The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shapiro emphasizes Jewish faith as he warns of Mastriano’s extremism

In the open race for governor of Pennsylvania, the Democrat speaks in blunt terms about his GOP rival

Pennsylvania Attorney General and Democratic nominee for Governor Josh Shapiro speaks to supporters inside the Wayne County Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Honesdale, Pa., on Oct. 9. Wayne County was part of a day full of campaign stops in northeast Pennsylvania for Shapiro. (Michelle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
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MONTROSE, Pa. — As he campaigns for governor across Pennsylvania, Democrat Josh Shapiro tells voters how his Jewish faith drives his values. He also tells them about his Republican rival Doug Mastriano, who paid a consulting fee to a far-right social media website where a mass shooter went on antisemitic rants.

And in an interview, Shapiro said that when he heard Mastriano accuse him of having “disdain for people like us” because Shapiro and his children have attended a “privileged, exclusive, elite” Jewish academy in the Philadelphia suburbs, the Democratic candidate immediately thought of all the students and teachers whose lives he felt his opponent had put “at risk” by singling out their school.

“I think it’s undeniable that he courts white supremacists and racists and antisemites,” Shapiro told The Washington Post. “It’s undeniable that he makes antisemitic comments, racist comments routinely, and that, you know, that forms a big part of his coalition.”

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, including on Shapiro’s characterization of him.

In the open race for governor of Pennsylvania, Shapiro, 49, speaks in blunt terms about Mastriano, 58, whose comments and far-right ties have been repudiated by political leaders from both parties. With under three weeks left until Election Day, the race, which polls show Shapiro leading, stands out for its charges of antisemitism, clashes over religion and personal identity and the Democrat’s warnings about the dangers his rival represents to voters.

The clash comes amid broader concerns about antisemitism across the country, following the rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West) posting antisemitic tropes and remarks, and former president Donald Trump, a Mastriano supporter, recently writing on Truth Social that Jews in the United States must “get their act together” and show more appreciation for the state of Israel “before it is too late.” Other Republicans outside Pennsylvania have recently faced criticism for incendiary comments about immigrants, race and religion.

After 17 years in elected office, Shapiro said that this was the first campaign in which he felt fearful of what might happen if he lost. “I’ve run against seven Republican opponents,” Shapiro said. “I thought my ideas were better. I thought my approach was better. But I never feared that if any of them won that the institution would be compromised, the institution would end and this is the first time I’m really afraid of what’s on the other side.”

Mastriano’s rhetoric and associations have been widely examined and criticized during his run for governor. In April, Mastriano, paid $5,000 for “campaign consulting” to the social media website Gab, which has attracted white nationalists, far-right figures and conspiracy theorists. The gunman who killed 11 people during Shabbat service at a Pittsburgh synagogue four years ago this month had used the website to post antisemitic screeds.

Gab CEO Andrew Torba has said he had a policy of not speaking to non-Christian journalists and claimed Mastriano shared that philosophy. In July, Mastriano issued a statement disavowing Torba.

Mastriano, who espouses Christian nationalism, has also argued against a separation of church and state. He attended a conference associated with fringe QAnon extremists and told the crowd, “In November we’re going to take our state back. My God will make it so.”

During a Sept. 14 campaign speech live-streamed on Facebook, Mastriano referenced Shapiro’s schooling at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pa., saying the Democrat “can’t relate” to those in attendance who would “lay down their lives for their country.”

“He grew up in a privileged neighborhood, attended one of the most privileged schools in the nation as a young man … sending his four kids to the same privileged, exclusive elite school,” Mastriano said. “We talk about him having disdain for people like us.”

Oren Segal, director of extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, said the remarks were coded antisemitism implying that Jewish Americans seek power.

“When people talk about elitist spaces or exclusive and elite, in certain contexts, when in reference to someone who is Jewish, it can almost suggest that they view themselves as superior, part of an elite secret organization, which is classic conspiratorial speak,” Segal said.

When Shapiro heard Mastriano’s remarks about his and his children’s education, he said his “reaction was not to be personally upset.”

“My immediate thought was there are hundreds of students there and teachers there and he just put their lives at risk because of his incendiary language,” Shapiro said in an interview. “That’s where my mind went.”

Shapiro has been a fixture in Pennsylvania politics for over two decades, beginning his career as an elected state representative before becoming a county commissioner and serving the past four years as the state’s attorney general.

On the campaign trail, the Democrat speaks openly about his faith. In April, he aired a TV ad that showed him having Friday night Shabbat dinner, as the camera pans over two challahs in the center of the table.

“I’m not here to preach to anybody or tell you what to believe, or to believe it all, but I want you to know what I believe. My Scripture teaches me that no one is required to complete the task. But neither are we free to refrain from it,” he said at a recent event.

If Shapiro wins, he will become one of the most prominent Jewish politicians in the country, following a line of well-known Jewish officeholders in Pennsylvania from Sen. Arlen Specter to former governor Ed Rendell. The first Jewish governor in the state changed his last name from Shapiro to Shapp over fears of antisemitism: Milton Shapp aspired to higher office, with an eye on becoming the first Jewish president. Now, Shapiro supporters say, that chance might someday be his.

“I don’t think this is going to be his last stop,” said former Democratic congressman Robert A. Brady, who represented Philadelphia for 20 years.

Charlie Gerow, a conservative strategist in Harrisburg who ran against Mastriano in the GOP primary for governor and now supports him, called Shapiro a “progressive, woke liberal.” Shapiro’s GOP detractors attack him as not tough enough on crime, and Gerow said Shapiro’s “unfettered ambition” would distract from his role running the state. “He’s going to be busy running for president and is going to take a hard left turn,” Gerow said.

At campaign events, Shapiro’s stump speech touches on traditional Democratic talking points about improving education and raising the minimum wage and supporting labor unions. He also touts his achievements as attorney general from prosecuting the Catholic church for child sexual abuse and winning a settlement with Johnson and Johnson over the drug company’s role in the opioid epidemic. But at the events, he also warns of the perils of electing Mastriano.

At a Sunday afternoon event this month, Shapiro stood in the shadow of a monument to fallen Civil War soldiers in a town square and warned that Mastriano represented a grave danger to America. Behind him, on the statue’s pedestal, was an inscription in memory of those “who gave their lives for the preservation of the Union,” as Shapiro recalled that Mastriano once chose to wear a Confederate uniform to pose for a faculty photo at the Army War College.

Mastriano’s campaign message embraces many of the modern gripes of the far right. He has railed against pandemic mask and vaccine mandates, says he will send immigrants seeking asylum in Pennsylvania to President Biden’s Delaware beach home, derides transgender rights and maintains, falsely, that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Mastriano, as a state senator, helped lead an unsuccessful effort in Pennsylvania to overturn the 2020 presidential election and attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and went to the U.S. Capitol, but says he did not go inside with the rioters.

He prayed during a call with Christian Nationalists in the lead up to Jan. 6, “That we’ll seize the power that we had given to us by the Constitution, and as well by you, providentially. I pray for the leaders also in the federal government, God, on the sixth of January that they will rise up with boldness.”

If elected governor, Mastriano would be empowered to pick a secretary of state to oversee elections. In a recent radio interview discussing whether Trump can win Pennsylvania in 2024, Mastriano said, “I get to appoint the Secretary of State and the road to 2024 goes straight through Pennsylvania.”

As the GOP nominee for governor, Mastriano has shut out mainstream media, refusing interviews and attempting to block reporters from his events. Mastriano only recently started airing his own television commercial introducing himself to voters. He’s spent less than $1 million on television, radio and digital ads, compared to Shapiro who has spent nearly $40 million, according to data from AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending on commercials.

Prominent Pennsylvania Republicans, who have coalesced around GOP nominee Mehmet Oz in the state’s U.S. Senate race, such as Sen. Patrick J. Toomey and former governor Tom Ridge, have declined to endorse Mastriano for governor.

“I often joke if they had a secret ballot vote in the Senate Republican caucus in Harrisburg, [Shapiro] might get darn close to unanimous support,” said former Pennsylvania GOP congressman Charlie Dent, who endorsed Shapiro. “Josh Shapiro is a known entity, I believe he’s a decent, honorable guy. This wasn’t so much about right or left as much as it was right or wrong.”

Gerow said he is supporting Mastriano because of their shared ideology on policy and called him, “a conservative who is a principled person who cares very much about our state.”

Trump endorsed Mastriano just before the end of the Republican primary, when it appeared Mastriano was well-positioned to win the nomination. At a rally last month with Mastriano and other candidates, Trump said, “The one guy who supported election integrity and supported me from the very beginning, Doug Mastriano. He came to the White House with a group of people, and he was fighting like hell.”

“On Nov. 8, we’re taking our state back by storm,” said Mastriano at the rally.

One Sunday this month, Shapiro made five campaign stops, each one taking him further into conservative areas that overwhelmingly supported Trump. The further north toward the New York border he pressed, the more vibrant the colors of the changing autumn leaves, in rich burgundy and crimson and burnt sienna, and the more frequent the Mastriano yard signs. But Shapiro said he believes there are enough voters in those conservative places who are turned off by Mastriano’s far-right positions.

In Honesdale, a picturesque town resembling the set of a Hallmark movie, Shapiro visited a Democratic campaign headquarters as people along Main Street perused an open air market lining the sidewalks on both sides of the street.

Margy Coccodrilli, 74, a former chairwoman of the Wayne County Democratic Committee — Trump won the county in 2020 with 66 percent of the vote — said it meant a lot that Shapiro came.

Mastriano “is extremely dangerous for democracy, he doesn’t believe in it,” she said in a phone interview a few days later. “What scares me about all of it, I love history, and I remember growing up thinking, ‘How did Hitler come to power?’ And now I’m watching it, and it’s terrifying.”

At his next stop in Montrose, he stayed to take photos and to chat with supporters after his stump speech. Susan Rowe, 72, a retired schoolteacher, became emotional when she met Shapiro. “I tell people get out there and vote because we are under attack,” Rowe said.

Earlier, in a vast, dimly lit ballroom at a Best Western hotel, Shapiro attended a brunch for the Luzerne County Democrats. The county, once a Democratic stronghold that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, shifted to Trump in the presidential elections that followed.

Shapiro received thunderous applause and a standing ovation when he told the crowd he would defeat Mastriano. The Democrats in the room began chanting, “Josh, Josh, Josh.”

“Don’t be cheering my name,” he warned. “Because my name may be on the ballot, but it’s your rights and your future that’s on the line right now,” Shapiro said.

He added, “We can’t afford to lose this race because let me tell you something, this guy is dangerous, and this guy is extreme.”

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