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Not your stepping-stone? Dems' dustup marks race to succeed Kathleen Kane

Three Democrats and two Republicans claim they have the right skills and experience to clean up the high-profile, dysfunctional mess that is the office of Pennsylvania attorney general.

Three Democrats and two Republicans claim they have the right skills and experience to clean up the high-profile, dysfunctional mess that is the office of Pennsylvania attorney general.

The current attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, is not seeking a second term as she prepares for a criminal trial in August, accused of leaking secret grand-jury materials and lying to a grand jury about it.

The Democrats, who appear to have the more competitive race on next Tuesday's primary ballot, have stepped carefully around Kane's legal woes while casting them as the reason to elect them to the office, where they would oversee 763 employees and an annual budget of more than $95 million.

Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County Commission and a former state legislator, said Kane's lack of both "executive experience" and "political sophistication" caused her to make mistakes.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who has three times run unsuccessfully for attorney general and has spent much of his latest try criticizing Shapiro, agreed that Kane's limited experience as a boss had caused her problems.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., who testified as an expert witness to the grand jury that recommended the charges against Kane, touts his experience overseeing grand juries for nearly two decades.

Experience and ambition are at the heart of the Democratic primary, since the candidates show little disagreement on issues.

Beyond "chippy" political attacks, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, experience levels may be the biggest difference between the candidates.

"Is the state interested in turning to experienced prosecutors," Borick said, "or are [voters] looking more at individuals that might bring broader experience to the office?"

Shapiro, with a welter of big-name Democrats' endorsements - President Obama, Gov. Wolf, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. - is helped by strong name recognition in southeastern Pennsylvania's media market. His rivals have hit on his lack of prosecutorial experience.

"He's got the biggest target on his back," Borick said of Shapiro, because he has such prominent endorsements and is from the state's populous southeast corner.

Zappala, district attorney since 1998, holds a similar advantage in western Pennsylvania. His name, too, is well-known - his father, Stephen Sr., is a retired state Supreme Court chief justice.

Zappala, who has not faced a primary or general-election challenger in Allegheny County in the last 16 years, is also backed by some Philadelphia Democrats - such as Mayor Kenney, the party's city committee, and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III.

Morganelli, who boasts of being the state's longest-serving district attorney with 24 years on the job, said he is the only Democrat in the race who has prosecuted criminal cases in court.

Shapiro has dismissed Morganelli for running a "kamikaze campaign"meant to help Zappala. Morganelli and Zappala deny any such scheme. Morganelli has focused his criticism on Shapiro's having accepted cmpaign donations from political action committees of firms that received Montgomery County contracts.

Shapiro hits back, saying Morganelli can cite that information because of transparency policies that Shapiro, as chairman of the county commissioners, helped institute.

The other knock on Shapiro has been that he is already looking for higher office, perhaps a bid for governor some day. Zappala and Morganelli each used the term "stepping-stone," saying that's why some candidates seek to become attorney general.

Shapiro responded by saying he has been recruited to run for the U.S. house and Senate but declined - because he sees attorney general as the job in which he can "actually decide something in the morning and get it done by afternoon."

"I have no plans or interests in running for anything else," he said. "This is the job I want."

As the primary nears, he leads the money race: Campaign finance reports filed Friday showed Shapiro with $1 million in the bank, while Morganelli had $367,170 and Zappala had $117,788.

The GOP primary has been a less contentious, two-way contest between State Sen. John Rafferty, who has the backing of the state party, and Joe Peters, a former prosecutor who previously worked as a top aide to Kane.

Rafferty, of Montgomery County, became the first candidate in either party to officially enter the race last summer, citing a "black cloud" over Kane's office in his announcement speech.

Rafferty, serving his fourth state Senate term, previously worked as a private lawyer. He was also a deputy attorney general from 1988 to 1991, prosecuting Medicaid fraud.

He also launched a campaign for attorney general in 2012, but dropped out after then-Gov. Tom Corbett backed Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed - who lost to Kane.

Peters is running on his record as a longtime prosecutor who has never held political office. He has pressed on despite losing the party's endorsement, saying his 17 years working in the Attorney General's Office make him most qualified for the job.

Peters, of Wyoming County, last worked in that office under Kane, in an advisory and communications role, for less than a year before resigning in 2014.

"The final judgments are left for the criminal court," he said of Kane. "...I left [the office] when I thought it was appropriate and there's really not much else to say on that issue."

As for Kane's effect on the race, analyst Borick said her tumultuous time in the office, which comes with a $158,700 annual salary, has caused every candidate to talk about restoring integrity to the job.

"It's hard to discern if her very rocky years in office advantage any particular candidate's message," Borick said, "especially when they're all trumpeting how different they are from what has transpired during her tenure."

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973

@ByChrisBrennan

Bios

Joshua D. Shapiro

Age: 42

Residence: Abington Township, Montgomery County.

Family: Wife Lori, four children.

Education: Bachelor's degree from University of Rochester; law degree from Georgetown University.

Occupation: chairman, Montgomery County commissioners; lawyer.

Campaign website: www.joshshapiro.org.

Career: Member of the state House of Representatives, 2005-12; current chairman, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency; vice chairman, Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority.

Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Age: 58

Residence: Pittsburgh.

Family: Wife Mary, four children.

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Pittsburgh; law degree, Duquesne University School of Law.

Occupation: Allegheny County district attorney.

Campaign website: zappalaforpa.com

Career: Five terms as district attorney, 14 years in private practice.

John M. Morganelli

Age: 60.

Residence: Bethlehem.

Family: Wife Diana, three children.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Moravian College; law degree, Villanova University.

Occupation: Northampton County district attorney.

Campaign website: www.johnmorganelli.com

Career: District attorney since 1992; past president of Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

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