By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
SUSQUEHANNA TOWNSHIP — Attorney General hopefuls David Freed and Kathleen Kane sparred over their independence and experience on Monday night during the only scheduled debate in the hotly-contested statewide race.
During a snappy 50-minute exchange hosted by Widener Law School just outside of Harrisburg, the two candidates faced questions about their qualifications for the top law enforcement post in the state, their independence from state politics and their plans for the office, if elected.
Kane, a Democrat, repeatedly attacked Freed as the “hand-picked” candidate of Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania Republican Party, which has controlled the attorney general’s office ever since it became an elected office in 1980.
“Pennsylvania needs a tough independent prosecutor who is a watchdog for the people of Pennsylvania,” she said.
Freed stressed his experience and lengthy record as Cumberland County District Attorney.
“My independence has been questioned since the day I entered this race,” he said. “But what I can show you is a record going back seven years.”
On the hot-button issue of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case, both candidates said they would look into how then-attorney general Corbett handled that case, which was opened under his watch before he was elected governor in 2010.
Freed, 42, said he would “review” the handling of the investigation and gave assurances that his relationship with Corbett would not influence any potential decisions.
But at the end of the day, he said, the “proof is in the pudding” because the investigation got convictions on 45 of 48 counts against the former Penn State University football coach who was sentences
Kane, 46, has made Corbett’s handling of Sandusky’s crimes a central part of her campaign, said she would find out “who, what, when and why” regarding the handling of the case and would hold those accountable if mistakes were made.
On several instances, Kane openly questioned Freed’s ability to remain independent of the governor’s office on future investigations.
In response, Freed joked that he “must have missed the call” when Corbett apparently hand selected him to run for the office.
“That was a decision I made on my own,” he said. “The governor made a choice and I’m happy to have his support, but I’m doing this on my own.”
If independence is the hallmark of Kane’s campaign, experience is the pivotal issue for Freed.
Kane has served only as an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, despite what Freed said were her attempts to conflate her experience with his. He was an assistant district attorney from 2001 until he became the district attorney in 2005.
To counter her relative lack of experience, Kane repeatedly brought up her leadership positions on an automobile theft task force and an insurance fraud task force.
“I was the one in the court room. I was the one in the appeals court,” she said.
Both candidates said they favored expanding the role of the attorney general office’s child predator unit and would aggressively go after individuals who create and distribute child pornography.
Both candidates pledged not to seek another office while they were serving as attorney general – though neither would completely rule out running after they completed their time as the state’s top cop.
Neither candidate is running television advertisements in the state right now, but that did not stop advertising from being a particularly contentious issue during the debate.
An anti-Kane ad sponsored by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national campaign group that drops ads into state-level races to benefit GOP candidates, made a splash last month when it erroneously claimed Kane had let a rapist off with an easy sentence, only to have him strike again after being released from prison.
Independent fact-checkers declared the ad to be one of the most misleading of the election cycle, but Kane said Freed should have taken a stand against the ad’s false claims.
Freed said he was disappointed by the ad and said it was not something he wanted to run, but distanced himself from it as well — pointing out, correctly, that he has no ability to control what an independent group puts in their advertisements.
Since the Pennsylvania attorney general became an elected position in 1981, no Democrat or woman has ever won the office, though current Attorney General Linda Kelly is the second woman to be appointed to the office. She is finishing Corbett’s term and promised not to seek re-election as a condition of her appointment.
Kane has lead in every poll on the race, including a new survey by Muhlenberg College and the Allentown Morning Call released Monday.
Experts warn that low profile races like the attorney general contest can have unreliable polling since many voters know little about the candidates until right before the election.
In the poll released Monday, 30 percent of respondents said they were still undecided — more than enough to swing the election to either candidate in the final weeks of the campaign.
Finance reports filed Tuesday show Kane raised $1.47 million since May and has more than $1.2 million on-hand heading into the final weeks of the campaign. But she also has more than $1.8 million in campaign debt, the result of a primary season loan from her husband, Chris Kane, an executive with the national Kane Is Able trucking company.
Freed raised nearly $870,000 since May and has $1.02 million in his war chest, along with about $100,000 of in-kind contributions and campaign debt, according to the newest reports.
Kane also has the biggest name in the battle for endorsements — former President Bill Clinton stumped for her during the primary and returned to Pennsylvania for a fundraiser in early October.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for breaking news