Capital-Star Q+A: Josh Shapiro on the death penalty, climate and Harrisburg

Josh Shapiro, 48, is Pennsylvania’s two-term attorney general, and a former county commissioner and state representative from Montgomery County.

First elected to the state House in 2004 in a then-reliably red suburban Philadelphia district, he slowly rose to the top of Pennsylvania Democratic politics. In fact, he doesn’t even face a primary opponent for the open governor’s mansion.

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The Capital-Star sat down with Shapiro earlier this year to talk about his record as attorney general, some key campaign issues, and his strategy to tackle Harrisburg’s growing dysfunction.

Capital-Star: Just to start off, and I’ve asked everyone this to start, why are you running for governor?

Josh Shapiro: Look, I’m running for governor to stand up for everyday Pennsylvanians; To do what I’ve done throughout my career of taking on big fights and getting real results. And it’s what I’ve always done.

In Harrisburg,  as a state [representative], I lead the way on reform. As the first Democratic county commission chairman since the Civil War in Montgomery County, I led the fiscal turnaround. And as [attorney general] I’ve taken on powerful interests and delivered Pennsylvanians. 

I think now more than ever Pennsylvanians deserve leaders. We’re going to focus on our core challenges — educating our kids, making our community safer, creating an economy that works for all. And finally making sure folks just don’t get screwed — screwed by powerful corporations, which puts profits before people and, frankly, screwed by a government that’s not working for them but working against them. 

And I’ll always have Pennsylvanians’ backs and be a governor they can count on.

C-S: One issue I really want to start on is as attorney general, you are the top law enforcement officer. The New Castle News reported last year that you said you would sign legislation abolishing the death penalty. In 2016, you said you support it for the most heinous crimes; as recently as 2019, I believe your office was defending it during a lawsuit brought by [Philadelphia District Attorney] Larry Krasner where he sought to have the death penalty ruled unconstitutional. Can you tell me, how did you get to this new position where you’re saying you would sign legislation banning it?

JS: Stephen, I’m happy to answer your question. Let me just respectfully correct one part of your question.

C-S: Sure.

JS: That brief that we filed was not in opposition to the abolishment death penalty. It was just stating that it was the job of the Legislature and the governor to make that legal decision, not an individual prosecutor.

But your question is a fair one. So I did. When I ran for [attorney general] in 2016, I said that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes. And then I got elected attorney general and I saw these cases come across my desk. I got closer to a system that I thought was in need of reform. And as attorney general I never once sought the death penalty. As governor, I’d be in a policymaking role, together with the Legislature … and I thought it was important when asked to state my position unequivocally that I would sign legislation to abolish the death penalty. 

I believe that the system is broken and in need of real repair and reform. For too long, It has targeted communities of color in an unfair way. And, in effect, we do not have the death penalty in Pennsylvania right now anyway. So I think it’s important that we engage with the Legislature around how to do meaningful reform when it comes to sentencing. 

C-S: And just to be clear, you would keep in place Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium that he imposed when he was elected?

[Editor’s note: Within his first month in office, Wolf imposed a moratorium on the scheduling of new executions. But even before that, due to court appeals and stays, the commonwealth last executed someone in 1999, and has only executed three people since restoring the death penalty in 1978. There are 129 people currently on death row in Pennsylvania, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.]

JS: I want to look at the legality of how Governor Wolf has it structured. But certainly, I have a long track record of not pursuing the death penalty. And I think that approach would continue as governor.

C-S: Does that mean though, that there are situations in which you could come into office and sign a death warrant for someone that’s on death row right now?

JS: No.

C-S: Okay. A 2020 Capital-Star analysis found that you voted no more than any other member of the State Board of Pardons, which grants people reprieve for prison sentences. The board’s vote, they’re one step heading to the governor. And if you were to be governor, you have final approval on that. And I want to know, how are you going to review cases for leniency from prison sentences as governor? And can people expect that you’re going to be that same person who is voting no more times than then you voted yes?

JS: Well, Stephen I think it’s important that you do the 2021 and 2022 Capital-Star analysis as well. 

You all look at a brief snapshot in time. If you look at my overall record. I have voted for more commutations than every single one of my predecessors combined. We voted for a record number of pardons. And I believe if you go and look at my record in 21, and 22 I voted yes, more times than several others on the board.

So I would urge you to frame your question differently and look at the totality of my votes over my entire five-and-a-half years as attorney general and it would suggest a different premise than the one you asked.

C-S: How are you going to look at pardons though as governor, because you’re gonna have the final say on them at that point if you were elected.

JS: I’m going to look at it the way I look at it now as attorney general which is to try as much as I can to give people second chances; to try and do that by balancing public safety to examine the record and determine whether or not there was something unjust that occurred in the legal process and to consider the voice of victims.

I’ve been very transparent on the ways in which I look at these cases, and that will continue as governor. Part of the reason why I endorsed and I selected [Allegheny County state Rep.] Austin Davis as my running mate is because I think he will have an aggressive approach to increasing the numbers of people who receive pardons and commutations in Pennsylvania. That is something that he and I spend a great deal of time talking about, in my review process, it’s something that is important to me, and I want to see that continue.

C-S: Now on [the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program that would have state power plant owners purchase credits for every ton of carbon they release into the atmosphere]. I want to start simple because it feels like there’s been some mixed messages: Do you support or do you oppose RGGI?

JS: I’ve been very, very clear and there has not been a mixed message. I really don’t appreciate the framing of some of your questions.

Let me be very clear. Energy policy for me must pass the test of protecting jobs, lowering consumer prices, and addressing climate change. It is not clear to me that RGGI meets that test at this time. That’s a determination that I will make as governor. I’ve also been very outspoken in what we will do, which is to improve our clean energy standards and get to net zero emissions by 2050; increase our renewable energy portfolio standards from 8% today to 30% by 2030; pass the fracking standards that were contained in the grand jury report that I issued; cap abandoned wells and mines which contributes to about 12% of our state greenhouse gas emissions each year. We’ve got a lot of work to do on weatherization, on lead abatement, particularly in our schools. I’m going to have a capital fund focus just on making sure our schools are healthy.

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And so there’s a lot we need to do on energy. I view energy as a real opportunity for us in Pennsylvania to create a lot of jobs and to create a lot of clean energy jobs that are going to help make our Commonwealth far more competitive than we are today.

C-S: You have been endorsed by trade unions, they’ve opposed RGGI. They have concerns about it. Coal has been going away for a long time. RGGI is definitely not ending coal any quicker than gas was. But on just transition, on trying to make sure that people who are very concerned that transitioning out of fossil fuels will leave them behind.  What do you think can make sure that those people have a future; that they are working in green energy jobs that are just as well paid and just as secure as the current jobs they have now?

JS: I really don’t understand what you’re asking.

C-S: There’s a lot of reporting out there that green energy jobs don’t make as much money; they’re non-union. There’s a lot of concern that that sector of the economy doesn’t offer the protections that the current fossil fuel economy has. Is there anything that any action you want to take that will make sure that—

JS: I’m sorry, I misunderstood your question. I mean, you’re just repeating the false choice that continues to be perpetuated, that somehow, this has to be a choice between protecting jobs and addressing climate change. I think we can do both. And while we do it, I think we need to focus on lowering consumer prices as well. 

Obviously, it remains to be seen that RGGI can do that, but I think we need to bring everybody to the table and work together to accomplish these goals. I put forth a very concrete plan on how we can take advantage of our unique position in Pennsylvania to promote renewables. And I think we also as we do this important work around energy we have got to make sure that we protect jobs and lower costs for Pennsylvania.

C-S: I want to take a look at voting. That’s something I’ve talked about with every candidate I’ve interviewed, it’s one of the most important issues that I think gubernatorial candidates are going to have to talk about and address. You told The Philadelphia Inquirer that you’re “willing to sit down with folks who are operating in good faith to discuss voter ID,” but you won’t support any “restrictive measures that disenfranchise people.” What does a good faith effort on voter ID look like for you?

JS: One that is focused on expanding voting rights not restricting voting rights. I have battled back in over 40 lawsuits against the former president [Donald Trump], his enablers, and some people here in Pennsylvania, who have tried to restrict voting rights to try to make it harder for people to vote, particularly Black and brown Pennsylvanians.

And as you all know, every time I went to court, or every time we went to court, we won. So from my perspective, we need to — God willing as the next governor — protect the progress we’ve made, protect the statute that allows for vote by mail. And then, look at ways to reform the system to expand access like automatic voter registration, same day voter registration, early voter registration for 16- and 17-year-old[s] — obviously, they can’t vote till they’re 18 but you know, pre-registered so they’re ready to go on their 18th birthday.

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I’ve also said that I’m going to appoint a pro-democracy secretary of state. That’ll be our first cabinet appointment announcement. And I’m willing to work with the Legislature, if they’re focused on the same things I am, which is protecting people’s access to the ballot box and making sure we look at ways to expand. And in doing so, if they want to have a conversation about voter ID. I’m happy to have that conversation.

We already have forms of voter ID in Pennsylvania when you register, when you go to vote at a polling place for the first time. And so the comment I made is that, again, if you’re interested in talking to me in good faith with a common set of facts, not conspiracy theories, and you’re focused on expanding voting rights to legal voters, then I’m open to that conversation.

C-S: Well, and that leads into a lot of things I’ve been thinking about asking about. You know, last year, 20 percent of the laws enacted named bridges; That was with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and Republican-controlled General Assembly. Top issues — election reform, property tax reform, LGBTQ non-discrimination — they’re just kind of simmering. Nothing’s really been done. And most of what’s done is naming bridges. How do you think you could be different and actually make this system work better. And your election — assuming Republicans keep the General Assembly, which seems pretty likely — won’t just lead to four years of a partisan, intractable General Assembly and you as a Democratic governor vetoing things?

JS: Stephen, I have a long track record of bringing Republicans and Democrats together to get things done, to find common ground. I’ve made very clear I’m going to Harrisburg as the next governor to get big things done and find common ground. I won’t hesitate to use my veto pen to protect voting rights and reproductive rights for example, but there are a lot of areas where we can come together and get meaningful work done, and I intend to use my know how from being in Harrisburg and working in that building and the political strength that we have to create. coalitions of Republicans and Democrats to find common ground and get meaningful things done.

C-S: I just have to ask — is that possible? You mentioned conspiracy theories-

JS: Of course it is, Stephen.

C-S: What makes you think that?

JS: There may be some in the building more cynical, I am still someone who is optimistic that there are opportunities for collaboration. 

Let me give you an example. I’ve talked a lot subsequently about how to reform education. One thing I’d like to do is see less reliance on standardized testing, for example, and a whole lot more of putting vocational, technical and computer training in our classrooms so that students are prepared whether they want to go to college or they want to go into the workforce. 

That’s an example that has broad support amongst Republicans and Democrats. I’ll get that bill passed. We will find ways to come together with lawmakers to get common sense reform done to grow our economy, to make sure we have safe communities, to make sure that our schools are actually teaching children to prepare them for the future. Those are areas that we’re going to be able to agree on. 

I’ve got a long track record of bringing together Republicans and Democrats and tough adversaries together to make progress. Just go ask the CEOs of Highmark and UPMC. They wouldn’t talk. After 10 years I got them together in a room and we were able to bring people together and now 1.9 million western Pennsylvanians have access to healthcare. 

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Go ask law enforcement leaders and the Legislative Black Caucus. I brought them together and today we have a police database that tracks all misconduct of police officers in the Commonwealth. And the list goes on and on and on. I know how to bring people together and get things done. 

That’s what Pennsylvania needs right now — a governor who’s not going to try and cynically divide us, which is what my 14 opponents do each day, but rather a governor that’s focused on common sense solutions to pressing problems and the ability to build coalitions to get things done.



Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Stephen Caruso

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