Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA and Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA
Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro is preparing for his inauguration and making key decisions about his administration surrounded by some of the well-heeled donors who helped make his campaign the richest in Pennsylvania history.
Altogether, the 37 recently announced members of Shapiro’s transition team and the 23 members of his inauguration team personally donated more than $815,000 to his campaign during the uncontested Democratic primary and barely competitive general election.
Members’ companies and affiliated political action committees also donated nearly $750,000 on top of that.
Not the first to give donors key positions
That’s a fraction of the more than $65 million the campaign raised in total, and Shapiro also is not the only governor-to-be who has given donors plum positions ahead of his inauguration.
But Harrisburg observers said there were some clear preferences in Shapiro’s transition team appointments, and not all were happy with what they saw: “a bunch of lobbyists,” as good-government advocate Michael Pollack put it.
Pollack, a rabbi who heads the group March on Harrisburg and often pushes for gift bans and other changes to campaign finance rules, said this kind of transition team “is not unique at all to Shapiro,” but added that he thinks it “showcases the problem of money buying access to politics,” and that it shouldn’t be so normal for key jobs to go to politically connected insiders.
“We want him to turn our system on its head,” Pollack said of Shapiro. “This is not a good start, but this is not overly disappointing, because it’s completely expected.”
Chairing the transition leadership board is Bill Sasso, a longtime GOP power player who also helmed former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s transition team. Jim Schultz, a former counsel for both Corbett and former President Donald Trump, is also on the transition’s personnel team, which Democratic Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis chairs.
The announced team also includes current and former executives from Independence Blue Cross, several major law firms, Comcast, and Giant Eagle.
It has some representation from organized labor, including Ryan Boyer of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council and Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Angela Ferritto. There are also a few members who currently work outside government, law, and the corporate world, including Norman Bristol Colón, a former executive director of the state Department of Community and Economic Development who now chairs the Pennsylvania Latino Convention.
The campaign says it plans to make additional transition team announcements this week, including “advisory committees of policy and professional experts, community advocates, and business, industry, and labor leaders,” according to a news release.
The inaugural team is more varied and includes high school and college students who headed pro-Shapiro groups, a small business owner, and a founder of QBurgh, an LGBTQ news and community group in Pittsburgh.
Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based lobbyist and political consultant, said he thinks Shapiro’s transition team is novel compared to earlier efforts. Previous governors have built a dozen siloed committees to focus on one particular department or policy area; sometimes the chair of the team ended up as a cabinet secretary.
Shapiro’s transition, however, has so far announced a leadership committee and a personnel committee to “recruit, review, and recommend top talent” who “will be ready on day one to deliver results for Pennsylvanians,” according to a news release.
As such, it’s unclear exactly how influential these individual committee members may be in a given area, Rashed added.
“The people on it, we don’t know what they will be asked to do,” he said.
Notable big givers on the transition and inaugural teams include billionaire Thomas Hagen, a former state commerce secretary who now chairs the board of the Erie Indemnity Company and donated $500,000; former Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer, who gave $50,000; and Darren Check, a partner at law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check, who gave nearly $70,000.
Transition and inaugural teams are generally sprawling and made up of local leaders and other public officials, prominent attorneys, and the heads of notable companies from various sectors and regions of the state.
What the inaugural team does
The inaugural team helps plan events around the new governor’s swearing-in, while the transition group advises the new governor on hiring administrative personnel, reviews the current administration’s operations, and flags problems and priorities ahead of the inauguration. They’ll do this work until Shapiro is sworn in on Jan. 17, though some leaders in past administration transition teams have gone on to serve as top cabinet officials.
Members aren’t chosen for just their governing acumen. Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive, said that many of the appointments in transitions past have been “window dressing.”
There’s a lot of “inclusion and thank yous in a transition,” he said. “But most people know that the real work and the real heavy lift is done by a select few who are really going to govern.”
But Ceisler added that this team seems notable for the number of people who expect to do consequential work. His impression from conversations with transition team members is that Shapiro and his staff largely sought out the people they wanted, rather than appointing only those who lobbied for positions or donated. The team members “expect their work and contributions to be taken seriously,” he said.
It’s something of a tradition for those “thank yous” to go to some donors. Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, for instance, tapped as transition leaders a multimillionaire donor, as well as two people affiliated with big Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, which had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rendell’s campaign.
His successor, Corbett, drew criticism for appointing a transition team consisting of people who had personally donated, or whose companies, co-workers, and connected political action committees had contributed, a total of $4.6 million — 19% of the campaign’s total spending — to Corbett’s campaign.
Outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf made an effort at the start of his administration to project different priorities. He imposed ethics rules on the team that included a requirement that members disclose conflicts of interest and banned them from accepting gifts. He also kicked off his administration with an early pledge to stop giving private law firms no-bid contracts to do state business.
In an emailed statement, Shapiro transition spokesperson Manuel Bonder said the governor-elect “believes that trust in government and accountability for public officials are critical to the foundation of our democracy.” Bonder noted that Shapiro instituted a gift ban as attorney general, and said that as governor, “Shapiro would sign legislation to implement a comprehensive gift ban for Pennsylvania public officials and public employees.”
The transition team’s inclusion of Republican power players and former corporate executives at the expense of more faces from organized labor, public education, and environmental advocacy worried left-leaning observers.
Those who raised concerns — most of whom asked to speak anonymously for fear of upsetting Shapiro — added that the team is temporary and reflects Shapiro’s moderate and consensus-focused campaign. What really matters, they said, is who becomes Shapiro’s cabinet secretaries and top staff for the next four years.
“Yes, we have concerns about some of the folks on the list,” said Katie Blume, legislative and political director of the environmental group Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, “but we appreciate [Shapiro’s] promise to bring everyone to the table and look forward to how this all plays out.”
One political observer joked that critics may be keeping concerns to themselves because Shapiro would “make Jeff Yass education secretary if teachers unions try to embarrass him.” Yass, a billionaire who primarily advocates for policies that would put more students and state money in private schools, frequently funds like-minded politicians.
Charlie Gerow, a longtime GOP operative who also ran for governor as a Republican, noted that it’s common for governors to put people from the opposing party on their transition teams as a show of unity.
“I don’t remember a team that didn’t,” he said.
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