Family Reunion in Pennsylvania

Posted May 18, 2004 at 6:51pm

When Josh Shapiro became the top aide to Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) in 1999, he expected the job would eventually open some doors for him.

Little did he know that five years later he’d be knocking on those doors while campaigning in suburban Philadelphia alongside his onetime boss.

Shapiro, who toiled as Hoeffel’s chief of staff until last year, is now running for the state House seat the Congressman once held.

But the irony in the high-profile battle for the 153rd district doesn’t end there.

The seat is begin vacated by state Rep. Ellen Bard (R), who had attempted to succeed Hoeffel in Congress. Hoeffel is leaving the seat to run for Senate, but Bard lost the GOP primary in April.

Even more ironic is the fact that in November, Shapiro faces the man his former boss ousted from Congress in 1998 — former Rep. Jon Fox (R), who also once held the Montgomery County-based state House seat.

“I’ve always been interested in running,” Shapiro recalled Tuesday. “I loved working for Joe and the other Members. … But I always wanted to serve myself and to be the one offering the ideas and so it’s a thrill to have the chance to do that now.”

Shapiro’s Hill experience also includes stints as senior legislative assistant for Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), senior foreign policy adviser to then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and legislative aide to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Shapiro is now an attorney with the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersoll LLP.

Shapiro, a native of Upper Dublin Township in Montgomery County, considered tossing his hat into the race to succeed Hoeffel in the 13th district. But he ultimately decided the legislative race was the right fit for him now.

Hoeffel is serving as honorary chairman of Shapiro’s campaign but more important, Shapiro said, is the great advice he gets from his former boss.

“I love to talk to him,” Shapiro said. “I’m proud of my affiliation with him and talk about it a lot out on the campaign trail.”

Hoeffel said he wasn’t necessarily aware of Shapiro’s political ambitions, but he heaped effusive praise on his former aide’s work nonetheless.

“Josh has a real flare for government and politics and he’s ambitious, which I think is a good thing,” Hoeffel said.

“I guess I didn’t expect him to be running for office right away,” he added. “But his timing’s perfect. He’s got a great opportunity.”

At age 30, Shapiro is emphasizing his youthful energy and new ideas on the campaign trail.

“Everybody is excited about the fact that there’s some new blood and fresh ideas and a new perspective out there,” Shapiro said.

Hoeffel has obviously picked up on the fresh face theme, even as Shapiro jokingly denied that he’d been given any talking points.

Fox, 57, served in the state House from 1984 to 1990. He was elected to the Congress in 1994 and served until being beaten by Hoeffel in 1998.

“Jon’s a very nice man, there’s no question about it,” Hoeffel said Tuesday. “I think the advantage that Josh has is that he represents the future. I think his main appeal to people will be that he represents a new approach and a new way of doing things.”

Hoeffel knows a thing or two about youthful appeal in politics — aside from the fact that he’s facing 74-year-old incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (R) this fall.

Hoeffel was first elected to the state House in 1976, at age 26. When he vacated his seat to run for Congress in 1984, Fox was elected to succeed him.

Hoeffel was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to win a House seat; the third time, in 1996, he lost to Fox by only 84 votes.

Southeastern Pennsylvania is expected to be one of the few places where the House, Senate and White House battlegrounds will overlap this fall. The state is a key presidential battleground and the race to replace Hoeffel in the 13th is also expected to be hotly contested.

Similarly, the open-seat legislative race is also being heavily targeted by both parties in the state this November.

The district still favors Republicans slightly in voter enrollment, but the Democratic performance of the district has improved dramatically over the past decade.

Shapiro noted that when Fox last won the legislative district, Republican registration there was higher than 70 percent. Now, it is just under 50 percent.

“It is truly a swing seat,” Shapiro said.

Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll at the Center For Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said the Shapiro-Fox race is one of the most competitive state House races in Pennsylvania this year.

He said Democrats running statewide, like then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and now-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2002, have run strong in the district even as Democrats have had trouble winning the legislative seat.

“This is a real test of whether the Democrats can win in suburban Philadelphia,” he said.

But if any Democrat can win there, Madonna said, it may be Shapiro.

“He’s bright. He knows politics. He’s attracted a lot of attention,” he said. “The argument is whether the voters are ready for a fresh face.”