HARRISBURG - Jerry Sandusky, guns, experience and independence from Gov. Tom Corbett became flashpoints between the two candidates vying for attorney general during a tense and fast-paced debate Monday night that will be the only one before voters elect the state's top law enforcement official on Nov. 6.
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed and former Lackawanna County prosecutor Kathleen Kane also sounded off on their potential family conflicts with the office, and a million-dollar ad campaign by a national Republican group that has been condemned by editorial boards and columnists.
The tone between the two was cordial, but neither failed to attack or return to their dominant theme on almost every question: Freed, a Republican, said he is more experienced because of his seven years as an elected district attorney and Kane, a Democrat, said Freed will not be independent of Corbett.
The questions, posed by a panel of Capitol reporters at the Widener University Law School in suburban Harrisburg, ranged from what would be their first priority in office to what campaign contributors want from them.
But the first question in the hourlong event was about Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach now behind bars for molesting and sexually abusing boys, and why and how they would look into the attorney general's office handling of the investigation, which began when Corbett was attorney general.
Freed said he understood that people have questions when serious crimes happen and are going to be angry, even when there's a conviction.
His review, he said, would be similar to what he's done in cases where there's use of force by law enforcement, although he also tried to point out that the proof that it was handled properly is in the pudding: Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts.
The question went to Kane's strengths. She used it to talk about her record prosecuting child sex abuse cases and to highlight how Corbett endorsed Freed and helped clear the primary field for him, while she ran in a contested primary.
"The why it is very simple. I was a child abuse prosecutor, it has never taken me 33 months to get a predator, a pedophile off the streets," Kane shot back. "One month, fine. ... I truly will conduct an independent investigation, not a review."
She also said she never used a grand jury as a child abuse prosecutor because it takes too long, but Freed responded that as an "experienced" prosecutor, he would not limit the kind of tools he has to handle with a case.
Asked about their first priority in office, Kane hit populist notes: cleaning up corruption in Harrisburg and adding staff to the public corruption unit. Then she used it to play up Freed's ties to Corbett, suggesting that he would not prosecute corruption as aggressively.
"The fact that he is a sitting district attorney is not the difference between us," Kane said. "The difference between us is independence."
Freed pushed back on that line of attack, citing cases of public officials he pursued.
"I must have missed the phone call when Gov. Corbett called and hand-picked me to run for attorney general," Freed said. "That was a decision I made on my own based on my record and the breadth of experience I'd gained as a DA."
Freed said the biggest issue for law enforcement is lack of money, and that he would work to ensure there is cooperation and sharing between law enforcement agencies at a time when budgets are guaranteed not to expand.
"I know it's not the sexiest answer," Freed said, and added that he would start a special victims unit, make the state a leader in investigating cybercrime and battle synthetic drugs.
On gun laws, Freed said he does not support requiring someone to report a lost or stolen handgun in an effort to stop straw purchasers from feeding guns to criminals; Kane does support such a change in the law.
On the anti-Kane ad campaign by the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, Freed said he was disappointed by it, but it wasn't the ad he would have run and he'd had no say over it.