Ever since Pennsylvania began electing its attorneys general in 1980, exactly zero Democrats have held the post. Republican candidates have historically been excellent at portraying themselves as tough-on-crime prosecutors (and their Democratic rivals as spineless). Heading into November, yet another formidable Republican—no-nonsense Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, who’s running unopposed in next week’s primary—will try to make mincemeat out of either Kathleen Kane or Patrick Murphy, the two Democrats sparring fiercely in a primary bout to determine who’ll carry their party’s flag in the AG race this fall.
With Freed sharpening his rhetorical knives for battle, and history working against them, Kane and Murphy—though they essentially agree on many key issues—have starkly different ideas on what makes each more electable than the other come November.
The Scranton-born Kane, a graduate of Temple’s law school, is banking entirely on her impressive courtroom credentials to convince voters she’s as tough on the bad guys as Freed or anyone else. An assistant D.A. in Lackawanna County from 1995 to 2007, Kane began her career relentlessly prosecuting child abusers, sex offenders and child pornographers (in a post-Sandusky world, such experience, she has said, demonstrates her zeal in going after individuals—and institutions—involved in sexual assaults and related crimes). She then moved on to putting murderers, corrupt judges and white-collar criminals behind bars; heading up the county’s Insurance Fraud Task Force; and specializing in cases involving elder abuse and domestic violence.
Kane’s campaign mantra has been “A prosecutor, not a politician”—a swipe at Northeast Philly native Murphy, formerly a two-term U.S. representative from Bucks County (from 2007 to 2011). Kane’s camp has correctly pointed out that Murphy never took the Pennsylvania bar exam and hasn’t tried a case in a Pennsylvania courtroom. Murphy passed the Minnesota bar exam and because of that plus his five years as an Army lawyer, he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.
Murphy argues that his prosecutorial credentials are just as solid as Kane’s, having tried numerous cases in military courts during the Iraq War (while serving with the 82nd Airborne) and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. And he has embraced the politician tag, reasoning that as attorney general his moderate-Democrat leanings and his well-honed political savvy would provide a strong “counterbalance” to Gov. Corbett and a state legislature moving even further to the right. (Perhaps it’s a smart play, considering Corbett’s recently plummeting approval rating.) For example, Murphy has stated that if the highly controversial transvaginal ultrasound bill were to become law, as AG he would not enforce it. (Kane, who also vehemently opposes the bill, stopped short of saying she wouldn’t enforce it.) “Some people see the Attorney General as nothing more than the Commonwealth’s top lawyer,” Murphy says on his campaign website. “I see it differently. I believe the office can be more.”
But if Murphy is casting Kane as someone who lacks a grander vision for the job and the political savvy or will to stand up to Corbett, her positions on major issues—which more or less mirror Murphy’s—suggest she would be equally positioned as a counterbalance. Unlike the governor and an increasingly pro-gun general assembly, both Kane and Murphy are staunch gun-control advocates. They support closing the “Florida Loophole,” which allows individuals who’ve been denied concealed-carry permits in Pennsylvania to use permits obtained in other states, such as Florida (though as a congressman, Murphy co-sponsored failed legislation that would have taken away the Pennsylvania attorney general’s current powers to negotiate or rescind such gun-permit reciprocity agreements with other states).
Both are adamant that they’ll protect women’s reproductive rights and expand civil-rights protections for LGBT citizens. And both say they’ll aggressively enforce regulations on Marcellus Shale drillers and put a bigger premium on protecting the environment and the state’s drinking water than Corbett has thus far.
For her part, by labeling Murphy a “politician,” Kane isn’t simply trying to minimize his prosecutorial standing but also slyly raise the idea that Murphy might be looking ahead to a run for higher state office and intends to use the AG post as a springboard toward those ambitions. (Indeed, that’s a traditional play in Pennsylvania politics, as many AGs have sought higher office in the middle of their terms.) To demonstrate she has no such desires, Kane has pledged to serve two full four-year terms as AG (if elected, then re-elected), plus sit out two years beyond that, before seeking another office, all in the name of eliminating mid-term campaigning or the possibility of politically motivated prosecutions. So far, Murphy has committed to serving one full four-year term if elected and won’t discuss what might happen in a possible second term.
Whether or not that qualifies as part of the political sideshow, the recent game of endorsement one-upsmanship certainly does. After Murphy snagged endorsements from former Gov. Rendell, Mayor Nutter, the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, the state’s Teamsters, and dozens more elected officials, Democratic party leaders and labor leaders throughout the state, Kane got the backing of the biggest name of all: Bill Clinton. The former president visited Upper Moreland High School last week to stump for Kane. “Kathleen Kane is the most experienced and qualified candidate to serve as Pennsylvania Attorney General,” he gushed. Of course, Kane was the Northeast PA Regional Volunteer Coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Murphy supported Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. So there’s that.
But whichever Democrat wins next week—and right now, Murphy’s name recognition and political clout seems to be giving him an edge over Kane’s prosecutorial experience and outsider stance—he or she is in for an exceedingly tough fight against Freed in the fall in their quest to make Pennsylvania election history.
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