During Saturday afternoon’s Progressive Summit Attorney General debate, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro was placed in the middle between Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala and Northampton County DA John Morganelli.
The organizers couldn’t have known it, but their decision turned prescient as Shapiro was hit by both sides throughout the contest.
In nearly all facets, this contest was the direct opposite of Friday night’s civil Senate debate.
Morganelli was frequently the instigator and at first it appeared he would be an equal opportunity attacker.
“I’m the only candidate who has actually prosecuted criminal and civil cases in a courtroom in front of juries,” he stated in his opening statement.
He went on to mention that Zappala never prosecuted a case in his 18 years as DA while Shapiro was “a self-proclaimed politician.”
Morganelli’s true intentions began to take shape during his answer to the first question which concerned gun violence. He credited incumbent Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s work and called his opponents “prosecutors in name only” when he described sitting with victims of crime.
“John, with all due respect, you’re welcome to cite your record. You have no idea what my involvement has been with crime victims in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro responded before transitioning to his work as the Chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
“Let me say Josh, first of all, I do know that you have no involvement with crime victims because being Chairman of the commission of crime, I served on that commission for six years, all it is is a MAC machine,” Morganelli responded. “It takes money that is given by the federal government and funnels it to police departments and crime prevention programs.”
“It has nothing to do with crime fighting. You’re not a crime fighter, Josh,” he charged. “You’ve only been there since what, April? You’ve been to two or three meetings.”
“Instead of lecturing you should focus on your own record,” Shapiro shot back as the moderator tried to move on.
“Follow the rules, Mr. Shapiro,” Morganelli declared.
From then on, the atmosphere remained charged and the two candidates were eager to strike at each other.
It seemed personal to Morganelli, who used a question about violence against students to portray his opponents as privileged.
“I’m a product of public education, went to a public high school, unlike my opponents who went to private school,” he bragged.
When the question came to Shapiro, he discussed students constitutional right to an education and asked the audience to raise their hand if they felt every student’s right was being protected. No hands went up.
“Josh, you are really good at giving speeches but your resume doesn’t match your performance. You have received $25,000 from Students First PAC, which is a charter school, and you received it on March 4th 2015,” Morganelli pointed out. “That is a charter school advocate that is hurting our public schools. Josh gives a great speech here then takes $25,000 from Students First PAC, I think that’s wrong.
“I think if you examine my record-” Shapiro began before Morganelli interrupted and asked about the donation again. The moderator had to reset everything and Morganelli apologized. When Shapiro finally got the chance to respond he touted his past support from the PSEA.
The candidates were then asked by Action United if they would abolish the grand jury process in police involved shootings. All three candidates said they would not, an answer that wasn’t received favorably by the Action United members who were sitting in front of me.
When asked about mandatory minimums, Morganelli attributed them to an overzealous attempt in the 1990’s to curtail crime. Shapiro talked about make sure those addicted to drugs get proper treatment while Zappala said that the issue rests with the judiciary.
It didn’t take long, however, for Shapiro and Morganelli to get into it again when the latter once more questioned the former’s experience.
“Josh, with all due respect, you have titles you throw around,” the Northampton DA stated. “He has titles but no experience, how do fix something you know nothing about? DA Zappala at least knows this criminal justice system. We know it’s faults and weaknesses, you don’t send someone into brain surgery to get it fixed by someone who’s never performed the operation.”
“John, I think your act’s is getting a little bit old here,” Shapiro spat back in exasperation of his opponent’s personal attacks.
At that moment, though, Zappala joined in with Morganelli.
“With all due respect, I think John’s right,” Zappala countered. “There has to be consequences to actions. If you’re the Attorney General, then corporate interests and politicians and powerful people, they have to understand if you know what you’re doing and you’ve got the fortitude to succeed. That deters crime, I think experience is a very important issue.”
Just minutes later Morganelli was commending Zappala for his work in dealing with sexual assaults.
Meanwhile, Shapiro sought to get to left of Zappala on abortion and fracking.
The Northampton DA then sparked another commotion with his comments, this time about immigration.
“We have a situation where people are poring over the borders and we don’t know who they are,” he asserted. “These are not all good people, many of them are good people but not all of them.”
Towards the conclusion of the debate, focus shifted to Kathleen Kane and her legacy. Shapiro noted that there was a “crisis of confidence” in the AG’s office.
The candidates then asked what makes them uniquely qualified to be Attorney General.
“We are not here today to debate who should be the 68th DA of PA. Instead we’re here today to debate which Democrat should be the next Attorney General.”
Shapiro then pledged that he would restore integrity, clean up the mess in the AG’s office and fight for Democratic values.
Morganelli once again went at Shapiro, offended because he felt that Shapiro’s pledge to restore integrity implied he and Zappala weren’t men of integrity.
“Kathleen Kane did not make a mess,” he proclaimed. “Kathleen Kane did some really good things as Attorney General. She didn’t make a mess. She made some misjudgments and some mistakes. She hasn’t been found guilty of anything yet, she has a right to due process. I don’t think her administration is a complete mess Josh, like you do.”
This was quite the reversal for Morganelli, who called the OAG “adrift at sea” last month.
Nevertheless, the statement was meant with a smattering of applause and highlighted an intriguing conundrum in this race. Should the candidates run away from Kane or seek to appeal to her loyalists in the Democratic Party?
It’s clear Shapiro is running from Kane while Morganelli is defending her. It’s unclear which tract Zappala will ultimately take.
John Morganelli found one more opportunity to needle Shapiro, though, when the Montco Commissioner talk about how the county granted marriage licenses before the State Supreme Court struck down the ban.
“I don’t want to pick on Josh all day,” Morganelli stated, prompting laughter from the audience. He then brought up a 2004 Project Vote Smart questionnaire where Shapiro indicated that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“Now, I don’t mind that you’ve changed your mind, but don’t tell these folks you were in the forefront. I’ve evolved, many people have evolved, but you were not in the forefront Josh.”
Shapiro asked for voters to judge him on his legislative record, including co-sponsoring a housing discrimination bill and sponsoring the hate crimes bill.
For all the fireworks, the moderator was able to get all three men to pledge their support for the eventual nominee.
This debate proved, however, that this has been and will likely remain a brutal primary battle.