(JTA) — As Pennsylvania counts its votes with the nation watching anxiously, the person in charge of making sure the ballots are tallied is an official once described as someone out of a “bar mitzvah photo.”
Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Democratic and Jewish attorney general, is the man charged with ensuring the legality of the state’s electoral processes this year. With the election outcome still uncertain, Shapiro, 47, has aimed to present an image of competence and calm as the public face of the state’s ballot counting.
Pennsylvania has become a key swing state in this election after going narrowly to Donald Trump in 2016. The way the electoral vote count stood on Thursday, the state and its 20 electoral votes were a must-win for Trump and would seal Joe Biden’s victory.
As the count has progressed, Trump has called for the tabulation to stop and threatened legal action to prevent cast ballots from being counted. Protests have erupted in Pennsylvania and nationwide around the vote counting, which is also still occurring in a handful of other battleground states.
Amid it all, Shapiro has made the rounds of news shows, defending the necessity of counting votes and urging patience. At the same time, he’s watching the results of his own tight (and as of yet inconclusive) reelection race trickle in.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency profiled Shapiro in 2018. Here are a few things to know about the very Jewish attorney general whose state could decide the election.
He grew up going to the same Jewish day school where he sends his kids
Shapiro grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where he attended a community Jewish day school now called the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. He married his high school sweetheart, and they have sent their kids to the same school.
Growing up, Shapiro gained national attention for his activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry and displayed an active interest in national politics. Shapiro also played basketball for the school, then known as Akiba. His former history teacher told JTA that Shapiro “was an excellent basketball player — by Akiba standards.” (He was later cut by his Division III college team at the University of Rochester.)
Acquaintances say Shapiro has remained an engaged parent alongside his official duties. A few days before he won his close 2016 race for state attorney general, he spoke to students at a Jewish elementary school about politics and supervised a mock election between rockets and kazoos.
Barrack was also the site of the only electoral setback of Shapiro’s career — when he lost a race for school president. (The winner was Ami Eden, CEO of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company.)
He hasn’t shied away from projecting his Jewish identity in politics
Shapiro has remained Jewishly engaged as a politician. In 2008, he told the Philadelphia Jewish Voice that “when you boil down all the teachings and all the rituals, fundamentally, Judaism is teaching that none of us is required to complete the task, but neither is any of us free to refrain from it.” Shapiro was paraphrasing a famous rabbinic adage.
On his personal Twitter account, the pinned tweet at the top of the feed is from the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and features a photo of him speaking at a synagogue.
“Leaders must speak and act with moral clarity,” it says. “Words matter. Hate speech begets hate crimes.”
After a narrow 2016 win, his reelection race this year has been tight
Poll workers in Pennsylvania are counting votes in Shapiro’s own race as well. As was the case with Biden, the vote count reported on Tuesday night favored Shapiro’s opponent, Heather Heidelbaugh. But as more votes have been counted, it now appears Shapiro is on track to win the close contest.
After working on Capitol Hill after college, Shapiro was elected in 2004 as a Pennsylvania state representative. He flipped his seat from red to blue by campaigning, as he does now, with a clean-cut image and promises to fight corruption and work pragmatically.
In the state House of Representatives, Shapiro engineered a coup of sorts by recruiting a moderate Republican to be the speaker of the body, which had a slim but fractious Democratic majority. Shapiro became deputy speaker. He was then elected commissioner of Montgomery County, in suburban Philadelphia.
He won his race for attorney general in 2016 even as the state voted for Trump.
He gained national attention for a report on child abuse in the Catholic Church
In 2018, Shapiro made national news for publishing a 900-page report detailing the results of an 18-month investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania. The report accused 300 priests by name of misconduct and detailed what it called a “systematic cover-up” of the abuse by senior church officials and the Vatican. It included testimony by more than 1,000 victims.
The report sparked calls for reform in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and more broadly.
“The notion this is just something that happened a long time ago, and that we need to move on, is exactly the wrong response,” he told The New York Times at the time. “Child rape is child rape, whether it happened in 1970 or it happens in 2018. There is no excuse for allowing it. And there is no excuse for covering it up.”
He’s projecting his usual image of transparency and calm as tensions mount in his state
Shapiro is again in the national spotlight this week. He has been a fixture on cable news shows, explaining that the winner of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes will be determined only when all the votes are counted.
He is also projecting a face of calm when asked about the Trump campaign’s various lawsuits aimed at the state’s vote counting process — and a Trump Justice Department directive allowing armed agents at vote counting sites, possibly aimed at intimidating workers.
“It’s yet another one of the issues we planned for,” Shapiro told MSNBC Wednesday regarding the directive. “Nothing is going to stop the counting of these legal ballots here in Pennsylvania.”
He’s also cautioning that the vote will take more time than in previous years.
“The most important thing from my perspective right now is that we get an accurate count, that we count all the ballots — that’s required by law — and that the will of the people is respected,” he said in a CNN appearance on Wednesday. “Here’s the reality: It’s going to take as long as it takes to get an accurate count.”