The three Democrats running for state attorney general met to debate Saturday afternoon, but at times the proceedings sounded more like oral arguments in the case of Morganelli v. Shapiro.
Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, whose campaign has been the quietest of the three so far, lashed out at Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro throughout the 90-minute debate, held at the annual Keystone Progress Summit in Harrisburg. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala largely refrained from going on the attack, instead touting his own initiatives and accomplishments
Mr. Morganelli opened by saying that with 24 years as a prosecutor, and 25 first-degree murder convictions under his belt, “I am Pennsylvania’s most senior district attorney.” By contrast, he said, Mr. Shapiro “hasn’t even been in law enforcement.”
Further complaints ranged from a $25,000 campaign contribution Mr. Shapiro received from a pro-charter-school group, to Mr. Shapiro’s assertion that Attorney General Kathleen Kane created “a mess.” Mr. Morganelli contended that while Ms. Kane made “some mistakes,” she’d also taken positive steps on issues such as guns.
“It gets me a little upset, Josh, when you said she created a mess,” said Mr. Morganelli, who last month held a Harrisburg news conference at which he said the office needed “a complete housecleaning.”
“I think your act is getting a little bit old,” said Mr. Shapiro, who addressed the charter contribution by saying he’d been endorsed by the state’s largest teacher’s union in every previous race.
Mostly, Mr. Shapiro reprised his campaign’s central argument: That beyond leading an office that prosecutes criminals, an attorney general should champion civil and environmental rights. That’s comfortable ground for the former state legislator, who espoused anti-discrimination laws and other progressive causes.
“We’re not here today to debate who should be the 68th district attorney,” he said.
Mr. Morganelli took a few swipes at Mr. Zappala, saying he “has never prosecuted a single case” personally.
Mr. Zappala has previously faulted Mr. Shapiro for lacking a background in law enforcement, but with Mr. Morganelli prosecuting that case Saturday, Mr. Zappala focused on his own accomplishments. Those included efforts to rein in illegal guns and overseeing investigations of police shootings. “It’s incredibly bad policy [for a police department] to investigate yourself,” he said.
The attention on resumes meant less discussion of policy differences. The candidates agreed that more resources should be devoted to enforcing environmental protection, and expressed misgivings about mandatory sentencing laws. But they did voice differences on issues including immigration.
Mr. Shapiro noted that his county was resisting requests by federal immigration officials to detain people jailed for illegally entering the country beyond their scheduled release dates.
Mr. Morganelli has previously followed those requests: “People are pouring across the border, and we don’t know who they are,” he said. “These are not all good people.” Mr. Zappala said he didn’t think immigration authorities were aggressively seeking to detain immigrants, though he noted the issue was less pressing in Western Pennsylvania.
The winner of the April 26 primary will face either state Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, or veteran prosecutor Joe Peters from Lackawanna County in November.
Toward the end of Saturday’s debate, moderator Michael Morrill asked the candidates whether they would support the Democratic nominee. All three said they would.
Chris Potter: email@example.com or 412-263-2533.