Gov. Corbett is a big issue in Pennsylvania's race for attorney general

Democrat Kathleen Kane of Clarks Summit.
Democrat Kathleen Kane of Clarks Summit.
Posted: October 22, 2012

With less than three weeks before Election Day, the two candidates vying to become Pennsylvania's top prosecutor continue to wage their campaign in relative obscurity.

In fact, the most dynamic figure to emerge in the race is not even on the ballot.

As Democrat Kathleen Kane and Republican David Freed grapple to fix themselves in voters' minds, both have seized upon the last man elected attorney general - Gov. Corbett - as a foil in defining their own personas.

"It's hard to find that crack and get the attention span of voters," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College. "Corbett's not on the ballot this year, but the closest thing to him in most voters' minds is his old office."

Recent polls suggest about one-third of Pennsylvanians don't know enough to make up their minds about either Kane or Freed.

In hopes of changing that, Kane has held herself out as a prosecutor's prosecutor, all the while painting the governor as an attorney general with a politician's mind, who wielded prosecutorial discretion with an eye to his party's prospects at the polls.

Freed, meanwhile, has endeavored to demonstrate independence from his fellow Republican.

"I have a set of experiences with my name on the bottom line making the decisions," Freed said in a recent interview. "If anyone wants to question my independence, all they have to do is look at my career."

Their contest has attracted more than $3 million in donations since the primary, when Kane's husband donated nearly all of the $2 million she spent. Since that vote, the $1.5 million she has raised has come from outside the family.

On Freed's side, the $1.4 million his campaign raised has been supplemented by a $500,000 ad buy from an outside group that aired attacks on Kane's record as a prosecutor. In the attack ads - which independent fact-checking groups have largely panned as inaccurate - the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee accused Kane of going easy on rapists in two past cases. Freed's campaign played no part in the ads.

Kane is fond of telling voters at campaign stops and in television ads that she is a "prosecutor, not a politician."

She clawed her way through a tight primary race against former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy this spring by focusing on her record in the courtroom.

In her race against Freed, she has redeployed the line - this time comparing herself with the long line of Republicans, Corbett among them, who used the attorney general's office to launch gubernatorial bids.

If elected, Kane would become the first Democrat and first woman to hold the office.

A 46-year-old mother of two, she spent 12 years prosecuting child sex-abuse and corruption cases in the Lackawanna County District Attorney's Office. She had never sought elective office before this race.

But for all Kane's efforts to cast herself as a political ingenue, she quickly targeted Corbett as an adversary.

Capitalizing on her own history prosecuting crimes against children, she seized on the Jerry Sandusky investigation in November, becoming a frequent guest on television programs covering the case.

Since then, she has emerged as a chief critic of Corbett's decision to put the investigation through a three-year grand jury process, rather than arrest the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach soon after his first young accuser came forward.

"Never once have I put a case like that in front of a grand jury," Kane said in a recent interview. "Never once would it have taken three years for me to take a pedophile off the street."

If elected, she has pledged a full investigation of Corbett's handling of the case, vowing to "hold those accountable that need to be held accountable."

Corbett vehemently defended his actions in the case, saying that Kane "has no idea" what she's talking about and that the investigation required the full three years for prosecutors to establish a pattern of abuse with multiple victims.

Kane also has few kind words for other landmark cases of Corbett's tenure. She characterizes the so-called Bonusgate investigation as partisan, citing its early focus on Democratic politicians.

(Responding to such criticism in the past, Corbett has pointed to the numerous Republicans, including former House Speaker John M. Perzel, eventually caught up and sent to prison in the long-running probe.)

At campaign stops, Kane becomes most animated when lighting into policies Corbett has backed as governor.

Speaking to supporters in Abington last week, she railed against such Republican-backed measures as the state's voter-ID law and mandatory ultrasounds prior to abortions. When her opponent's name finally crossed her lips that night, Corbett's came immediately after.

"We cannot have the governor running both his office and the attorney general's office," she said. "I'm tired of typical politicians like Dave Freed and Tom Corbett."

Freed's own comparisons with Corbett have come reluctantly and largely in response to Kane's attacks.

He began his campaign earlier this year running on his seven-year record as Cumberland County's elected district attorney.

But he did not have to face a contested primary, thanks in part to Corbett's endorsement, which cleared the GOP field.

Ever since, Kane has sought to use the governor's backing against Freed, prompting the 42-year-old to focus more attention in recent weeks on drawing distinctions between himself and the man who made his candidacy possible.

Unlike the governor, Freed says, he has no political ambitions beyond the attorney general's office.

"Most of us don't become prosecutors because we want to get into politics," Freed said in an interview last week. "It's usually the other way around."

And while he initially rejected criticism of Corbett's handling of the Sandusky case, he has since modified that stance, saying he, too, would launch a review to learn what could be done differently.

Still, Freed said, he sees how circumstances warranted a three-year probe.

"You better have a kill shot when you go after a high-profile defendant, or you're going to have a tough day in court," he said.

Freed acknowledged that the high-profile investigations such as the Sandusky case and Bonusgate had changed how Pennsylvanians view the attorney general's role - and that not all voters were supportive.

"Whoever wins needs to focus on restoring trust," he said.

As attorney general, the victor will oversee a staff that is now about 700, a budget of $81 million, and the commonwealth's prosecution of everything from liquor-law violations and environmental crimes to consumer and elder fraud and public corruption.

The current attorney general, Linda Kelly, accepted the job on an interim basis after Corbett became governor. She agreed not to seek a full term.

For all the talk of Corbett throughout the campaign, distinctions between Kane and Freed remain hazy.

Last week, the pair sat side-by-side for a joint interview with The Inquirer's editorial board. It was the first time they had addressed each other in a public discussion since the start of the campaign. Their back-and-forth proved revealing.

Freed attacked Kane for her lack of experience as a manager. Kane contended that Freed had flip-flopped on the handling of the Sandusky case.

They discussed current policy issues on which they disagree. She supports a bill that would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms - legislation city police departments have highlighted as a tool for combating gun violence. He opposes it.

They discovered many more issues upon which they shared common ground, such as cybercrime and synthetic drugs.

The pair are to debate Monday at the Widener Law School's campus in Harrisburg, promising another opportunity for Kane and Freed to define their candidacies against one another.

The governor is not expected to attend.


Attorney General Candidates

Republican: David Freed

Age: 42.

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: Wife, Amy; three children.

Democrat: Kathleen Kane

Age: 46.

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.


Contact Jeremy Roebuck

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

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