October 2431, 1996
Attorney General Mayhem
Joe Kohn and Mike Fisher battle long and hard to be the state's top legal eagle.
By Mary Frangipanni
It didn't take long for Mike Fisher and Joe Kohn to heat up the frigid March air with blistering rhetoric in their battle for state attorney general.
Fisher started early with his campaign, even before he got the endorsement from the Republican State Committee.
Fisher had competition for the endorsement because Montgomery County District Attorney Michael Marino was also seeking the seat. While Marino was still lobbying for votes at the Friday night cocktail parties, State Sens. Bob Jubelirer and Joe Loeper were doing some heavy politicking for Fisher and had hosted a big party for all the delegates in Hershey that night. Marino stepped aside before Saturday's endorsement meeting and Fisher won hands-down.
Joe Kohn, who came close to unseating Ernie Preate four years ago, had no problem getting the endorsement from his party, despite nominal opposition from Dauphin County resident Renardo Hicks.
Kohn must have known even back then he would be facing Fisher in November and had already started digging at Fisher's foundation by accusing Fisher of being a "gay-basher."
Kohn laid down the first ideological barrage, calling Fisher "a right-wing extremist."
And that was only the beginning.
Kohn blasted Fisher for the senator's negative comments about the gay community's attempt to march in Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
"When he ran for governor he positioned himself to the right of Tom Ridge and Ernie Preate; he was anti-choice and pandered to the Christian Coalition," Kohn added.
Fisher came back at Kohn. He said Kohn's law firm practiced discrimination against a man who was infected with the HIV virus and wanted to remind Kohn that he is as tolerant as anyone else when it comes to issues in the gay community and at that time he was only concerned about a disruption in the parade.
There would be nine more months of this to come.
The attorney general's office is the top law enforcement agency in the state, presiding over criminal, civil and consumer cases. Currently, the attorney general is Thomas Corbett, who is filling an interim term after the sudden departure last year by former Attorney General Ernie Preate, who went to federal prison for accepting illegal campaign contributions.
The attorney general provides legal advice to state agencies and defends those agencies in the event they are sued; reviews all proposed rules and regulations for state agencies; is responsible for enforcing the state's consumer laws; and has jurisdiction for prosecuting special types of crime including Medicaid fraud and environmental crimes.
During his tenure, Corbett created a new Insurance Fraud section and Public Corruption Unit and has made changes in the Municipal Drug Task Force program by placing more focus on investigations of mid- to upper-level drug traffickers.
Given all these powers, it is not unusual that there would be a dogfight for the job. Given that this is Pennsylvania, it is not unusual that the race has turned into an ideological jihad between a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and a staunch conservative.
Democrat Kohn is a prominent attorney with his family's firm in Philadelphia Kohn, Swift and Graf which focuses on consumer protection, environmental, small business and anti-trust work. He ran in 1992 against Preate where he received almost 48 percent of the vote an accomplishment considering he was a complete unknown at the time.
Fisher is the majority whip in the Senate and is vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. He has served in government for over 21 years and was the former district attorney in Allegheny County. He is a partner in the Pittsburgh law firm of Houston Harbaugh and he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994.
Despite being from the western part of the state, Fisher has been busy raising money and building coalitions in Philadelphia with a series of fundraisers hosted by local and well-known Republicans.
"Fisher is too busy chasing special-interest dollars," said Kohn's campaign manager, Steve Caplan. "He is stuffing his campaign war chest instead of representing his constituents in the Senate."
Kohn has chided Fisher for taking contributions from tobacco lobbyists. "Fisher is taking money from the same group that is costing taxpayers money," said Caplan.
Currently, attorney generals in several states are joining together in a national lawsuit against several tobacco companies seeking reimbursement for state funds that went towards medical costs related to smoking. Fisher said recently that he now supports the lawsuit.
But Kohn was not alone on the receiving end of Big Tobacco money.
Fisher discovered that Kohn had received $32,000 in contributions from five men who have ownership interest in Consolidated Cigar Corporation (CCC), a large cigar manufacturer. Ron Perelman, chairman of CCC, had given Kohn a $10,000 contribution. Howard Gittis, vice chair of CCC, also gave Kohn $10,000, and Barry Schwartz, executive vice president, gave Kohn $2,000. Donald Drapkin and Bruce Flovin also associated with CCC each gave Kohn $5,000.
Kohn said that Perelman is a family friend who is also involved with a number of other businesses, including ownership of Marvel Comics.
Kohn said Fisher took a $500 contribution from Reynolds Tobacco Company. Fisher said that a campaign staffer innocently took the contribution at anR.J. Nabisco fundraiser thinking it was from the cookie manufacturer. R.J. Nabisco also owns Reynolds Tobacco. Fisher says the check was returned.
Cash versus Clout
It's late summer and Fisher is at yet another Philadelphia fundraiser held in his honor where more than 300 people have gathered at a pricey Penn's Landing restaurant.
"Joe Kohn has never prosecuted a case in his life and yet he wants to be the top law enforcement officer in this state. He has no experience in the criminal justice system. I started my career as a prosecutor I've prosecuted rapists and drug dealers and I've taken my experience with me."
Fisher is wound up and wants his supporters to know that he has the experience necessary to be the top prosecutor in the state.
Oh, and one more thing.
"Joe Kohn has no qualifications of his own to speak of," said Fisher's campaign manager Jerry Pappert. "Kohn still thinks he is running against Ernie Preate. Kohn knows nothing about fundraising; all he has to do is go to Big Daddy Kohn for money just like he did in 1992. He's just trying to buy the office. Kohn is a multimillionaire and yet he calls himself the champion of little people. Kohn has never been a prosecutor and he has no idea about what the attorney general's job is all about."
Meanwhile in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, a fundraiser of a much smaller group is being held for Kohn by a Chicago law firm. The event may be small, but the contributions are not.
Steve Caplan is playing host and greeting supporters as they enter the law office.
"Mike Fisher has consistently been on the extreme fringe of the Republican Party," said Caplan. "He has voted to allow people convicted of the crime of ethnic intimidation the right to purchase firearms and he is extreme anti-choice. Fisher has an atrocious voting record, he has voted consistently with the most extreme elements of the Republican Party."
Fisher's Got Bankers
Bankers are putting their money on Fisher. Most of the lobbyists from large commercial banks are supporting him and have given substantial PAC contributions to Fisher. The bankers wonder why Kohn would want to take a paltry $104,000-a-year job as attorney general when he makes probably five times that much. One bank lobbyist was concerned that if Kohn became the attorney general, he would become privy to information that he could syphon back to his firm. Kohn's firm gained notoriety in the early '80s when they were featured in Forbes magazine. The firm was known at that time as Kohn & Savitt and represented various builders and developers in a class action suit involving three major exterior plywood companies, Georgia Pacific, Weyhauser, and Interior Paper Group.
These companies were accused of price-fixing the wood. With the law firm's expertise, the builders won the case and forced the plywood companies to pay out billions and from those billions, the family law firm received sizable fees.
But Kohn has Women
Kohn may not have the support of the financial world, but he does have a strong endorsement by a large number of women's groups, both in Philadelphia and statewide.
Kohn really started to have more of a presence here in Philadelphia around the time Mayor Rendell held a press conference for him in his City Hall reception room in mid-August.
Kohn was surrounded by a large number of women's leaders across the state including State Sen. Allyson Schwartz and District Attorney Lynn Abraham as he announced his new detailed report on women's issues. In his introduction, Kohn said he wanted to use the power of the attorney's office to fight for women's rights and issues. Kohn's called his plan "Fighting for Pennsylvania's Women and Families." His plan would focus on violence against families, supporting pro-family and pro-children policies and protecting a women's right to choose.
Kohn had traveled across the state to talk with women to find out what the issues were to help him in drafting his plan.
"What does the attorney general's office have to do with women's issues?" asked Schwartz. "Well it's the first time the attorney general's office has had a platform on women's issues."
Schwartz, who is a highly visible and vocal advocate for women's issues, has garnered a large support base for Kohn with a number of women's groups including the Five County Democratic Women's Coalition (including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties).
Schwartz could be Fisher's worst nightmare.
Schwartz describes her former Senate colleague as unreasonable and willing to put anyone in jail, even juveniles, as long as it is the popular thing to do.
"He would not only be a bad attorney general, but a dangerous one," Schwartz said.
Election Day is fast approaching. Fisher and Kohn have been invited to attend a forum hosted by the Philadelphia Bar Association. It's a rainy Friday afternoon in late September and there are less than 50 people in the room, mostly lawyers and campaign supporters. Kohn arrives 20 minutes late and the forum gets off to a hurried start. There are some minor distractions.
Libertarian candidate Timothy Collins was not included in the debate. But he showed up anyway and chose to sit up front with a paper bag over his head.
Fisher and Kohn fielded questions from the audience.
Log Cabin Gay Republicans Director Jesse Walters got up and asked both candidates if they would add sexual orientation to the hate crimes bill. Fisher and Kohn both said they would and both also agreed to support affirmative action.
When the subject of qualifications arose, Fisher criticized Kohn for a lack of prosecuting experience and informed him that having real life trial experience is crucial to the attorney general's office. Fisher reminded Kohn he began his career as a prosecutor and added that he prosecuted more than 1,000 criminal cases. Kohn snapped back by informing Fisher he has an active trial practice in state and federal court where he acted as a "private attorney general" when representing individuals and businesses.
Kohn was quick to point out that the office of the attorney general has not had a proud history and makes constant reference to Republican Ernie Preate, now in prison. Kohn wants to be clear when he says he is not a career politician but is dedicated to public service.
He said he has mapped out a "New Vision" for the attorney general's office. He proposes to "clean-up" the office and fight corruption in state government. He plans to establish a special corruption unit and focus on campaign finance reform. He said he will try to implement a Constitutional amendment barring state officials from running for any other office while serving their current term.
Kohn has questioned the effectiveness of Philadelphia's drug laws and intends to look into the city's operating procedures.He also seems to be playing a dual role by proposing ideas that parallel the responsibilities of the auditor general he wants to serve as a watchdog and go after tax cheats and deadbeat parents.
A large part of Fisher's agenda deals with crime. Fisher helped to draft many of the bills in the 1995 Special Legislative Session on Crime which included increasing the maximum sentence for third-degree murder from 20 to 40 years and stiffening penalties for illegal gun sales.
The session helped to create the "Three Strikes" law which provides mandatory prison sentences from 25 years to life without parole for three-time violent offenders. It also requires the governor to sign death warrants within 90 days of a conviction.
The Fisher plan calls for a format to protect and support victims of crime. Recently he proposed an amendment, which is now law, allowing child victims or witnesses to testify by use of closed circuit television.
Included in the Crime Session was Megan's Law which requires sexual offenders to register their addresses with the Board of Probation and Parole and notifies neighbors when a sexual offender moves to the neighborhood. Fisher also wants to get tough on juvenile crime. He wants to increase the penalty for school truancy and allow judges to use a juvenile's past record when making a decision in a case.
Kohn, 39, is quiet yet affable. Fellow Democrats have said he is too reserved, that he needs to show some more chutzpah and get his hands dirty when he campaigns. He is criticized for having too much money. However, elections really can't be bought anymore as was proven by Ross Perot and Steve Forbes
Kohn did very well when he ran against Preate in 1992 and has now gained statewide name recognition. He has the support of the numerous pro-choice women's groups across the state, heavy union support and support from the gay and lesbian community, the majority of which vote Democrat. Except for a brief stint as a local tax collector, he has never been in public office; he has no political baggage. He comes across in organized debates as the better candidate.
Fisher, 51, is gregarious and a good campaigner. He started early and despite being from the western part of the state, has maintained high visibility in Philadelphia. He has been the recipient of numerous fundraisers and has the ability to bring in big bucks.
Republicans want to keep control of the attorney general's office and are pulling out all the stops. Gov. Ridge has taken time to campaign with Fisher across the state. Fisher has been courting Democrats, primarily in Montgomery County and Philadelphia. Both Democrats and Republicans think that Fisher might run for governor in 2002 when there is an open seat. Fisher has 21 years experience in government and his conservative pro-life views bode well with the traditional parts of the state.