Attorney general candidate ads get tough down the stretch in Pennsylvania

    The case of a black man who was assaulted at a Pittsburgh train station last year is the subject of a new TV ad attacking Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Attorney General in Tuesday’s primary.

    The 60-second commercial, paid for by Josh Shapiro’s campaign, includes local television news coverage of the incident, which was caught on surveillance video. 

    Last week, Ryan Kyle, the white man who threw Kevin Lockett, a black man, off the train platform onto the tracks and then beat him about his head, was sentenced to three-to-six years in prison. Four other men who stood by and did nothing to stop the attack and reportedly hurled racial slurs got plea deals and were sentenced to probation and community service.

    According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lockett has questioned whether justice was served in this case.

    “If five black guys jump one white guy, nobody would be going home,” he says in one television news clip featured in the Shapiro campaign’s ad. 

    The commercial also points out attorneys for the defendants have given “more than $15,000” to Zappala’s campaigns over the years — the total amount of the donations listed on the screen is $21,000. That includes three contributions totaling $3,500 to Zappala’s campaign for state Attorney General, as well as ten other donations dating back to 2011. 

    Zappala’s campaign has responded with an ad featuring the Rev. Ricky Burgess, a Pittsburgh city councilman.

    “It’s wrong for anyone who’s never been a prosecutor to pick out a couple of cases and distort the facts,” Burgess says. 

    Other Zappala supporters, including state Sen. Anthony Williams and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney have released statements condemning the ad. Kenney called it “highly questionable” and accused Shapiro of unfairly injecting race into the contest. 

    Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, spent Sunday morning campaigning at two African-American churches in Philadelphia with Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke. When asked about the blowback against the ad, Shapiro was calmly dismissive.

    “What we’re doing is talking about our records,” he said, saying the ad gives voters a fuller understanding of Zappala’s history.

    Shapiro and Zappala have been battling over criminal justice issues affecting people of color for the last month in a race that has largely centered on which candidate has the right experience to be Pennsylvania’s next Attorney General. 

    It began when Zappala put out an ad featuring video footage of the Texas state trooper pulling over Sandra Bland, a black woman who died later in police custody, and a clip of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man from South Carolina running away from the white officer who shot him in the back. The ad attempts to frame Zappala as a reform-minded district attorney long before these high-profile incidents and to draw contrast to Shapiro (who is not mentioned in the ad) for his lack of prosecutorial experience. 

    In response, the Shapiro campaign pulled together a group of black clergy to criticize the ad and reached out to Bland’s mother who has since called on Zappala’s campaign to remove the image of the police stop that led to her daughter’s death.

    Muhlenberg College political analyst Chris Borick says winning support from a African-American voters is the clear motivation of these ads.

    “None of the candidates are African-American,” said  Borick. “None of them have a direct identity politics connection to the American-American community, so you try to craft messages that show your commitment to this group.”

    Voters will have to decide which candidate has their best interests at heart by Tuesday. 

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