Two Democrats break party's mold in run for Pennsylvania attorney general

Posted: March 11, 2012

Patrick Murphy, Democratic candidate for state attorney general, rattled off his priorities at a campaign stop in Philadelphia's Mayfair section last week.

"I'm going to fight for the middle class. I'm going to protect the environment," he told a local business owner. After a pause, he added: "And I will make sure the streets are safe."

The order was telling.

For decades, candidates seeking to become the state's chief law enforcement authority have relied on a tough-on-crime message to carry them to victory.

But with Democrats hoping to win the office for the first time in 30 years, the two candidates vying for the party's nomination next month are blazing a different path.

In speeches and fund-raising letters and at campaign events, Murphy and ex-prosecutor Kathleen Granahan Kane have sought to recast the mold from which Democrats have traditionally found their nominees.

"They seem to have realized this year that they're not going to out-'law-and-order' a Republican," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College.

Since it became an elected office in 1980, Pennsylvania voters have chosen Republicans to fill the attorney general's post.

And most GOP candidates have been cut from the same cloth - former district attorneys or federal prosecutors, all men with long records in the courtroom.

For the GOP, this year's race has taken shape along the typical lines.

Whoever wins the April 24 Democratic primary will face Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, the only Republican in the race.

They also will contend with a run from the left from former Pennsylvania Auditor General Don Bailey, who announced his campaign as a Democrat last month but has since opted to leave the primary and run in the fall as an independent.

Two paths

But for Democrats this year, all bets are off. To hear Murphy and Kane talk, they might as well be running for different jobs.

Murphy, a former military lawyer and U.S. representative from Bucks County, more closely resembles the traditional Democratic candidate - a lawyer who made his name in other political fields.

But he speaks like none of his predecessors on the campaign trail.

In recent weeks, he has downplayed the tough-on-street-crime message in favor of broader proclamations of social justice.

At a debate in Philadelphia last month, Murphy argued that Pennsylvanians "need someone to be a counterbalance to [Gov. Corbett] and the right-wing agenda."

Days later, he took Corbett to task again in a speech in Harrisburg.

"The governor of Pennsylvania has failed Pennsylvania's families," he said. "As attorney general, I'll always protect the middle class from attacks."

Such rhetoric has led some - namely Kane - to ask what office Murphy is running for.

But in a campaign year in which social inequality and populist anger have held sway in presidential politics, Murphy sees opportunity.

The attorney general should engage the office in legal challenges that reflect the political debates of the day - everything from women's reproductive rights to environmental class-action lawsuits, he said.

"In a way it looks like he's modeled himself on Eliot Spitzer," said Borick, referring to the former New York governor who, as that state's attorney general, made a name for himself taking on the financial sector.

At arm's length

Kane, who spent 13 years in the Lackawanna District Attorney's Office, has approached her campaign from a different angle, hewing to a defined view of the job while keeping the broader politicking of Murphy and, historically, the party at arm's length.

"I want to be attorney general, not governor or senator," she said last week.

But while she has toed the traditional law-and-order line more closely than Murphy has, her campaign also represents a shift in thinking for the Democrats.

'Not a politician'

Of the six attorney general candidates to represent the party since 1980, only two - most recently Northampton County District Attorney John M. Morganelli, who lost to Corbett in 2008 - have come from a prosecutorial background. None have been women.

This year, Kane's campaign slogan - "a prosecutor, not a politician" - offers a not-so-subtle dig at Murphy and that tradition.

"I am the only Democratic candidate that has any shot of going toe-to-toe with a Republican," she said. "This office is going to go to a prosecutor. It always has."

Of course, to hear the two Democratic contenders tell it, their opponents' strategy this year has more to do with limits than with any new vision on how to campaign as a Democrat.

Murphy, a Washington veteran, has to run on broader social-justice themes because of his lack of experience in Pennsylvania courtrooms, the Kane campaign contends.

In one of the race's early dust-ups, her camp pointed out that Murphy took the bar exam in Minnesota and has never tried a case in a state court.

Murphy and his surrogates counter that Kane's emphasis on her prosecutorial record reflects her own limited role outside a courtroom.

This year's race is her first for public office, and in her emphasis on legal accomplishments, she fails to see that the attorney general's job is primarily to serve as a leader and manager, not individually pleading cases before state trial courts, they say.

Unlikely credit

But for all the shifts in strategy their campaigns have reflected for the Democrats, Murphy and Kane may owe credit to an unlikely source - Corbett, the most recent elected attorney general.

Before leaving the post to become governor in 2011, he embarked on a series of cases - including launching the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse investigation and 2006's Bonusgate probes - that raised his profile and that of the office considerably and propelled him to his gubernatorial race.

No former attorney general had successfully used the office as a launching pad for a higher political career.

Critics accused him of using his post to score points with the electorate, but his supporters said such cases helped widen the attorney general's domain.

Corbett demonstrated that the office could take on cases involving large institutions and political-corruption investigations that had previously been relegated to federal prosecutors, they said.

Anyone hoping to replace him this year - whether it be Murphy and his politicized rhetoric, Kane with her emphasis on her own history with sex-crime prosecution, or the Republican or independent candidates - must reckon with that legacy, said Dan McCaffery, a former Philadelphia prosecutor who dropped his own Democratic run for attorney general in January.

"The lightbulb went off," he said. "[Corbett] opened a lot of people's eyes to what that office could be."


The candidates for Pa. attorney general

REPUBLICAN

David Freed

AGE: 41.

HOMETOWN: Camp Hill.

JOB HISTORY: Cumberland County District Attorney (2006-present); Cumberland County prosecutor (1998-2005); York County prosecutor (1997-98).

EDUCATION: J.D., Pennsylvania State University (1995); B.A., Washington and Lee University (1992); Camp Hill Junior-Senior High School.

FAMILY: married; three children.

DEMOCRATS

Patrick Murphy

AGE: 38.

HOMETOWN: Bristol.

JOB HISTORY: partner, Fox Rothschild (2011-present); U.S. House, Eighth District (2006-10); U.S. Army, served as attorney with the Judge Advocate General's Corps, faculty member at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, active-duty soldier during tours in Bosnia and Iraq (2000-04).

EDUCATION: J.D., Widener University (1999); B.A., King's College (1996); Archbishop Ryan High School (1991).

FAMILY: wife Jenni; two children.

Kathleen Granahan Kane

AGE: 45.

HOMETOWN: Clarks Summit.

JOB HISTORY: Lackawanna County prosecutor (1995-2007); associate at Post & Schell P.C. (1992-95).

EDUCATION: J.D., Temple University (1993); B.S., University

of Scranton (1988); West Scranton Senior High School.

FAMILY: husband Chris; two sons.

INDEPENDENT Don Bailey

AGE: 66.

HOMETOWN: Susquehanna.

JOB HISTORY: Attorney in private practice; Pennsylvania. auditor general (1985-89); U.S. House, 21st District (1979-83); U.S. Army, served tours in Vietnam.

EDUCATION: J.D., Duquesne University (1976); B.A., University of Michigan (1967); Greensburg High School.

FAMILY: wife Adrienne; six children.


Contact Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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