On his birthday, reflecting on the legacy of Gov. Milton Shapp

In an op-ed, Ari Mittleman remembers the 40th governor of Pennsylvania as an optimist, innovator and bold policymaker.

Gov. Milton Shapp (right of President Gerald Ford, seated) participates in the signing ceremony establishing Valley Forge State Park a National Historical Site.

Gov. Milton Shapp (right of President Gerald Ford, seated) participates in the signing ceremony establishing Valley Forge State Park a National Historical Site. Wikimedia Commons

This week would have been the 110th birthday of the 40th governor of Pennsylvania. The legacy of Milton Jerrold Shapiro still resonates today. As the commonwealth prepares for the most consequential campaign season in history, it is worth reflecting on lessons from Gov. Shapp’s tenure. 

Shapp’s early years embodied the “American Dream.” His grandparents fled antisemitic tyranny in Europe to launch a new life in the U.S. To help his family make ends meet, he taught himself how to drive a truck. During the Great Depression, he would drive longer routes taking in the diversity of America. The antisemitism and racially motivated hate crimes that the U.S. is facing now are seldom manifested by thugs in white hoods. However, back then the risk was quite clear and Shapiro decided it would be wise to change his name to Shapp. 

In WWII, he served with the Signal Corps in North Africa and Europe. As today’s Congress is sorely lacking in transformational bipartisan pieces of legislation, the GI Bill was signed into law even before the war concluded. The foresight of diverse policymakers benefited Shapp and countless others. Returning from the battlefield, he was able to save money to launch what would become the first coaxial television cable company in the country.  

The leadership of both the Pennsylvania Democratic and Republican parties are dissecting the primary and how candidates who racked up numerous endorsements and caucus and straw poll votes yet lost their nominations. In 1966, party support was more sacrosanct than today. Yet, Shapp defeated another future governor – Robert P. Casey – by an unprecedented 50,000 votes in the primary. He would lose that November, but (similar to Casey) he was not done with electoral politics. 

In 1970, he would win statewide with more than 500,000 votes. His tenure as governor was during the most contentious time in post-WWII American history: a televised war overseas, dramatic jumps in crime, a historic housing market, difficult questions about racial justice, the birth of the environmental movement and questions about presidential overreach and the future of American democracy.  

The parallels are striking today. The next governor of Pennsylvania faces an equally difficult landscape.  

Shapp showed compassion working tirelessly with diverse Pennsylvania families who lost everything in Hurricane Agnes. With the same ethos, he started the Department of Aging and through incredibly innovative public policy, launched the Pennsylvania lottery to help fund it. As the lottery celebrates its 50th year, more than $31 billion from it has been invested into programs such as low-cost prescription assistance, free and reduced public transportation and similar staples older Pennsylvanians take for granted.  

This week marks the end of Pride Month. Shapp was the single most important figure in the early gay rights movement. In 1973, with the exception of several local officials nationwide, Shapp was the first American statewide official to take a meeting with gay activists. That led to the launch of a first-of-its-kind official governmental body to examine concerns of the gay community.  

Americans’ faith in our participatory democracy and trust in the institutions of government are at an all-time low. For recent college students across the commonwealth, careers in public service are not top of mind. In the 1970s, there was a similar disillusionment. In another first for the nation, Shapp demanded fully transparent financial disclosures for top Pennsylvania officials. The newly coined term was “sunshine laws.” His administration adopted a code of ethics for state employees. The standard of ethics and transparency must be consistently examined and amplified by the next governor.  

The campaign trail over the months ahead will inevitably not resemble what President Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.” Significant questions about the future course of Pennsylvania and our nation face voters, but these will be reduced to soundbites and negative advertising. On his 110th birthday, Gov. Shapp’s optimism, commitment to all Pennsylvanians and innovative and bold policymaking should serve as an example for all candidates. 

Ari Mittleman, originally from Allentown, is the author of the newly released Paths of the Righteous from Gefen Publishing House.