Protecting children, cracking down on heroin traffickers and expanding investigations and prosecutions around fracking and consumer scams were among the issues the Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania Attorney General said they’d take on if elected. Each candidate made their case in a live televised debate Thursday night.
John Morganelli, Northampton County District Attorney, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro and Stephen Zappala, Jr., the district attorney of Allegheny County, spent an hour answering questions in NBC10 and Telemundo62’s Bala Cynwyd studios. NBC affiliates across the state carried the live matchup moderated by NBC10's Tracy Davidson and WPXI 11's Lisa Sylvester.
The first question went to both Morganelli and Zappala asking whether they secretly orchestrated a plan to team up against Shapiro, who has not spent time a criminal attorney. Both candidates sharply denied a plan, but later took shots at Shapiro’s career.
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Morganelli suggested Shapiro’s history as a self-described "career politician," county commissioner and corporate attorney gave him no depth for prosecuting criminal cases.
Shapiro rebuked the criticism saying his differing resume can expand the attorney general’s office's focus beyond primarily criminal cases.
No surprises came from the candidates during the hour-long debate. All said they supported legalizing medical marijuana, term limits for the office and none would keep the position of Solicitor General – a new post created by embattled current attorney general Kathleen Kane. Bruce Castor, the former Montgomery County district attorney who chose not to prosecute comedian Bill Cosby a decade ago, is currently in the role.
Each candidate was asked what their signature issue would be should they be elected. All said they seek to expand prosecutions in many areas, and each spent time speaking about one issue in-depth.
Morganelli seeks to expand the office’s role in combating the heroin crisis. He’s calling for increased prosecutions for drug dealers and the creation of a transnational task force to seek out and arrest international drug traffickers. The district attorney would also expand investigations into health care providers supplying prescription painkillers to patients. Painkillers are a major gateway to heroin addiction, research shows.
Increasing fairness in the criminal justice system is a major initiative for commissioner Shapiro. Shapiro also took a shot at attorneys and judges embroiled in a porn email scandal that’s unfolded under the past few months.
Zappala cited his record on protecting child victims of abuse, whether physically or sexually, and said he’d like to ensure the office is investigating and prosecuting those types of cases properly across the state.
All three candidates called for increased gun control either through increased background checks or strengthening prosecution of straw purchasers — when a person buys a gun intended for a third-party. Morganelli said, if elected, he’d advocate for a law holding parents and caregivers of children and the mentally ill criminally and civilly liable if their dependents commit a crime with their gun.
Fracking is an issue where Morganelli agreed with Shapiro’s plan to beef up the office’s environmental crimes unit, start a task force on the issue and expand legislation regulating the fuel drilling industry. Zappala said he’d put attorneys on the ground to inspect fracking procedures before and when they begin to ensure compliance of the laws.
The candidates agreed that they’d like to expand prosecutions around consumer scams, especially schemes that target senior citizens.
Thursday’s debate is the only live, televised event ahead of Pennsylvania’s April 26th primary. The winner will face the victor of the Republican Attorney General primary race between Montgomery County-based State Sen. John Rafferty Jr. (44th District) and former police officer and current Lackawanna County resident Joe Peters.