It’s become increasingly common for elected officials to live in permanent campaign mode and use new technologies to promote themselves. Gov. Josh Shapiro has elevated this to new levels.
Ironically, an old-fashioned phone book helps tell the story.
Every year, our state government publishes the Commonwealth Telephone Directory, an actual print (and, yes, online) “phone book” (remember those?) of employees in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Beyond giving names and numbers, the directory provides a peek into priorities of various offices and agencies.
For example, last year, Wolf had a “Communications and Press” department, with a staff of 13. This included five staff members dedicated to digital media. Shapiro, meanwhile, has made “Digital Strategy” its own department with a staff of seven. This is in addition to his eight-member Communications and Press department.
The taxpayer-funded digital team clearly hard at work. We’ve seen Shapiro as Barbie’s Ken Doll on Twitter, Shapiro’s staff applying makeup on Tik Tok, and Shapiro ceremonially signing (and re-signing) bills he’s already signed into law. After all, why get one photo when you can get three?
Of course, not every post is reminiscent of a teenage slumber party. Most simply tout Shapiro’s accomplishments—real or imagined. For example, Shapiro is currently taking a “victory lap” on the state budget, even though that budget remains incomplete. And it seems not a day goes by that Shapiro’s team isn’t patting him on the back for I-95.
Beyond the new Digital Strategy department, Gov. Shapiro also has a three-member Public Affairs and Marketing department—which was absent from Gov. Wolf’s office, according to last year’s directory.
We reached out to Shapiro’s office to ask the mission of this department, the reason for its creation, and how it differs from the press and digital offices.
In response, Shapiro’s press office said the following: “The Office of Public Affairs and Marketing was created under the Shapiro Administration to serve as a conduit for connecting everyday Pennsylvanians, local and federal government, business leaders, advocacy and nonprofit organizations, and others to state government to listen, address needs, and inform and connect people with the government services. The Office oversees several facets of state government to ensure streamlined and coordinated external communication to Pennsylvania’s vast population, including one on one direct-to-constituent services, local and regional engagement with communities across Pennsylvania, and statewide marketing to increase awareness of Commonwealth services and benefits available to Pennsylvanians.”
Shapiros’ office did not address how this new office differs in activity from the press and digital offices.
It’s no surprise that most politicians care at least a bit about how they’re perceived—whether they admit it or not. But Shapiro’s focus on his image goes beyond the typical.
Indeed, in 2019 we learned then-Attorney General Shapiro was using his taxpayer funded digital communications director to turn his Wikipedia page “into an exaltation so sugary that a reader complained it was ‘fawning so much it’s creepy.’”
A 2021 Philadelphia magazine profile of Shapiro observed, “The deal Shapiro offers to voters has always been this: I’m working for you, and I’ll get things done — as long as they benefit me as well, on my timeline, in a way that makes me look good.”
As for any progress Shapiro makes, it’s “done with an eye to his image and future success.” And one Philadelphia political operative described Shapiro as “nakedly focused on his own political advancement.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually getting things done, Gov. Shapiro’s record doesn’t quite live up to his TikTok and Twitter images.
His first state budget season turned into a state budget stalemate after he reneged on his promise to support school choice scholarships for children in low-performing schools. A month later, Shapiro claimed victory when he signed the state budget—and vetoed the scholarships. But the reality is the budget isn’t done, as Shapiro’s betrayal put the implementation in limbo.
What’s more, according to an analysis from the Commonwealth Foundation, Shapiro’s first six months as governor “were the least productive [legislatively] of any gubernatorial term in at least 50 years.”
Comparing general legislation as well as budget legislation enacted by the end of July for first-term governors, the analysis found “only fifteen bills reached Shapiro’s desk. This contrasts with an average of 86 bills enacted in the same time frame in the previous twelve terms.”
For a governor who claims to “get stuff done,” it appears little has actually gotten done.
Generally, fewer new laws is a positive. But when the inaction involves the core responsibility of a state budget, Pennsylvanians suffer. Additionally, Shapiro has been unable to deliver on his campaign pledges of cutting taxes on business and families, reducing regulatory red tape, ending permitting delays, or expanding educational choice for kids. It’s clear, at least so far, that those were just campaign slogans to get elected, rather than promises to “get stuff done.”
Unfortunately, Shapiro seems more focused on his image—whether for re-election, running for higher officer, or other reasons—than delivering on the policy changes that would actually make Pennsylvania more competitive and prosperous.
Pennsylvania families, businesses, and students—and even Shapiro himself—would be better served if the governor were less focused on optics and more focused on results.
Update: This article has been updated as the response from Shapiro’s office was received after the article’s original publication date.
Gina Pope is the Public Affairs Director at Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, an independent, non-partisan, 501(c)(6) membership organization dedicated to improving the economic environment and educational opportunities in Pennsylvania. www.thecommonwealthpartners.com