3 Democrats, 2 Republicans vie to lead Pa. attorney general’s office scorched by scandal

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    Candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general (clockwise from top left) are Democrats Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli; Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro; Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala; and Republicans Joe Peters and  state Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County. (AP file photos)

    Candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general (clockwise from top left) are Democrats Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli; Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro; Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala; and Republicans Joe Peters and state Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County. (AP file photos)

    Embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has decided not to run for re-election this year, leaving behind an office wracked by scandal.

    Kane faces criminal charges stemming from an alleged leak of secret grand jury material to embarrass a political enemy. The state Supreme Court suspended her law license, and, since 2014, Kane has selectively released hundreds of emails traded among lawyers and judges that contain pornographic, racist and other offensive messages.

    While the “porngate” scandal has tainted many reputations and ended some careers, it’s also tarnished the state’s Office of Attorney General.

    Enter three Democrats and two Republicans who are vying for the job of polishing it up in Tuesday’s Republican and Democratic primaries.

    The race has centered on which candidate has the right experience to boost morale in the office of nearly 800 employees. Voters in both parties will have to choose between career prosecutors and elected officials who bring political clout and policy proposals to the contest.

    In the more competitive Democratic primary, a recent Harper Poll showed Josh Shapiro in the lead with more than one-third of the vote. Shapiro is chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners and a self-styled reformer. 

    At a recent debate in Harrisburg, he outlined his vision for the job as “the one person that every Pennsylvanian can call on to protect their constitutional rights, to protect their liberties.”

    Shapiro, a former state representative, has proposed getting tough on natural gas drillers that pollute and suing the state to create a fair funding formula for all school districts.

    It’s a broader view of the mission of the office than the traditional one. While most of the public thinks of the attorney general as the state’s top crime-fighter, “a lot of it is invisible and professional and bureaucratic,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law. “The attorney general’s office you can think of as the lawyer for Pennsylvania’s government,” defending the state from lawsuits and prosecuting major criminal cases.

    Shapiro says his executive experience running the third-largest county in Pennsylvania will help him see his grander social justice vision through. He’s also scored some high-profile endorsements, including Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Ed Rendell and President Barack Obama.

    But Shapiro’s lack of prosecutorial experience has left him wide open to attacks from his Democratic opponents — two district attorneys who say he’s not cut out for the job.

    “Being in charge of putting salt on the roadways and cutting grass at the county parks … is not the proper experience to be the chief law enforcement officer of the state,” said John Morganelli, Pennsylvania’s longest-serving district attorney. For 24 years, he’s been district attorney of Northampton County, a small county in the northeastern part of the state.

    Morganelli touts his time in the courtroom, personally trying 25 first-degree murder cases. But he’s run for state attorney general — and lost — three times before, and his lack of statewide name recognition hasn’t helped.

    Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala comes from a well-known family in western Pennsylvania and has significant support from Philadelphia-area Democrats, including party chairman Bob Brady and influential labor leader John Dougherty. Zappala has served as district attorney for 18 years and has not tried cases himself, but has overseen a large office of more than 100 prosecutors.

    As attorney general, he says he would improve the office’s reputation by “leading by example” and returning to its core mission.

    “I’m going to attack public corruption, people that abuse public trust,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to indict and convict dozens of people in that regard in my county over my career.” 

    Zappala’s office successfully prosecuted former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for putting her judicial staff to work on her re-election campaigns. 

    He has also pledged to “take illegal guns off the streets” and re-establish the office’s civil rights division to prosecute hate crimes and other acts of discrimination. 

    The dynamics of the race on the Republican side are similar, but the competition is not as fierce.

    Joe Peters of Wyoming County has risen through the law enforcement ranks, starting out as a beat cop in Scranton and later becoming chief of police. Peters has also been a federal mafia prosecutor and a White House drug czar. He has worked for previous Pennsylvania attorneys general — including a stint as Kathleen Kane’s communications director.

    Peters said his resume makes him “ready on day one,” but he’s running against better-known state Sen. John Rafferty, who served as a deputy attorney general from 1988 to 1991 before going into private practice.

    Rafferty, from Montgomery County, bills himself as an executive with a broad knowledge of the law “and one who is able to build the type of partnerships and relationships with the district attorneys going forward to join forces to fight the heroin epidemic.”

    He said he has the vision to “go after those that abuse our elderly and our children.”

    The two winners of Tuesday’s primary will try to sell their vision for the attorney general’s office with the backdrop of Kane’s criminal trial, which begins this summer.

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