It’s a Saturday morning, about two weeks out from Election Day. And Josh Shapiro is in the hot seat.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee has found himself ushered into James Browne’s chair at Philly Cuts, a barbershop on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. If he wants to beat his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano on Election Day on Nov. 8, he’s told, he’d better sit down.
“This is the key to victory,” the shop’s owner, Darryl Thomas tells Shapiro, pointing to the empty chair where Browne, clippers in hand, waits, as the crowd that’s packed this more than two-decade-old community gathering place laughs and cheers. “He says, ‘Darryl, you can get out there and politick and you can do everything. But if they don’t sit in my damn chair, they ain’t winning.’”
This West Philadelphia neighborhood has seen some of the worst of the gun violence that’s wracked Pennsylvania’s largest city this year. And they want answers.
John McLeod, who runs a program aimed at helping city kids, tells Shapiro he needs help cutting “through the red tape” so that he can reach the kids “before trouble finds them.”
Shapiro tells him that “schools have to be opportunity zones for our kids,” and says he wants to encourage vocational and technical education, as well as teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship, to provide students with opportunities.
He says he also wants to put “parents on the state Board of Education, do away with some of the standardized tests, and prepare kids for the future that they want.”
The questions, mostly focused on crime and public safety, keep coming. Browne keeps clipping.
Shapiro, a 49-year-old, two-term attorney general, had the field cleared for him in the May Democratic primary.
Now, the former Montgomery County commissioner and onetime Democratic state House lawmaker is running in a nationally watched contest against Mastriano. He’s a onetime U.S. Army colonel and election-denier who was at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, was later subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the violence, and was once photographed, smiling, in Confederate grays.
Mastriano, who has cloaked himself in Christian nationalism, has threatened to make every voter in the state re-register to vote and decertify voting machines. More importantly, if elected, he gets to appoint his own secretary of state, giving him broad latitude to control elections.
The stakes were raised even higher in June when the U.S. Supreme Court toppled Roe v. Wade, sending control over abortion back to the states. Some states have moved to swiftly ban the procedure. It remains legal in Pennsylvania.
Mastriano, an abortion foe who opposes any exceptions, has vowed to sign a six-week ban into law if one is sent to him by the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly. And in 2019, he said that women who violated his proposed six-week ban should be charged with murder.
If elected, Shapiro will succeed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a onetime Planned Parenthood volunteer who has vetoed a succession of Republican-authored efforts to restrict access to abortion.
But Wolf will leave office in January after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms. And Shapiro has vowed to be a similar bulwark against such legislation.
A few hours later, Shapiro is the headlining speaker at an abortion-rights rally his campaign has put together on the steps of Philadelphia City Hall. Democrats have mobilized their base, and won new supporters — especially in states where it has been banned, as Kaiser Health News reported earlier this month.
Unsurprisingly, the anger, the fear, and the energy of the crowd, mostly young medical students, is physically palpable.
Because of the U.S. Supreme Court, “rights have been stripped away,” and abortion clinics in Pittsburgh have seen an explosion in demand for their services, overwhelmingly from people who live in states where access to care has been restricted, Shapiro says.
“Every state has a choice to make about whether they value freedom and trust women to make choices about their own bodies,” he adds.
Afterwards, Shapiro poses for selfies, shakes hands and talks with the doctors and the aspiring ones. As he does, the enormity of the faith and trust being placed in him once again becomes clear.
For these young physicians and their mentors — nearly all of them women — Shapiro literally could be the last line of defense when it comes to protecting both their profession and access to abortion for thousands of people.
When he’s asked about that binary choice and its implications, Shapiro pauses a moment before he responds. The answer falls somewhere in that broad space between the authentic and the soundbite.
“I feel the weightiness of the moment on this issue, [and] on many other issues related to our freedoms and our rights,” he says. “It’s not lost on me. But it doesn’t weigh me down either.
“If anything,” he continues. “It gives me more motivation, not just to defeat Doug Mastriano, but to be able to deliver for them — and for people all across Pennsylvania — whether it’s on the issue of reproductive freedom, public safety, education, growing the economy, whatever the case may be, so I feel it.”
Pennsylvania voters will make the final call on whether Shapiro is worthy of the moment on Election Day, Nov. 8.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek