Attorney general office's history changed Tuesday
In 1980, when Pennsylvania voters got to pick a state attorney general for the first time, the Democratic candidate came to Scranton and said he would be a "people's lawyer" if elected.
During appearances at the old Hotel Casey and elsewhere on a fall day in late October, the late Michael O'Pake, the longtime state senator from Reading, said he wanted to enforce laws to protect the consumer and didn't think the office should necessarily be run like a district attorney's office.
But voters elected Republican LeRoy Zimmerman, a former Dauphin County DA, as attorney general in that year of the Reagan landslide. Zimmerman stressed his credentials as a prosecutor and relied on a network of DAs and law enforcement officers to help win election.
Both candidates ran for an office in 1980 whose specific duties and powers were only outlined in an enabling act approved just weeks before the election. The hang-up to getting that law on the books was crafting a compromise to create the new appointive office of general counsel to the governor.
Statewide voters approved the transition from an attorney general appointed by the governor to an elective office in a 1978 referendum. The issue was on the ballot the same year a former federal prosecutor by the name of Dick Thornburgh was elected governor. The Watergate scandal and a wave of corruption at the state level built momentum for the change.
For the next 32 years, Republican candidates kept a lock on the office, touting their prosecutorial experience and running on a law-and-order message to handily defeat their Democratic opponents. Ernie Preate was the Lackawanna County DA before winning election in 1988. Michael Fisher was a veteran senator when elected in 1996, but he could point to a stint in the 1970s as an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County. Elected AG in 2004, Tom Corbett, who is now the governor, had previously been U.S. Attorney for western Pennsylvania.
None of the Democratic candidates over the years tried to follow O'Pake's path in promising to be a "people's lawyer" but they had a hard time trying to outshine their GOP counterparts on prosecutorial chops. John Morganelli, the party's candidate in 2008, was the longtime Northampton County DA but by then Corbett was in the midst of the Bonusgate investigation.
All that history changes with the election of Democrat Kathleen Kane of Waverly Township as the new attorney general. Kane has spent 12 years as a Lackawanna County assistant district attorney specializing in child abuse cases. That background proved relevant when the handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse investigation became a central issue in the campaign.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)