Attorney general race already getting rough
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HARRISBURG -- Attorney General Tom Corbett has been in the news a lot lately. That's mostly because of charges he announced two weeks ago against a dozen current and former House Democratic lawmakers and staffers.
But the saga over alleged misuse of taxpayer money, often called "Bonusgate," isn't the only battle that Mr. Corbett, a Shaler resident, is waging: He also faces a tough re-election battle this November.
His Democratic challenger, John Morganelli, a pro-gun, pro-life district attorney from Northampton County in Eastern Pennsylvania, is hoping that anti-Republican sentiment, both nationally and in many parts of this state, coupled with his criticism of Mr. Corbett, will propel him to victory.
"Bonusgate has been completely mishandled," claimed Mr. Morganelli. He added that Mr. Corbett is indebted to corporations and misuses taxpayer money.
Mr. Corbett's campaign, for its part, charges that Mr. Morganelli stretches facts and runs an overly negative campaign.
No polling data exists to measure the race so far, but experts think it could be close. The number of registered Democrats in the state hit a record in April, and Democrats now outnumber Republicans by about 830,000.
And if the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama does well in Pennsylvania, as many expect, it likely would help Mr. Morganelli.
"With Republican voters not nearly as enthusiastic or excited, this is an election cycle in which, all things being even, the Democrats are likely to win," said G. Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
But since the attorney general became an elected position in 1980, no Democrat has ever won. And support for Mr. Corbett is running high in light of the charges against House Democrats.
"This is arguably an election in which Bonusgate and the record of the incumbent will be very much in play," Mr. Madonna said. "On balance, you have to give the advantage to the incumbent."
The most recent data, from late May, indicated that Mr. Corbett had about $1.1 million in campaign funds, about 80 percent more than Mr. Morganelli's approximately $600,000.
Still, Mr. Morganelli says he has a good chance of winning.
"The public is starting to realize" Mr. Corbett's selective prosecution of the bonus scandal, Mr. Morganelli claimed.
"He only [investigated] the Democratic House. He left the Republicans and now says he'll get around to them. There's not going to be any evidence. ... The announcement of the [charges] gives the other targets all the info that they need to avoid being prosecuted."
He said it was "very, very unlikely" that Mr. Corbett would charge any top Republicans.
Mr. Corbett has defended his investigation, saying the charges against a dozen Democrats represented only the first stage of his investigation. He left open the possibility of charging more lawmakers and aides. "The investigation is continuing," he said.
Mr. Morganelli said Mr. Corbett has created conflicts of interest by accepting $55,000 in campaign contributions in 2004 and 2005 from an organization run by Louis DeNaples, the owner of Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos. Mr. DeNaples has been charged by the Dauphin County district attorney with perjury and accused of lying about alleged associations with persons linked to organized crime.
"To say there's any issue there is just outrageous," said Brian Nutt, Mr. Corbett's campaign manager, adding that the donations were properly disclosed and came before casino license applications were submitted to Mr. Corbett.
"The attorney general has proven with many, many of his investigations that he'll go after crime and corruption anywhere it is and will do his job no matter what the circumstances," Mr. Nutt said.
Mr. Morganelli is also criticizing radio ads the attorney general funds in Philadelphia to promote a gun-control provision there. Mr. Morganelli said that in an election year, the ads constitute taxpayer-funded promotions of Mr. Corbett's campaign.
But Mr. Nutt had a different take.
"The public service announcements were a way to educate people as a preventative measure," he said.
Mr. Morganelli estimated the ads could cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars, if not millions. Mr. Nutt said the amount was "minimal'' compared to what Mr. Morganelli claims.
"It's not into the millions,'' he said.
Mr. Nutt, who also serves as chief of staff in the attorney general's office, is himself a recipient of Mr. Morganelli's criticism. Mr. Nutt is on unpaid leave from his government job and now receives his salary from the campaign. But the Democrat said no one should hold positions with both government and a campaign.
"If they're going to work on the campaign, they should not go back and forth," Mr. Morganelli said.
Mr. Nutt and Kevin Harley, another top attorney general staffer who works on Mr. Corbett's campaign, have said they strictly separate their government and campaign work, unlike the House Democrats accused in Bonusgate.
Mr. Nutt said his candidate has a more proven record of accomplishment. The campaign manager said Mr. Corbett was responsible for more than 2,000 drug arrests and 150 Internet predator arrests since taking office.
He said the attorney general's education program on internet safety had reached more than 160,000 children, parents and teachers. And he cited the attorney general's creation of an elder abuse unit, which investigates exploitation of senior citizens.
"Tom Corbett has proven that he will do what he has taken the oath of office to do, and that is to protect the residents of the commonwealth," Mr. Nutt said.
He questioned Mr. Morganelli's temperament, saying his criticisms of the attorney general go too far.
"They all seem to be tied together with one common denominator: They're negative," Mr. Nutt said. "He doesn't use any facts. He just throws out whatever attacks that he can think of, and frankly so far this has been one of the most negative campaigns that I've witnessed at least in awhile, and I expect for it to get worse."
Mr. Madonna said it was all part of the process.
"These guys are going to go after each other a little bit," he said.
"Politics is a blood sport, it's rough and tumble."
First Published July 27, 2008 12:00 am