylvania State Rep. Joshua Shapiro, 33, had a low-key New Year’s Eve. Married, with children ages 1 and 5, he did the “lame parents” thing with his wife: Chinese food, kids to bed early, hanging out in front of the TV.
Then, before midnight, Shapiro — a moderate, second-term Democrat who took up the cause of Soviet Jewry as an elementary school student and began his career as a congressional staffer in Washington — got a little more unconventional: He called up State Rep. Dennis O’Brien, a moderate Republican from Philadelphia, and offered to make him speaker of the state’s House of Representatives.
Shocking as it was, the move was a crafty backup strategy for Pennsylvania’s Democrats, who won a razor-thin, one-seat majority in last November’s elections, but needed a way to oust conservative GOP Speaker John Perzel after several Democrats announced they would back his bid to retain the post.
In the end, Shapiro’s counter-offensive worked: Senior Democratic leaders and O’Brien, a reform-minded lawmaker, eventually bought into the idea. On January 2, O’Brien became the first legislator from the minority party to be elected speaker of the House in the history Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. The maneuver was widely understood as a defeat of the GOP leadership and a victory for Democrats, who rallied to O’Brien’s side and are working closely with him.
The success of his coup has transformed Shapiro — who represents a suburban district in Montgomery County just outside Philadelphia — from a promising sophomore legislator to an instantly seasoned veteran and one of the state’s most visible Democrats. In addition to his increasingly busy schedule in Harrisburg, Shapiro currently serves on the board of directors of Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station, Pa., his high school alma mater — and the place where he met his wife, Lori.
Last week, O’Brien appointed Shapiro as co-chair of a newly formed Commission on Legislative Reform. He is “suddenly someone to watch,” wrote John Baer, a top political columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, in an e-mail message to the Forward. His stock “skyrockets… for a second-termer in a legislature known for being run always and forever by senior members, it was an outstanding step forward.”
Even before the recent turn of events, Shapiro already had earned a reputation as a bipartisan consensus builder delivering results at home and in Harrisburg. He is one of only 24 elected officials nationwide to be selected for the prestigious Aspen Institute-Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership program. He is the first and only Pennsylvania official to be chosen for the Rodel Fellowship and was selected because of his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans. The two-year fellowship focuses on the ethics and responsibilities of public leadership and the study of democratic values.
The new bipartisan commission answers a clamor for reform that has not abated since the Pennsylvania legislature pushed through a dead-of-night, unpublicized pay raise in July 2005. Last November, 24 incumbents were unseated, many by challengers vowing to reform legislative practices.
Shapiro will chair the new commission along with Republican Rep. David Steil, who was among six Republicans who broke ranks to ensure O’Brien cinched the speakership, in a 105-97 vote of House members. Both Shapiro and Steil will select 11 fellow party members to round out the advisory body, which will have until mid-February to recommend changes to legislative conduct. Reportedly up for review are a number of legislative practices, including the operation of the Ethics and Rules committee, late-night voting and lawmakers’ perks, as well as wider issues such as public access to government information, term limits and election law.
“I think this is a formula for success,” Shapiro told the Forward. “This is a bipartisan government, this is going to force Democrats and Republicans to work together and this is what the public wants to see out of its government.”