On a fall morning at Widener University in Harrisburg, Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican John Rafferty were trying to make the case for why they should be elected as Pennsylvania’s new attorney general.
Both touted their experience, integrity, and commitment to the office. Both listed plans for their tenure — Shapiro wants to hire a diversity officer, for instance; Rafferty advocates creating more specialized units, such as the one for animal abuse.
And again and again, both returned to a now-familiar refrain: “I’m not like Kathleen Kane.”
It’s now been several months since Kane’s resignation, but she’s still casting a long shadow on the race, and on the office she left in disarray.
A damaged office
The main headquarters for the Office of the Attorney General is in downtown Harrisburg, on the upper floors of the Strawberry Square complex that houses many state workers.
Inside, a glass wall and door separate the executive suite from the rest of the AG employees.
Chuck Ardo — who served as the office’s press secretary under Kane and now under interim AG Bruce Beemer — said that during the final months of Kane’s administration, the door became a symbol of all that was going wrong in the office.
“It requires a swipe card to get in,” Ardo explained. “And not only was it locked, but they were in the process of limiting the number of swipe cards that would actually open that door.”
Kane wasn’t accessible, according to Ardo, who was her eighth press secretary when he joined her administration in 2015.He said the lack of communication, coupled with inter-office tensions and never-ending investigations into Kane’s affairs, took their toll on morale.
“I left in May of 2016,” he said. “The AG had inexplicably decided not to talk to me, and it’s very difficult to be a spokesman for someone who doesn’t speak.”
Things are different now, he said.
A gradual recovery
Since the appointment of Beemer — who had been the state inspector general before taking over as AG — confidence in the office is up. Ardo is back as press secretary, and the executive suite is unlocked.
“If you were to go out there now and yank on that door, you would see that it is open and accessible,” Ardo said.
But still, he said, the upcoming election is a big one — for the commonwealth and also for the long-suffering AG employees.
First Deputy Attorney General Robert Mulle, who served as executive deputy attorney general in the civil law division under Kane and was appointed to his current spot by Beemer, said it’s been a long road to get here.
“Is there apprehension? There always is in a transition,” he said. “There have been a lot, and that has, I’m sure, worn on people. But they’ve seen a positive outcome at the end of the road.”
The positive outcome Mulle referred to is the current man in charge — Beemer. Mulle and Ardo concurred, the interim AG is highly respected around the office.
Mulle said, in a lot of ways, Election Day will be bittersweet.
“It would be less than candid if I didn’t say that I think people are disappointed that he’s only going to be here for four months,” he said.
But regardless of any strides the office has made in the past months, the campaign messaging of Rafferty and Shapiro still hinges on the idea of starting fresh, and on the knowledge that Pennsylvanians remain wary of a Kane repeat.
On paper, neither one is particularly similar to Kane, who was an assistant district attorney for Lackawanna County, but had never held elected office before becoming the state’s top law enforcement official.
Rafferty has been a state senator since 2003. He represents parts of Berks, Chester, and Montgomery counties, and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
He’s also worked as a prosecutor and was a deputy attorney general in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Shapiro served as a state representative from 2004 to 2012, when he became a Montgomery County commissioner. He also works with a Philadelphia law firm.
But the two consistently find ways to attack each other’s records.
Shapiro has lambasted Rafferty’s sympathies for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, calling him “captive to the special interests within his party,” and saying he’s “stuck on the ticket with Donald Trump, and he’s trying to benefit from the fear-mongering that Donald Trump is doing throughout parts of Pennsylvania.”
Rafferty has accused Shapiro of running for AG as a calculated political move, saying he believes the county commissioner has “higher aspirations.”
“The Office of the Attorney General should not be a rental space, should not be a stepping stone,” Rafferty said.
In terms of politics, they do differ. Shapiro is for stricter gun laws, supports abortion rights, and has won endorsements from the likes of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and groups such as Planned Parenthood.
Rafferty is backed by the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, as well as the National Rifle Association, among others. He has opposed gun background check bills, and also has support from anti-abortion groups.
Despite the differences, Ardo said, either one will do a fine job.
“I don’t think anybody here expects a repeat of Kathleen Kane’s administration any time in the near or distant future,” he said. “I think Kathleen Kane routinely listened to the wrong people, and took advice of the wrong people. I don’t think that’s likely to happen again — in this office or any other office — for an extended period of time.”
The attorney general’s office, he said, really just needs someone who will follow the rules, and keep that executive suite unlocked.