If Pennsylvania Democrats ever hope to elect a state attorney general, this would be the year, with two well-qualified candidates seeking the party's nomination in the April 24 primary.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bucks County and Kathleen Kane, a former Lackawanna County assistant district attorney, offer impressive legal resumes, and possess the skill and passion to excel as the state's top law-enforcement official.
The winner will face the unopposed Republican, Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed. Throw into the mix the independent candidacy of a former state auditor general with potential name recognition among voters, and the three-way race could test the GOP's 30-year iron grip since the post became elective.
That is, unless the two Democrats bruise each other so badly that voters turn away in disgust. One particularly pointless campaign spat is over how Kane and Murphy might differ on enforcing a misguided, but as-yet merely proposed, legal requirement that women seeking an abortion submit first to an invasive ultrasound test.
Voters should be more interested in how the candidates will carry out the core functions of the office, which include high-profile public corruption cases like the Bonusgate scandal, grand-jury probes like the Jerry Sandusky sex-crime charges, and a host of consumer and environmental protection matters. The attorney general also handles local criminal cases when a district attorney has a potential conflict.
A decorated veteran who was a judge advocate with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and Bosnia, Murphy, 38, represented a congressional swing district in Bucks for two terms. In Congress, he distinguished himself as a moderate, for his outspoken opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, and for leading the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays.
Now at a large Philadelphia law firm, Murphy says he would "fight to protect the middle class, preserve the environment, and defend women's rights." On guns, the police union-endorsed Murphy is outspoken in favor of Second Amendment rights, but says he would be tough on illegal trafficking in weapons.
While she is based in the Scranton area, Kane, 45, began her law career handling civil cases at a Philadelphia firm before joining the Lackawanna County district attorney's staff. For nearly a dozen years as a prosecutor, until 2007, Kane handled hundreds of criminal cases. She began in the sex-abuse unit, but also prosecuted murder, assault, rape, public corruption, and fraud cases.
If elected, Kane would be a rarity as a woman holding a top state office, but she says she doesn't see the attorney general's job as a stepping stone to higher office. Having served in Congress, Murphy is seen as more likely to move on after an initial four-year term, but that's hardly disqualifying.
A distinction that does work to Kane's advantage is that she has been thoroughly immersed in the Pennsylvania criminal justice system — a record that Murphy contends is no match for his military and congressional experience.
In a close contest, though, the edge of her experience in Pennsylvania courts goes to political newcomer KATHLEEN KANE in the Democratic race for attorney general.