2024 Primary

Q&A with attorney general candidate Joe Khan

The former Bucks County solicitor talks about his Philadelphia roots and efforts to protect voting rights, the environment and more

Joe Khan speaks at a campaign rally

Joe Khan speaks at a campaign rally Friends of Joe Khan

This year’s attorney general race has focused on a variety of local and national issues stemming from voting and reproductive rights to gun and drug trafficking and policing in many neighborhoods. Candidates are also fresh off of debate appearances last week, where a range of hot-button issues were discussed. 

With the April primary just weeks away, City & State is speaking to each attorney general candidate to get a sense of their priorities and how they would approach the role of the state’s top legal officer. In our latest candidate Q&A, we spoke with former Bucks County solicitor Joe Khan, a Democratic candidate who has been outspoken about defending voting rights, protecting the environment and more. 

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back to when you first decided to run for attorney general, was there a specific event or moment that made you think, “Now is my time”?

There are a lot of things that go into a decision like this. Just at a high level, what the AG needs to do is make sure that we’re keeping everyone safe from crime, corruption and attacks on our rights – and that is the work that I’ve been doing for 24 years. 

If I were to think about one particular episode that really kind of inspired this run, it's what we went through in 2020 when Trump tried to throw out our votes. It was a relentless, coordinated and ongoing attack that actually began long before Election Day in 2020. Some of his friends came at us with bogus lawsuits to overturn or purge voters from the voter rolls in Bucks County. They didn’t just come after Bucks County, which had just flipped from Republican to Democratic control; they went after some other counties where that had happened, too. I quickly realized that the only way we could fight this – because this was not the kind of issue to negotiate on – was to team up with those other counties. We had a firewall in the Attorney General’s Office.

That’s really what’s at stake right now. Republicans want this office back. They’re used to winning it and will run really hard on “tough on crime” messaging – but at the end of the day, it’s our rights that are under attack.

Let’s look even further back to your upbringing. What would a 10-year-old Joe be doing and what would he have to say to you right now? 

If we were still in the winter, 10-year-old Joe was shoveling snow. My dad was an immigrant from Pakistan and he would literally get up at the crack of dawn to go to work. We lived in Northeast Philly and he worked for the city as an engineer. My dad would wake me up at the crack of dawn on the first day of snow, and he would tell me to shovel the sidewalks of our neighbors. It was this really arduous work that I really couldn't stand but I just had to do it and my dad wouldn't let me take money for it.

We were kind of different than everyone else and we laughed about the fact that when my parents got together in the 70s, he was Muslim and my mom was Catholic, so they settled on a Jewish neighborhood as a place to raise their kids. We were just raised to be good neighbors. And now that I’m a parent, I understand what my dad was trying to teach me: if you’re lucky enough to be born in this country, you’re lucky enough to be able-bodied, you got a shovel, you help where help is needed. 

Speaking of your experiences at the local, county and federal levels, can you tell us how those roles impacted you and how you would approach the role of attorney general?

First, as the only candidate who has worked at the county level, in both the DA’s office and solicitor’s office, I have a unique perspective on the tremendous potential of county government to address everyday people’s problems and the potential of an attorney general that has a 67-county approach on public safety, for example, to really empower all communities of Pennsylvania to deal with the difficult problems that they have. I’m excited to bring that experience to the table. 

With regard to the broader issue that you asked about, having also served for 10 years as a federal prosecutor, I have consistently seen that every good thing that I’ve been able to do throughout my career has been possible because of good people in government working together with folks outside of government. I think the attorney general is unique in their ability to bring people together across Pennsylvania to take on issues that no one else can.

Do you think an AG should take more of an initiative to address specific issues such as gun and drug trafficking in cities like Philadelphia?

Gun violence and opioids are two very different issues that I have deep experience in addressing and I think that experience will certainly bode very well in the AG’s office. When I was a federal prosecutor coordinating the Violent Crime Impact Team about 15 years ago, we saw escalating gun violence in Southwest Philadelphia and had to identify the source of the violence, which was a relatively small group of people who were caught up in these escalating cycles of retaliatory violence. We also figured out how to then navigate those prosecutions to lead to much bigger cases against gun traffickers and against murderers. We also understood that when it was time for some of those former offenders to return to society, we needed to keep people safe and invest in the success of returning citizens coming home. That’s why we worked with not just folks inside the justice system, but with employers and community leaders to ensure that there was support and incentives for people coming out of the system. It’s a very complicated issue that we had a lot of success with because we were thoughtful, we were cooperative and we brought folks together. 

Opioid cases are what led me to shift from being a prosecutor for 16 years into a new chapter in civil justice, by going after the Big Pharma companies that were responsible in so many ways for the devastation that we’ve had across Pennsylvania. First, when I was representing communities like Allentown and then when I became the Bucks County solicitor, we did important work to hold bad actors accountable. But it was for a purpose, and that purpose was to secure the resources that we needed to address the issue. 

One of the things I’m most proud of in Bucks County is how we secured the largest percentage of a potential recovery of any county in Pennsylvania because of how we navigated not just the legal system, but the political relationships necessary to get that kind of cooperation. We used funding from our opioid litigation to fund the Co-Responder Program. That supports police officers in a situation where having a trained mental health worker would be really helpful. It’s that kind of combination – having the right vision and the right values but also having the right know-how to make these offices work the right way – that we need in the Attorney General’s Office.