Building a ticket that matches Pennsylvania’s diversity could pose challenge for Democrats in 2022

Democratic hopeful Shapiro doesn’t look like the majority of Pennsylvanians — 51 percent of the state’s population are women. About 20 percent of the state is not white, a share that’s grown in the last decade

By: - October 19, 2021 7:16 am

(l-r): State Rep. Brian Sims, state Rep. Austin Davis, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh and Rep. Patty Kim

Editor’s note: This stoty was updated at 8:46 a.m. to reflect that Shapiro would be Pennsylvania’s third Jewish governor.

At a windswept campaign stop at a union hall outside Harrisburg last weekend, newly official gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro pulled a judicial candidate in close to make an endorsement

As a smart phone-wielding aide recorded him and Dauphin County Common Pleas candidate La Tasha Williams, Shapiro implored voters to back her. 

Electing Williams, who is Black, would make the county’s bench look more like the community, Shapiro said before the aide stopped recording.

Shapiro doesn’t look like the majority of Pennsylvanians — 51 percent of the state’s population are women. About 20 percent of the state is not white, a share that’s grown in the last decade.

Still, the second-term attorney general appears poised not to face a primary challenge among his fellow Democrats — the self-styled party of equity and inclusion —  as he seeks to become the commonwealth’s next chief executive.  Current Gov. Tom Wolf is term limited, and cannot seek reelection.

The Democratic establishment is behind Josh Shapiro for governor. Will Pa. follow?

While most Democrats interviewed by the Capital-Star are happy with Shapiro as their best chance to keep a voice in state government, many have also said they are disappointed that the Democrats competing for statewide office in 2022, both governor and U.S. Senator, don’t reflect the diverse reality of who Pennsylvanians are.

“I’ve had a really hard time to wrap my head around that, but we are way late to that game,” progressive state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, told the Capital-Star last week. “We need to talk about succession planning, we need to do a better job of our ballots reflecting our values.”

It’s not a knock on Shapiro, added Christine Jacobs of Represent PA, a political group that tries to elect Democratic women to statewide office, but she is “dismayed but not surprised” in the lack of women candidates in particular.

Pennsylvania has elected women to the statewide bench, and to the state’s row offices. But a woman has never been elected to be the state’s U.S. Senator or governor.

And with the power of incumbency, “if we don’t do it now, we’re at least a decade away from being able to get one,” Jacobs said. “So it’s disappointing.”

To be sure, the entire candidate pool isn’t straight white men. State Rep. Macolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, who is Black and openly gay, and Val Arkoosh, a doctor and Montgomery County commissioner, and both running for U.S. Senate.

“I believe that our democracy works best when all voices are represented at the policy-making table,” Arkoosh told the Capital-Star last week. 

Val Arkoosh is vying for Pa.’s open U.S. Senate seat. And she’s prioritizing women in the workforce

Jacobs said she supports Arkoosh’s run. Emily’s List, a group that backs pro-abortion women for office, has already thrown its support behind her. 

But Arkoosh and Kenyatta are not alone in the crowded Senate primary which also includes U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who arguably boast larger profiles and fundraising capabilities.

Instead, Jacobs and other Democrats are eying the lieutenant governor’s office as a way to give the Democratic ticket some geographical, gender and ethnic balance. 

Voters select the lieutenant governor in a separate primary from the governor, though the two run together as a party ticket in the general election.

The lieutenant governor’s office has few formal powers. Besides taking over in case the governor dies, resigns, or is otherwise incapacitated, they preside over the state Senate, and can cast the tie-breaking vote in procedural matters. 

The lieutenant governor also sits on the Board of Pardons, which grants leniency to people in prison.

Otherwise, the position mostly functions to meet the ambitions of the office holder. 

Wolf’s current LG, Fetterman, has used it to stage a statewide listening tour on marijuana legalization.; Former Wolf LG Mike Stack and his wife, meanwhile, were accused of abusing their state police detail, and ran up a $37,000 grocery tab on the taxpayers’ dime. 

Wolf and Stack’s relationship then soured, opening the door for his primary loss to Fetterman in 2018.

The dual primary, which ends as a shotgun marriage of a statewide ticket, was on Shapiro’s  mind Saturday when he was asked about what he’s looking for in a running mate.

“I think it’s really important to have a governing partner,” Shapiro said Saturday. 

But bringing in a lieutenant governor who might not see themselves in a white Jewish man from suburban Philadelphia also was on the checklist.

“It’s really important to have people in my administration who are going to bring different life experiences; who are going to challenge me; who are going to look different than me,” Shapiro added.

He declined to make an endorsement yet for his lieutenant, and added he’d have “more to say about this in the future.”

If elected, Shapiro would be Pennsylvania’s third Jewish governor. Milton Shapp, a Democrat who served from 1971 to 1979, was the first.

So far, there are only two announced candidates in the undercard for governor: Philadelphia state Rep. Brian Sims, the first openly gay person elected to the General Assembly, and Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin.

Sims already boasts a national name and vast social media presence from his at-times profane attacks on Republicans. 

Philly Rep. Brian Sims says he’ll seek Dem nod for Lt. Gov in 2022

He announced his run in February, raised a sizable war chest in his first six weeks in the race, and has been barnstorming the state since to build support for his campaign.

In an emailed statement, Sims said he would be the first openly LGBTQ lieutenant governor in the country, which he argued would be a big statement for a state that’s civil rights laws do not protect individuals from discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I think what my election to Lt. Governor would do is tell queer and trans kids across Pennsylvania, who live in a state where they are legally second class citizens, that they matter, their futures matter, and they have an advocate in office — and I think that’s a pretty important message for the Democratic Party to send to all Pennsylvanians,” Sims said.

But other state House colleagues are contemplating runs who could offer a different way to balance the ticket.

Among the others contemplating runs are Allegheny County state Rep. Austin Davis, who is Black, and Harrisburg state Rep. Patty Kim, an Asian-American woman.

Kim is a former TV reporter and onetime member of Harrisburg City Council. She told the Capital-Star that Democrats needed a diverse statewide ticket, but added she’d make a final decision after the Nov. 2 election on a run. 

Davis, who chairs the Allegheny County House delegation, said he has a proven record of managing the Democratic party’s internal fights, which would make him an ideal governing partner to push a Shapiro agenda.

While his mind isn’t made up on a run yet, Davis pointed to Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and Maryland, where a Black candidate ran alongside or was appointed to work with a white candidate at the top of the ticket . 

Regardless of the eventual nominee, Davis said, Pennsylvania “can no longer have tickets of two white men.”

For her part, Jacobs was still hoping for a female running mate for Shapiro. 

“It would look good,” Jacobs told the Capital-Star, “but that’s window dressing.”

Staff reporter Marley Parish contributed to this story.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.