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Pennsylvania attorney general candidates bring wide array of experiences to TV debate

Democratic attorney general candidates: Eugene DePasquale, Keir Bradford-Grey, Jared Solomon, Joe Khan, Jack Stollsteimer.
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Democratic attorney general candidates, clockwise, from top left: Eugene DePasquale, Keir Bradford-Grey, Jared Solomon, Joe Khan, Jack Stollsteimer.

The five Democratic candidates for attorney general debated on Tuesday, and if you like a debate with sharp disagreements, it wasn't your night.

All the candidates agreed that adult recreational use of marijuana should be legal, and that more needed to be done to tackle opioid abuse. They each said they would ensure abortion access is protected. They promised to do more to get guns off the streets. And they all agreed with the decision to ban TikTok on government devices.

“I'm a mother of two and I have lost the battle to social media,” said Keir Bradford-Gray, as she took her turn bashing the company. “It is something that is really concerning to me and every parent.”

Instead of major policy differences, the candidates focused on their backgrounds – and on how their careers prepared them to be attorney general.

Bradford-Gray said that, as a career public defender, she had seen the damage done by too many guns on the street. And she said that, like New York Attorney General Letitia James, she would go after gun and gun-accessory manufacturers whose business practices she says put people at risk.

“They make billions of dollars a month selling their product and pushing it through the streets, exploiting communities and not really caring whether or not they end up in the wrong hands,” she said.

By contrast, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer suggested the problem required a political response. “I think the actual solution to this problem is bringing law enforcement and the community together,” he said. “We are not going to pass legislation to end the gun violence problem. We're not going to arrest our way out of it either. We need to work together.”

Eugene DePasquale said that when he served as the state’s auditor general, he was able to look at which kinds of substance recovery facilities were the most effective. Because of that, he said, he would be the best person to help oversee the distribution of millions of dollars in opioid settlement funds available to the state.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure we get this right,” he said.

Joe Khan, a career prosecutor and civil litigator, said he worked with a Republican District Attorney in Bucks County to go after social-media companies that aren’t protecting children. Since then, he said, 39 other states have joined in the fight. “I will work with anyone from any party on these issues,” he said.

State House member Jared Solomon, on the other hand, said Donald Trump posed a unique threat to the country, and that as a state legislator he has tried to stand up for abortion and voting rights – both of which he said have been undermined by Trump appointees and allies. “[Trump] doesn't just come alone: He brings all his special interests to Pennsylvania,” he said. “We need a true fighter.

On certain issues, some candidates gave more specific answers than others. For example, Khan said he would protect the rights of women who travel to Pennsylvania seeking an abortion, while other candidates just emphasized they would protect the rights of Pennsylvanians.

“In my view, the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees reproductive rights not just to women who live in Pennsylvania, but those who are fleeing to Pennsylvania from these lunatics in places like Alabama who are going to be chasing them down,” he said. “We’re going to protect them too.”

Solomon said he would follow a Colorado model to consolidate how opioid settlement money is distributed to one organization rather than distributing to many nonprofits with their own separate visions. Solomon also was the only candidate to emphasize a potential role in taking on the state’s largest healthcare systems.

“We need to take on those hospital mergers, those vertical, horizontal integrations that suppress wages, hurt workers,” he said.

DePasquale was uniquely upset by spam callers. We've all had this happen to us before: You pick up your phone and you see the spam alert on your phone,” he said. “We got to hold these creeps accountable.

Some of the most telling responses of the night came when each candidate was given just 15 seconds to say what their office would prioritize.

Bradford Gray said she would emphasize access to healthcare, housing and education. Solomon would make his office the most accessible for constituents. Khan would create a housing justice unit,, while Stollsteimer said he would keep fighting wage theft and environmental crimes. And DePasquale said he would protect democracy first and then go after polluters.

For their closing arguments, the candidates often turned back to their resumes to underline what differentiated them from the others, such as Stollsteimer’s work as district attorney in Delaware County.

“I am uniquely qualified both to win this election for Democrats but also to do this job, because I do this work every single day in the Commonwealth's fifth-largest county,” he said.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.