State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

In AG race, experience is everything

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Apr 19, 2016 8:03 PM
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State Attorney General Kathleen Kane's decision not to run for a second four-year term as she faces a criminal trial this summer left a field of five candidates jockeying for her job. At a recent forum, one candidate in particular came loaded for bear.

John Morganelli, who has served for a quarter-century as the district attorney of Northampton County, could scarcely answer a question without shooting off a scathing remark at fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro, the Montgomery County chairman commissioner and former state representative.

"Mr. Shapiro's never been in law enforcement, he's never been a prosecutor. He's never been an assistant DA," said Morganelli.

Then, another shot: "I don't know how, Josh, you can evaluate a criminal matter when you've never handled a criminal matter."

"His whole campaign is just a compilation of endorsements," Morganelli quipped again. He reprised a favorite dig on Shapiro's county gig: "Salting the streets and cutting the grass at the county parks is not the experience to be attorney general."

Shapiro, the unflappable darling of the Democratic establishment (he has the governor's endorsement, and President Obama's) flicked Morganelli away, as if the prosecutor were a fly buzzing around his temples.

"I hope it's not lost on anyone here that anytime someone asks Morganelli about his views, he spews nonsense at me," said Shapiro. "To view this office as just another DA, or super-DA, or whatever the case may be, unfortunately and unnecessarily limits the scope of what this job is all about."

Both candidates were on well-trodden ground. Going back to the very first time Pennsylvania voters elected a state attorney general, candidates were arguing about which kind of experience is more important: prosecutorial or managerial. In that 1980 contest, the longtime Dauphin County district attorney went up against a Berks County state senator. The district attorney won.

This year's third Democratic candidate, Stephen Zappala, is another veteran district attorney, having held the position in Allegheny County for about 18 years. He stresses the importance of prosecutorial know-how, saying he understands statewide grand juries and will insist on police accountability.

"I really admired what the state of New York did in terms of taking on financial institutions, and I promise you this, if I become the attorney general, we'll establish a civil rights section of the office," said Zappala, "and we will take up the areas about housing and public access and issues like public health, and issues about police use of deadly force."

The candidate with the backing of the state's Republican legislative firmament is John Rafferty, who's making the argument for managerial experience. He served for three years as a deputy in the Office of Attorney General a couple decades ago. Most recently, he's been a Montgomery County state senator, which he says puts him at the "intersection of law and policy."

"We've tried electing someone who just ran as just a prosecutor," said Rafferty, alluding to the state's indicted Attorney General Kane. "Couldn't manage the office, couldn't affect any other areas. We have to look at a broad-based background."

Rafferty's opponent in the GOP primary is Joe Peters, a relative insider at the Office of Attorney General. He worked there for 17 years, even doing time as a spokesman for Kane early in her term. Peters says he was practically custom-built to be the state's top law enforcement officer, having started out on the front lines as a "street cop" in Scranton.

"If you were building an attorney general," said Peters, "wouldn't you want to start with someone who's actually been on the ground in uniform and undercover? Then a chief of police, then a federal mafia prosecutor?"

Peters' old boss, Kathleen Kane, rocketed to office with a campaign slogan: "a prosecutor, not a politician." On Tuesday, primary voters will have their first chance to indicate if that's still their guiding maxim.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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