New Pa. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is on a GOP charm offensive

The new Democratic governor decisively won the battleground state in November with bipartisan support. He believes he can govern the same way.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro enters an executive-order signing event at the state Capitol building in Harrisburg, on Jan. 18. (Caroline Gutman for The Washington Post)
8 min

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Josh Shapiro began his term as Pennsylvania’s new Democratic governor by nominating four Republicans to his Cabinet. His first executive order, which eliminates a four-year college-degree requirement for thousands of state government jobs, was praised by conservative media. He appeared on Fox News in his first television interview as governor.

These early overtures by the 49-year-old governor signal an unusual posture he is staking out as he takes the helm of a state roiled in recent years by baseless election conspiracy theories and sharp partisan fighting. At a time of deep political polarization, Shapiro’s rare bipartisan moves are drawing cautious praise from Republicans and optimism from Democrats.

His approach to governing is similar to how he campaigned — seeking to broaden the party’s appeal beyond urban and suburban voters. Now some Democrats see Shapiro’s success as a road map for the party nationally, and they name him among a new generation of young governors who could one day run for president.

In November’s election, Shapiro made significant inroads with rural, working-class voters who have turned away from the Democratic Party. He flipped four counties that President Donald Trump won in 2020, and he came extremely close to winning several others.

“For me, you’ve got to show up, and you’ve got to treat people with respect. You’ve got to see them for the valuable individuals that they are. And I think in society, we put too many labels on people or put too many people in certain buckets and ignore too many folks,” Shapiro said at the end of his first day, sitting at his new oak-wood desk, the light-blue checked tie he had worn earlier flung over a nearby coat rack. “I think as a party, Democrats need to show that they are willing to show up anywhere and speak to people with respect, not ignore swaths of our communities that feel like time and time again they’ve been ignored or talked down to.”

Whether he can translate that outreach into policy and political capital remains to be seen. Pennsylvania’s government is divided, with Republicans holding the Senate and Democrats having a slim majority in the House. Shapiro will need GOP buy-in to implement his policy agenda. The new governor believes he can garner bipartisan support on issues such as taxes, energy, education and law enforcement, where he has indicated an openness on traditionally Republican priorities, including cutting taxes for businesses and individuals, fracking, school choice and more police.

But there are some issues on which Shapiro is resolute about his commitment to Democratic values, such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights. He’s unwilling to work with anyone who “peddles lies and conspiracy theories and act like demagogues,” he says. “I think you have to draw a line.”

For now, as Shapiro shapes his team and signs his first executive orders, Republicans are taking notice.

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, a Republican from a district north of Pittsburgh, sent the governor a text message congratulating him on “a good first week in office that put Pennsylvanians first on issues that people from all political sides agree with.”

“The action items he’s taken so far have been wins for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Bernstine said in an interview. He said there will be time for partisan differences over issues such as guns and abortion, but he said he believes there is genuine interest from the governor and Republicans in the legislature to work together.

Even far-right conservative Republicans such as state Rep. Paul Schemel, who was among 26 legislators on a resolution to decertify Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the state, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Shapiro’s rhetoric and actions, though he also views them as politically opportunistic.

“Candidly, I think Josh Shapiro has his eyes set on, you know, potentially something else, so I think he’s motivated at this particular juncture to demonstrate bipartisanship,” he said. “The test will be, is he willing to do things that aren’t comfortable for Democrats.”

Shapiro won decisively in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs where Democrats typically compete, but he also made inroads in rural, working-class areas that have turned sharply away from the Democratic Party. In Lancaster County, a conservative stronghold that Trump won by nearly 16 percentage points, Shapiro lost by less than two. Overall, he won 16 percent of registered Republicans and 64 percent of registered independents.

He was bolstered by a historically weak opponent in Doug Mastriano, a far-right Republican who led efforts in Pennsylvania to overturn the 2020 presidential election, embraced Christian nationalism and associated with people who spread antisemitism. Some former Republican officials in the state openly rejected Mastriano and endorsed Shapiro.

But Jeff Eggleston, the rural caucus chair for the Pennsylvania Democrats, said Shapiro’s win was not just a reflection of a bad opponent — though it was undeniably a significant factor in his double-digit victory — but a concerted effort by Shapiro’s campaign to reach voters in areas Democrats rarely go.

During the 2022 campaign for governor, Shapiro, Jewish and from suburban Philadelphia, traveled deep into rural counties won by Trump. He spoke about patriotism and freedom. He talked about faith and family. He talked about job opportunities for people without a college degree. He talked about his time as Pennsylvania’s attorney general — a seat he won in 2016 by three percentage points even as Trump narrowly edged out Hillary Clinton in the state — and how he went after pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic and the Catholic Church for covering up child sexual abuse. Those themes resonate with voters no matter where they live, Eggleston said.

“I think one of the challenges is getting Democratic candidates to understand that there are votes here and there’s not as much loyalty here on the Republican side as they think. People are starving for interest, investment,” he said. “While Mastriano was focused on the 2020 election and re-litigating that, Shapiro was promoting broadband internet. There are a handful of people who are hyper-passionate about abortion, but there’s a big chunk of people who want to take an online course but don’t have the internet.”

The morning after his inauguration, Shapiro signed an executive order eliminating a requirement that applicants for most state government jobs have a four-year college degree, calling it an “arbitrary requirement.” The move was broadly heralded by Democrats and Republicans, as well as conservative publications National Review and Reason.

He appointed former GOP state representative Mike Vereb, who was the first Pennsylvania legislator to endorse Donald Trump in 2016, as his secretary of legislative affairs, making the Republican his conduit between the governor’s office and the General Assembly.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a liberal from Philadelphia, said he is not worried about Shapiro compromising on Democratic principles or losing support from the party base for working with Republicans.

“It really speaks to what I think Josh does very well. He talks to everybody, and that is an underappreciated skill of actually engaging with people,” Kenyatta said. “A lot of what we need to accomplish, the governor has central to his agenda: better schools, better jobs, safer communities — in my view those are all progressive priorities. If the governor is pursuing a common sense, pro-working-family agenda, he’s going to continue to see a lot of support.”

Later in the afternoon on his first full day as governor, Shapiro visited the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. He walked into the cavernous central command center where 100 or so government employees sat at long tables with computers. At least a dozen state troopers stood together in the back of the room. The room was quiet, the reaction muted as the new governor delivered brief remarks. Then Shapiro walked to the nearest desk and asked the person their name and what their job was. He did it again and again until he had shaken every hand in the room. One employee, Lisa, who declined to give her last name, had sat stone-faced during his remarks, but when he came down her row, she joined others in a group selfie with Shapiro. She joked that she would autograph the picture for him. Shapiro said if she sent it to him, he would frame it in the governor’s office.

Shapiro has been in politics his entire adult life, beginning as a staffer on Capitol Hill, then serving as a state representative in Harrisburg, a commissioner in Montgomery County and attorney general. He had been courted by national Democrats over the years to run for the House or Senate, but he declined every time, choosing instead to chart a path that led him to the governorship and will, his supporters say, position him to run for president one day.

When asked about his White House aspirations, Shapiro said he was flattered but not interested.

“My job is to be singularly focused on helping the good people of Pennsylvania, to serve this term that I asked for and was generously granted by Republicans, Democrats, independents, and to do a really good job,” Shapiro said as the sun began to set on his first day as governor. “And that’s all I’m focused on.”