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Eugene DePasquale launches bid in crucial 2024 attorney general race

Eugene DePasquale speaking at a lectern
Matt Rourke
Eugene DePasquale speaking during a Pennsylvania Democratic Party fundraiser in Philadelphia, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Former state auditor general Eugene DePasquale says he will run for state Attorney General next year, becoming the first entrant in a race whose statewide importance could vie with the battle over the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Casey.

“You’ve seen my work as auditor general,” said DePasquale, a Pittsburgh native whose family has known both struggle and political success. “You know my personal background. Having those two backgrounds in your next attorney general is the right way to make sure Pennsylvanians are protected.”

The attorney general is the state’s top lawyer, overseeing an office whose lawyers represent the state in litigation while upholding the law in areas like consumer-protection and prosecuting crimes that range from public corruption to drug trafficking. Former attorney general Josh Shapiro left the office to become governor early this year, and it’s currently run by caretaker Michelle Henry.

DePasquale’s bid comes as little surprise: He told WESA this past winter that he was exploring a run and political coverage elsewhere has often identified him as a likely candidate, in part because he’s been talking to Democrats around the state.

“I have strong progressive credentials especially on reproductive freedom, [rights for the] LGBTQ community,” DePasquale said. “But when it comes to enforcing the law in a fair way, I heard over and over again that [voters] saw what I did as auditor general, and that's what we need as attorney general.”

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DePasquale was auditor general for two terms between 2013 to 2020. Prior to that he served in the state House representing York County from 2007 to 2013.

While DePasquale is a lawyer, he doesn’t have a background in law enforcement, traditionally a common part of the resume for candidates seeking such a position. Then again, Shapiro didn’t have that background when he took office, either. And DePasquale stressed that much of his work as auditor general involved law enforcement concerns.

“I’m the one that cracked down on the untested rape kits and helped a whole lot of victims get some semblance of justice,” he said, referring to a 2016 audit that showed thousands of rape kits that had never been used to identify an assailant. DePasquale similarly used audits to expose lapses on a state child-abuse hotline, and to identify effective drug-treatment policies.

"I take a backseat to no one when it comes to protecting Pennsylvanians,” he said.

DePasquale pledged to be particularly zealous on addressing gun crime, an issue that marries traditional law-and-order concerns with a longstanding Democratic wariness about firearms. “The scourge of gun violence has to be tackled,” he said, pledging to bring the office’s resources to bear on pursuing not just those who use the weapons criminally but to those who may illegally provide the weapons to them.

But much as Shapiro once did, DePasquale touts the fact that the office’s reach extends beyond crime and into areas like environmental and consumer protection.

“I would bet that 10 years ago, what people would have said about this job would be all related to crime,” he said. But on issues like LGBT rights, student loans, abortion and other areas too, people were looking for “someone that has the toughness to take on those fights and have people’s back.”

Among issues he expressed concern about were conservative efforts to ban books from school libraries. While he said parents should have a right to weigh in on what their kids read, when he was growing up, “They didn’t call the governor” to resolve them.

DePasquale was vague about he would respond to such efforts as attorney general: “I want to withhold judgment” depending on what form such efforts took, he said. But he added, “If they’re actually banning a book, I would strongly consider weighing in with the office.”

He said consumer protection powers, meanwhile, could be used to ensure that student loans properly advised borrowers about interest rates and costs. And while a crucial healthcare agreement between Highmark and UPMC hammered out by Shapiro won’t expire until late this decade, DePasquale said talks about extending the deal would begin before that.

“My number-one job there is to make sure people are getting the health care they need,” he said.

On a newly-launched campaign website, DePasquale links his progressive credentials with the more traditional conception of the attorney general’s role as a crime-fighter. “Too many of our rights and freedoms are under attack by extremists — from criminals and big corporations to dishonest politicians,” he said in an introductory statement.

The site also discusses DePasquale’s personal biography. The grandson of a colorful and sometimes controversial former City Council member, Eugene “Jeep” DePasquale, the younger DePasquale grew up in Pittsburgh, and played football for Central Catholic High School, an Oakland institution that has produced generations of future politicians. In an introductory campaign video, he touts his athletic career, but also a family history that involves his father’s struggles with addiction and time in prison.

“I know struggle, and so do many Pennslyvanians,” DePasquale says in the video. “That’s why I’ve always stood up for the people that too many politicians forget.”

DePasquale won’t have the field to himself: Upwards of a dozen people in both parties have been named as potential candidates for the job, including Allegheny County Republican Scott Brady, the US Attorney from western Pennsylvania during the Trump Administration. Campaigns for the post have become increasingly spirited nationwide, as attorneys general can play a critical role in battles over civil rights, abortion, and criminal justice reforms.

But before DePasquale can take on the Republican champion, he’ll have to win the fight to become the Democratic nominee. Part of his case to Democratic voters is simply that he has shown he can win in November. “I’ve won statewide twice, including winning in [2016], when Donald Trump won the state.”

It hasn’t all been victories: In 2020 DePasquale ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Scott Perry, one of the most strongly pro-Trump officials in the House of Representatives. But in a statewide race, he boasts ties not just to Pittsburgh but to York, with solid performances elsewhere too.

“I’ve got a lot of bases” of support, he said.

DePasquale said he wasn't an ideologue except when it comes to his noted Star Wars fandom. And as a testament to his willingness to fight for the oppressed, he is willing to make a case for fans of “The Last Jedi,” a film which divides even hardcore devotees of the franchise.

“It’s not a documentary, as much as it may pain me to say that,” he joked. But the film, he said, raises questions like “What does it mean to be a Jedi? What does it mean to be this selfless warrior? Is it just about moving rocks or is it to have the patience to pick when to get into the fight?”

For DePasquale, again, that time appears to be now.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.