Kane’s legal woes stoke interest in 2016 election

HARRISBURG – The 2016 campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general is off to an uncertain start as candidates and prospective candidates line up without knowing whether they will be running against embattled incumbent Kathleen Kane or for an open seat.

Regardless of Kane’s status, one Democrat and two Republicans have already declared their candidacy, six months before the deadline for nomination petitions. Others are waiting – and watching.

Kane, who made history in 2012 by becoming the first woman and the first Democrat to be elected as the state’s top law-enforcement official, has said she plans to seek re-election even though Democrats including Gov. Tom Wolf have called on her to step down. But for now, she is defending herself against criminal charges including perjury, false swearing and obstruction.

Uncertainty over Kane’s future, including a potential trial that could spill over into next year, may complicate the endorsements for attorney general the Democratic Party will consider early next year.

It also is throwing open the doors to a potential political free-for-all, but so far it has not attracted big-city prosecutors whose name are most familiar to voters, such as district attorneys Stephen Zappala of Allegheny County or Seth Williams of Philadelphia.

Kane, who says she has done nothing wrong, is “a wounded candidate under the best of circumstances,” said Marcel Groen, a Montgomery County lawyer who is unopposed for election next month as the state Democratic Party’s chairman. “It’s a sad situation. I think she should have taken a leave of absence.”

Kane contends that the office has run efficiently under her leadership: In the last 15 months, her office has announced more than 200 child predator arrests and more than 1,100 drug arrests, as well as a settlement with electricity suppliers to return $2.4 million to consumers, she said this month.

“As you can see, and as any mother of two young boys can you tell you, we are experts at multitasking,” she said.

Republicans hoping to recapture the office after only four years “would love nothing more than having that issue … play out in a general election,” Groen said of Kane’s legal problems. “It may or may not be fair, but it is real.”

A battle over the Republican nomination is already heating up between two Montgomery County legislators – Sen. John Rafferty and Rep. Todd Stephens, who threw his hat into the ring Thursday.

Rafferty, a fourth-term senator, is the Transportation Committee chairman who championed the $2 billion-plus transportation improvement program approved in 2013. Before running for the Senate, he served as a deputy attorney general with responsibility for the criminal law division and grand jury probes.

Rafferty campaigned briefly for the office before the 2012 election but dropped out when then-Gov. Tom Corbett instead endorsed Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, whom Kane ultimately defeated.

Stephens, who is serving his third term in the House, is contrasting his record as a county and federal prosecutor for nearly a decade with Rafferty’s more limited courtroom experience.

“Now, more than ever, we need an experienced prosecutor as our attorney general,” he says in a campaign video.

Rafferty says his experience as a lawyer, legislator and businessman has prepared him for the job.

“My strong record of being an effective leader and my prosecutorial experience earned me the endorsements of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, State Fraternal Order of Police and the State Professional Firefighters Association,” he said.

Besides Kane, the only declared Democratic candidate so far is Jack Stollsteimer, a lawyer and former prosecutor in Delaware County whose only previous campaign experience was an unsuccessful bid for state House in 1992. He works for an auditing company that helps states return unclaimed property to its owners.

Many Democratic insiders say Montgomery County Commissioner Chairman Josh Shapiro is likely to run, although he won’t confirm it. The former state representative is running this year for re-election to his county job and is Wolf’s appointee as chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

“I am focused on my two jobs right now,” Shapiro said.

John Morganelli, Northampton County’s district attorney for 24 years, says he is considering running for attorney general a fourth time after losing primaries in 2000 and 2004 and the general election in 2008. Morganelli supported Kane in 2012, but now says her missteps have hurt the party’s prospects.

“It’s going to be really hard for any Democrat to win this race,” he said.

Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at pjackson@ap.org.