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Rendell endorsement triggers courtroom experience dispute in Pa. AG race

| Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, 12:06 p.m.
Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

HARRISBURG — In the competitive Democratic race for Pennsylvania attorney general, the party's heavyweight has weighed in, touching off a war of words between two candidates about their courtroom experience.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell on Wednesday endorsed Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro, giving his campaign a boost but no decisive advantage over Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and two other likely opponents in the April primary, political analysts said.

As a former district attorney and party elder, Rendell could appeal to party leaders to raise money for Shapiro.

His backing “lends legitimacy and credentials with them,” said Tom Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Zappala's campaign manager Marty Marks downplayed Rendell's announcement as one that “was fully expected, based on their long political relationship.”

“No endorsements can obscure the fact that Josh Shapiro is fundamentally flawed for this particular office,” Marks said. “He is a full-time politician and a part-time lawyer who has never tried either a criminal or civil case in court. That is a glaring deficit for someone running to be the top legal representative and law enforcement officer in the state.”

Reached by phone while campaigning in Scranton, Zappala acknowledged that he has not tried a criminal case during his 18 years as district attorney. He said he handled criminal cases as a defense attorney early in his career and worked civil cases before being appointed district attorney in 1998. He supervises 118 lawyers and directs their prosecutions.

“I certainly know the criminal side of it, and I think I know the civil side, too,” said Zappala of Fox Chapel. “I have more than sufficient background to address any of the matters that come through the (attorney general's) office.”

Several district attorneys who testified during a recent Senate hearing presented a range of direct involvement in criminal cases. District attorneys in smaller counties said they often try cases, but those in larger counties rarely appear in court.

In the April primary, Shapiro and Zappala could square off against Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, the most senior district attorney in Pennsylvania, and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who has said she will seek re-election despite facing criminal charges.

Candidates must file nominating petitions by Feb. 16. Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County is the only announced Republican candidate.

Shapiro's aide Joe Radosevich noted that the office has broad responsibilities and said Pennsylvanians want an attorney general “who can lead with integrity for a change, clean up a mess and protect everyone.”

Kane's trial on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and official oppression is scheduled for Aug. 8 in Montgomery County. Prosecutors say she schemed to leak grand jury material to a newspaper in an attempt to embarrass a political foe, then lied about her actions. The Supreme Court suspended Kane's law license, effective in October, because of the criminal charges.

Zappala's campaign noted that he received the first major labor endorsement in the race from the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council.

But Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor with appeal in Southeastern Pennsylvania and national Democratic ties, “opens up fundraising” for Shapiro, said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia media consultant.

“It's certainly a big help,” said Jack Treadway, former political science professor at Kutztown State University. To do well in a statewide election, a Democrat needs to roll up big numbers in Philadelphia.

Endorsements are useful, but “they don't equate to victory,” Baldino said. Rendell endorsed Kane's 2012 primary campaign opponent Patrick Murphy, who lost.

Rendell could not be reached for comment.

As a former prosecutor, Rendell brings some “validation” in the law enforcement arena to Shapiro, a former legislator, Ceisler said.

“I know how important it is to have a strong, principled leader dealing with matters of law and order,” Rendell wrote in a statement that cited Shapiro's executive experience running the state's third-largest county.

Rendell's support of Shapiro is “another vote of no-confidence for Kathleen Kane,” said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. “It also clearly illustrates how unpopular she has become within her own party.”

Rendell recently testified on Kane's behalf before a Senate committee that recommended the full Senate vote on removing her from office if the state Supreme Court upholds its suspension of her license.

Brad Bumsted and Aaron Aupperlee are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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