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Gun control key difference among state attorney general candidates

Both candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general hail from Montgomery County, and both pledge to bring integrity to an office plagued by scandal and dysfunction in the last two years.

Republican John Rafferty (left) and Democrat Josh Shapiro.
Republican John Rafferty (left) and Democrat Josh Shapiro.Read more

Both candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general hail from Montgomery County, and both pledge to bring integrity to an office plagued by scandal and dysfunction in the last two years.

John Rafferty and Josh Shapiro want voters to believe the similarities end there.

Rafferty, a Republican state senator, says his time as a deputy attorney general from 1988 to 1991 gave him prosecutorial experience for the top job. And he highlights his legislative record in pushing to help law enforcement.

Shapiro, a Democrat in his fourth year as chairman of the county commissioners, says he has executive experience the Attorney General's Office needs, and touts his track record of bringing stability to a county administration previously wracked by infighting.

In a nod to former Attorney General Kathleen Kane's plunge from rising star to embattled prosecutor and convicted felon, both say they are best suited to restore trust in the office. On a few issues - notably, gun control - they hold starkly different opinions. And as the race enters its final stretch, Shapiro holds a commanding funding lead.

But in this election year, the outcome of a race between two men from the same county whose names might be unfamiliar to most Pennsylvania voters might be beyond their control, said political analyst Chris Borick.

"The names Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are going to have a lot more to say on who wins the attorney general race in Pennsylvania than the name Kathleen Kane," said Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. "Both Rafferty and Shapiro are fairly known entities within Harrisburg and within political circles, but they're certainly not household names within Pennsylvania."

As the state's top law enforcement officer, the attorney general makes $158,764 and supervises 759 employees. The office's reach can be broad - it oversaw the investigation and prosecution of serial sex predator Jerry Sandusky; corruption probes that netted convictions against legislators and their staffers; and the ongoing examination of the alleged cover-up of clergy sex abuse by six Catholic dioceses statewide.

The attorney general's seat can also be a gateway to higher office, as it was for Gov. Tom Corbett.

That's been one of Rafferty's knocks against Shapiro - that he intends to use the office as "a stepping-stone" to another political job.

"This is rental space for him," said Rafferty, a 63-year-old Audubon resident who has pledged not to seek a higher office.

Shapiro, 43, of Abington, responds by saying he is focused on serving as attorney general.

Differences on guns

"I want to be attorney general," Shapiro said. "I'm going to serve a full term, and God willing, I'll have the opportunity to run for a second term."

The former state representative is a corporate, real estate, and regulatory compliance lawyer with the Philadelphia law firm Stradley Ronon.

He has promised to bring more fairness to the criminal justice system, enhance consumer protections, deal with drug overdoses, work to reduce illegal gun ownership, and address pollution issues.

Rafferty is serving his third term in the state Senate, representing a district that spans parts of Montgomery, Chester, and Berks Counties. As a deputy attorney general, he prosecuted Medicaid fraud.

He has campaigned on a platform to address drug-addiction issues, crack down on financial abuse of elderly citizens, expand task forces to address gun violence, and create an animal-abuse investigation unit in the office.

Shapiro says Rafferty is too close to gun-rights lobbyists. The National Rifle Association gave Rafferty an A- rating, citing his "opposition to gun control" and support of a proposed law allowing the NRA to sue Pennsylvania municipalities if their gun-control regulations are stricter than state law.

"I protect Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens," Rafferty said in an interview.

Major difference

Rafferty says he does support cracking down on illegal guns, citing his support of the Brad Fox Law - named after a Plymouth Township police officer killed while on duty - to impose mandatory minimum sentences on straw purchasers of firearms.

Shapiro said he opposes the NRA-backed measure on suing municipalities - struck down by the courts but being reconsidered in the legislature - that some municipalities say could result in financially crushing judgments. He also supports stricter regulations such as universal background checks for gun owners, stances that earned him a D from the NRA.

"I think this is a major-league difference between us," Shapiro said in an interview.

Rafferty has criticized Shapiro for receiving a $250,000 campaign contribution from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a vocal gun-control advocate.

Shapiro, in turn, has criticized his opponent for not disavowing his party's presidential nominee, as other Republicans have.

"I don't blame him for being on the ticket of Trump," Shapiro said. "I do blame him for failing to stand up and condemn Trump's xenophobic, sexist, racist, misogynistic comments over time."

Rafferty issued a statement after a 2005 video was made public in which Trump boasted of kissing and groping women without their consent, calling Trump's comments "inexcusable and reprehensible." He stops short of saying he endorses Trump, but says: "I support my ticket."

Shapiro has campaigned and appeared at rallies with Hillary Clinton, and touts an endorsement by President Obama.

He also has a leg up on his rival when it comes to money. Campaign-finance records released Friday show he had $1.17 million on hand as of Oct. 22.

By contrast, Rafferty had $167,000.