Campaigns & Elections

Five for Friday: Closing arguments from this week’s attorney general debates

City & State takes a look at five issues examined during this week’s attorney general primary debates.

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Candidates running to be the next attorney general of Pennsylvania met this week in two statewide televised debates that were hosted by WHTM ABC27. The primary election debates saw state Rep. Craig Williams and York County District Attorney Dave Sunday square off in the Republican debate, while state Rep. Jared Solomon, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, former Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan, former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and former Philadelphia Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey participated in the Democratic debate.

The debate surveyed candidates' positions on a range of hot-button issues, from violent crime and the opioid epidemic to threats posed by TikTok. For this week’s Five For Friday, City & State examines five issues explored in this week’s attorney general debates.

GOP candidates talk illegal gun possession

In both debates, candidates were asked about the factors driving violent crime in the commonwealth and what they would do as attorney general to address it. In the Republican debate, both Williams and Sunday stressed the importance of prosecuting people for illegal gun possession. 

Williams highlighted his efforts to create a Gun Violence Task Force through legislation and said as attorney general, he would “involve every law enforcement agency, the district attorney, the attorney general’s office and the local U.S. attorney to go after felons in possession of guns.” Sunday agreed on that topic, saying: “We have to arrest, charge (and) prosecute people for illegal possession of firearms because until that’s done, we are never going to see a change.”

Democrats offer their own gun violence strategies 

The Democratic candidates also outlined strategies for addressing gun violence in the commonwealth. Stollsteimer said tacking gun violence requires a collaborative, multifaceted approach. “I think the actual solution to this problem is bringing law enforcement and the community together,” he said. DePasquale expressed support for universal background checks on gun purchases and said more mental health resources need to be made available, while Solomon highlighted bills he has supported in the legislature, including a ban on assault weapons and a proposal to create a red flag law in the commonwealth. Bradford-Grey said it’s important to hold gun retailers and suppliers accountable. “We need to make sure that we go after gun retailers and suppliers and hold them to the same standards of scrutiny as we do people on the street corner making stupid decisions,” she said.

Candidates talk cannabis

With Gov. Josh Shapiro calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana in his 2024-25 budget, and with most of Pennsylvania’s neighbors having already legalized the drug for recreational use, candidates were asked about cannabis policy in both the Democratic and GOP debates. 

Each of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination said they believed people should not be charged for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and they also all agreed that it should be legalized for recreational use. On the GOP side, however, both Sunday and Williams were a little more reluctant to get behind legalization.

During the GOP debate, WIlliams said that he’s “not there yet” on legalization for recreational use. “I’m trying my hardest to not be rigid on this because I don’t want to legalize marijuana. My bigger concern is about hemp derivatives that are right now capable of being sold to children in stores,” he said. When asked about whether lawmakers should legalize it, Sunday also said he doesn’t support it at this time: “At this point, no,” he said of his stance.

TikTok and tech

TikTok is the talk of the town after lawmakers in the U.S. House voted on legislation that seeks to force ByteDance, the app’s China-based parent company to sell the app as congressional lawmakers. During ABC27’s Democratic debate, candidates were asked whether they would support a ban of TikTok on state devices, similar to one imposed at the Pennsylvania Treasury – and each of them said they would support such a ban. 

Williams and Sunday weren’t specifically asked about whether they would support banning TikTok from state devices, but both said the attorney general’s office should be in the mix. “I think the attorney general’s office has a very serious role with regard to social media companies,” Sunday said.

“I think this is a place where Mr. Sunday and I agree,” Williams said, later adding, “I think the attorney general’s office, just like we did with the opioid epidemic, has a very definite role to play in helping vindicate consumers rights when it comes to being targeted by these platforms.” 

The opioid epidemic

More than 5,000 Pennsylvanians died from overdoses in 2021 according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and the candidates in both the Democratic and Republican debates stressed the importance of using the power of the office to respond to the opioid crisis.

On the Democratic side, Solomon said he would “take on the opioid manufacturers head-on.” Khan said the attorney general can help win cases and, as a result of those cases, win financial resources for communities affected by the opioid crisis. Stollsteimer discussed successful litigation that brought funds to Delaware County, while Bradford-Grey stressed that the attorney general needs to ensure that vulnerable communities don’t get left out of initiatives to help those suffering from addiction. “We need to make sure communities that are vulnerable get the same opportunities for support and for therapy that anyone else gets,” she said. 

DePasquale said he would use his financial watchdog experience to ensure that the state’s opioid settlement money for addiction abatement efforts is distributed adequately, adding: “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure we get this right.”