Morganelli, Zappala deny allying against fellow Democrat Shapiro in attorney general primary
Northampton District Attorney John Morganelli has emerged as an attack dog in the three-way Democratic primary for the state attorney general post with a focus on Montgomery County Commission Chair Josh Shapiro.
Morganelli badgered Shapiro during early debates in the race. He lambasted Shapiro and the Pennsylvania State Education Association after the teachers union gave the commissioner their endorsement. Last week, he held a news conference to accuse Shapiro of voting to award county contracts to companies whose executives made donations to his campaign.
He has even told voters that if they don’t like him, they should vote for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the third candidate seeking to win the Democratic nomination April 26.
“(The) only choice is between me and Steve Zappala,” Morganelli said, underscoring a persistent theme that the new attorney general should be a district attorney.
Morganelli said he “has no choice” but to go after the candidate from his region. The barrages prompt questions of whether the Morganelli and Zappala campaigns are working together against Shapiro.
“Probably a little bit of both,” Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations consultant said about whether he thinks Zappala and Morganelli are working together or Morganelli is simply trying to take down a regional foe.
“It’s just all too pat for it not to be coordinated,” said Ceisler.
“At most, he is working together with Zappala. … At the least, there’s a wink and nod going on.”
The Morganelli and Zappala campaigns deny they are working in concert.
Marty Marks, campaign manager for Zappala, dismissed the notion, claiming the two have exchanged only pleasantries at debates, have not talked about focusing on Shapiro, and have not promised each other jobs in their administrations if one of them wins in November.
“Absolutely not,” Marks said. “All I can tell you is that we are running our own campaign.”
Marks, however, accused Shapiro of accepting campaign contributions from companies that do business with Montgomery County and then referred a reporter to Morganelli when asked for information about the accusation.
Marks said that he suggested talking to Morganelli only because he had more information and not because the attack was coordinated.
Shapiro and several of the companies Morganelli mentioned denied any connection between the county contracts and campaign contributions.
Morganelli said attacking Shapiro is part of his campaign strategy. He hopes to do well in the Lehigh Valley and the Southeast. He is not working with Zappala, he said.
“I understand why people might have that perception,” Morganelli said. “I’m not going to blow $600,000 just to help somebody else, though it may end up that way.”
Morganelli, district attorney in Northampton County for 24 years, is making his fourth bid for state attorney general. He had $607,000 in his campaign account at the start of March, according to the most recent finance reports. Zappala reported $1 million in the bank. Shapiro had $1.8 million.
“John Morganelli’s kamikaze campaign has turned into a farce, as he publicly supports one opponent, Stephen Zappala, and makes methodical attacks on another, Josh Shapiro, without offering any vision of his own,” said Joe Radosevich, Shapiro’s campaign manager.
During debates, Morganelli has said Shapiro lacks law enforcement credentials and dismisses his role as chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. Zappala has agreed with Morganelli during these exchanges.
After the PSEA endorsed Shapiro, Morganelli sent an op-ed to The Express Times, which covers the Lehigh Valley and Northampton County, to chastise Shapiro for taking $50,000 from a pro-charter school group and the teachers union for supporting Shapiro.
Radosevich said Shapiro supports public education and public school teachers, and he noted that Morganelli received $31,000 in campaign donations from Abe Atiyeh, a Lehigh Valley developer who helps open charter schools.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said he doesn’t think Morganelli and Zappala are working together to attack Shapiro. The attacks, he said, are born out of the regional competition between Shapiro and Morganelli.
Ganging up on a perceived front-runner isn’t new, said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County. Shapiro received endorsements from Gov. Tom Wolf, former Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey and other Democrats.
“It’s ‘do-or-die’ time for both Morganelli and Zappala with the primary nearly a month away,” Kopko said. “Whether that diminishes Shapiro’s position as the front-runner remains to be seen.”
Brad Bumsted and Aaron Aupperlee are Tribune-Review staff writers.