How is the Pennsylvania attorney general’s race between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican John Rafferty so different than virtually all other political races?
The best explanation came from a question posed by a middle school student at Abrams Hebrew Academy, where Shapiro addressed a group of some 75 students Oct. 26.
“Do you like your opponent?” she asked, no doubt having seen so many ads where one side attacks the other.
“I like pretty much everyone,” Shapiro replied. “I don’t agree with [Rafferty] on everything. We have a lot of differences.
“But politics should be less about whether you like or don’t like someone. It shouldn’t be so personal. The ads I put on TV are about my ideas, not the personal insults you’re hearing too much of. When I go out and campaign and give speeches, it’s about my ideas and what I’ll do to help make Pennsylvania safer.”
Former deputy attorney general Rafferty, a state senator representing District 44, which includes parts of Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties, feels much the same way.
“I’ve known Josh for a long time,” said Rafferty following an Oct. 26 meeting with supporters at the Desmond Hotel in Malvern. “I authored the transportation bill in 2013 that gave us money to fix the roads.
“Josh, as [Montgomery] County Commissioner, was very helpful getting that to governor’s desk.”
Beyond that, though, they do have fundamental differences.
“He’s a captive to the [National Rifle Association],” said Shapiro, a member of the state House from 2005 to 2012 before becoming a member and chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “I believe in getting illegal guns off our streets.
“I support a woman’s right to choose, and he’s profoundly against that and has sponsored legislation against abortion. I’m a strong supporter of our LGBTQ community, and he has stood in the doorway to progress there.”
Rafferty responded by noting that none of it is relevant to the attorney general’s position.
“If there’s anything done legislatively on guns or abortion, it’s done in the legislature,” Rafferty said. “It’s not done by the attorney general.
“I didn’t raise those issues. They were raised by him. I focused on the heroin epidemic, elder fraud abuse, the childhood pedophile situations. Those are the topics important to the people of Pennsylvania.”
Both sides do agree on the chaotic state of the office itself, as former Attorney General Kathleen Kane was forced to step down in August over obstruction of justice and perjury charges that led to her being convicted and sentenced to prison.
“Obviously, the office is a mess and needs cleaning up,” Shapiro said. “I’m the only candidate running with any executive experience, since I run Pennsylvania’s third-largest county.
“Within the first six months, we can have a really top-notch, diverse staff and put systems in place that will elevate the office.”
Rafferty believes that transformation is already taking place under interim Attorney General Bruce Beemer.
“Certainly, I’ll put in my own executive team and review all the people who are in that office,” Rafferty said. “Fortunately, I have knowledge of that office and the workings of it.
“Having been there, that would be a plus for me going forward and morale-wise it would be a boost for the staff.”
Conceding that Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold, the 63-year-old Rafferty said he’s counting on support in other parts of the state, particularly in western Pennsylvania.
“We’ll do well in the southeast, in the blue-collar counties and the rest of the state,” he said.
He said he might pick up a few Jewish votes along the way.
“Certain members of the Jewish community laud me,” Rafferty said. “When they passed legislation out of the House for Holocaust education, it was fluff. It was a very soft bill. When it came over to the Senate, I stiffened the language, because I made it not a ‘may’ bill but a ‘must’ bill. They must teach Holocaust education and about genocide.”
Rafferty said he didn’t truly appreciate the horrors of the Holocaust until seeing a filmstrip about the Nuremberg Trials in ninth grade, but Shapiro told the kids at Abrams a story that transformed him.
“I was in fifth grade in Jewish day school sitting in an assembly like you are when someone talked to us about kids who were Jewish in the Soviet Union,” the 43-year-old Shapiro recalled. “They couldn’t go to synagogue or read Torah or celebrate Shabbat, or all the other things you take for granted.
So he launched a letter-writing campaign, putting pressure on the Soviets to free the Jews. Specifically, he wrote to a boy his age named Avi Goldstein, developing a relationship that eventually led to Avi coming over to attend Josh’s Bar Mitzvah. They remain friends today.
“That was the first time in my life I realized there were Jews who needed help, and I needed to do something about it,” Shapiro said.
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