After Kathleen Kane coasted to victory Tuesday in the race for Pennsylvania attorney general, becoming the first Democrat to hold the post since it became an elective one and the first woman elected for the job, some sources said the office would focus more on advocating for consumer protection.
“The thing that will change the most is the making use of the public advocacy authority of the attorney general,” said Louis J. Rovelli, who spent more than three decades in the office.
Among the three main duties of the office — criminal prosecutions, civil representation of the commonwealth and public protection — Rovelli said he would expect public and consumer protection cases to “receive greater emphasis in a Democratic institution.”
Kane, a former Lackawanna County assistant district attorney, topped Republican candidate David Freed, the district attorney of Cumberland County, in what was a Democratic sweep of the state’s three row offices on election night. With more than 56 percent, Kane was the leading vote-getter on the statewide ballot.
The office has been an elected position since 1980 and had been controlled exclusively by Republicans until Tuesday. The list of elected attorneys general includes Governor Tom Corbett, whose administration Kane vowed to “investigate” regarding its handling of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
Freed conceded the race after early returns confirmed a decisive lead for Kane.
“I knew when I entered this race that it would be hard-fought,” Freed said in a statement. “I’m proud of the campaign we ran and the effort that my outstanding team put forward.”
While Kane has long stressed she is a “prosecutor, not a politician,” her breaking of a GOP monopoly, after first securing the Democratic nomination over a well-known former congressman, Patrick Murphy, reflects the execution of an effective political strategy.
In a heated primary against Murphy, Kane used a $2 million loan from her husband to bolster her name recognition with television ads and edge the better-known candidate.
Her financial approach changed for the general election, as Kane picked up donations from a handful of trial lawyers and law firms in the state.
Freed received his share of support from the legal profession, but the bulk of his financial backing came from business advocates and executives across the state.
Though Freed had history on his side, it appears that Kane’s campaign caught a wave of momentum in dispatching a primary opponent. Freed, who ran unopposed in the GOP primary, was never able to catch up to his general election opponent.
“I think she ran the best campaign of any Democratic candidate for Attorney General’s Office since the Office of Attorney General became elective,” Rovelli said. “It’s a real milestone for the state of Pennsylvania to have a Democratic attorney general for the first time.”
‘a new sheriff in town’
One of Kane’s biggest legal backers said the candidate first struck him because of her interest in learning about the office. According to Donald E. Haviland Jr., Kane wanted to know where the office had succeeded, and where it had fallen short.
Haviland said his Philadelphia firm, Haviland Hughes, donated to and supported both candidates. However, at the end of the day, Haviland said Kane was the better candidate.
In talking with Kane, Haviland said he quickly learned she would be “more receptive to hearing about what’s going on in the country” and assessing those issues at home in Pennsylvania.
It’s, as Haviland put it, “the kind of thing we haven’t had since the office was put in place.”
Haviland has represented the state in suits against pharmaceutical companies for overcharging the state for prescription drug reimbursements and said Kane “fits the mold very well” of an attorney general who would not let political considerations factor into the commonwealth’s civil or prosecutorial scope.
One example of that “mold” to which Haviland pointed was Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general who recently made headlines for bringing a lawsuit against a national mortgage registry for deceptive trade practices.
“Banks, of all things,” Haviland said. “Banks in Delaware. It’s potentially political suicide for somebody.”
As for Kane, “there’s a new sheriff in town,” he said.
An office overhaul? maybe not
Following the election, there was also a question as to how Kane would retool the office. It was unclear at this point to what extent Kane would be bringing in fresh faces or how politics would factor into that decision, if at all.
But Rovelli said there is always a “natural turnover of personnel that comes with a change of administration,” regardless of political considerations.
Rovelli, who worked under several administrations, added that the political landscape of the Attorney General’s Office is more subtle than it may be perceived by “a fan in the stands.”
“The change will occur within the context of professionalism,” Rovelli said. “And I don’t think Kathleen Kane would disagree with that one.”
First orders of business
Sean Connolly, public relations lead at the Bravo Group in Harrisburg, said Kane’s first order of business as chief legal officer needs to be transition.
“Attorney General-elect Kane now needs to assemble a transition team that understands how the Office of Attorney General operates and how it can better serve the people of Pennsylvania,” Connolly said. “It’s great to run for office as an outsider but once you take over, you need to be able to get things done. That’s where a transition team becomes invaluable.”
Kane said in an election-night interview with the Associated Press that among her first imperatives, she would assemble a transition team to prepare for her term.
She also said she would make good on her promise to investigate the office’s handling of the Sandusky investigation, which recently led to a conviction of 45 counts of sexual abuse.
Kane was not available for comment Wednesday.
Kane was outspoken throughout her campaign that the 33-month investigation Corbett’s office started took entirely too long. She distinguished herself from Freed, who promised a “review” of Corbett’s office’s investigation, saying Freed’s connections to and endorsement from Corbett could leave stones left unturned. She drew distinctions on gun laws and political independence, calling herself the truly “independent” prosecutor among the two main party candidates. She said she was not afraid to go after the “good ol’ boy” network in Harrisburg.
Freed, on the other hand, stressed his experience as a district attorney, pointing to both his prosecutorial and administrative roles in that office. He dismissed allegations that he was a cog in the GOP machine and promised that his office would go after anybody on the wrong side of the law.
Corbett has publicly welcomed Kane’s look into his office’s investigation of Sandusky and Penn State, where Sandusky molested a number of his victims.
Connolly, who writes a political column for The Legal, defended Corbett’s approach.
“I cannot recall an attorney general in the nation who’s been more aggressive in going after child predators than Tom Corbett.”
(Connolly spent years as press secretary in the Attorney General’s Office, but was not there when Corbett launched the investigation into Sandusky.)
Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr., president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said the state bar plans to welcome Kane by inviting her to meet with its leaders.
The PBA has collaborated with past attorneys general on issues ranging from the unauthorized practice of law, consumer protection cases, campaigns on child-abuse reporting requirements, and “safe surf” Internet protection measures and online bullying prevention.
“Her passion for child protection dovetails with a number of our initiatives,” Wilkinson said.