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Attorney general campaign turns up a notch

Monday, October 09, 2000

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- Experience is the key issue in the increasingly heated campaign for the state's attorney general seat.

Incumbent Republican Mike Fisher says he has tons of it.

Challenger Jim Eisenhower, a Democrat, says he has more of it.

"He's had 3 1/2 years to do this job," said Eisenhower, 42, a former federal prosecutor from Philadelphia. "It hasn't been done right. He's had his chance. He's just walked away. I've prosecuted more cases than he has in 26 years. He hasn't [personally] prosecuted a case in 24 years."

Fisher, 55, a former Allegheny County prosecutor from Upper St. Clair, said, "I was trying murder cases when my opponent was 12."

Yes, indeed, this race is heating up as the Nov. 7 election nears.

Some polls show that Eisenhower, running his first race, has closed the gap with the better-known Fisher, who served years in the state Senate. One recent poll showed Fisher with 25 percent of the vote to Eisenhower's 20 percent, although the Pennsylvania Poll, conducted for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shows Fisher with 44 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Eisenhower.

There are enough undecided voters out there to tip the scales in either direction.

"I'm encouraged. It's anybody's game," said Eisenhower. "Voters in this race are being given a very, very clear choice."

Fisher has held the state's top law enforcement office since 1997. He said prosecutions are up, that he has taken tough stands and that he has moved aggressively against tobacco companies, insurance fraud and drug dealers.

He said Eisenhower misunderstands the legal system when levying charges that Fisher has not gone after environmental polluters and hate groups. Those types of crimes are often, and best, pursued by federal prosecutors, Fisher said.

"I don't know what to make of him," Fisher said of Eisenhower. "My opponent really hasn't done much in the campaign. His campaign seems to be 'my name is Eisenhower and I'm a Democrat.' He seems like a nice guy. I just don't know much about him."

Eisenhower has a small staff, little money, fewer endorsements than Fisher and is fighting history in this campaign. No Democrat has been attorney general since it was made an elected position 20 years ago. And no incumbent attorney general has lost a re-election bid.

Eisenhower may be doing better than some pundits predicted, but he has yet to face the onslaught of Fisher television ads.

They're coming in the next few weeks -- $800,000 worth of them, Fisher said. In comparison, Eisenhower has raised only $314,000 this year to fund his entire campaign.

Constitution Party nominee James N. Clymer also is running for the post, as are Libertarian Julian P. Heicklen and Thomas Alan Linzey of the Green Party.

Eisenhower, who won the Democratic primary in May, was a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia from 1987 to 1994, handling cases involving narcotics, organized crime and police corruption. He has a distinguished record as prosecutor and promises, if elected, to go after drug kingpins instead of mid-level and low-level dealers, hate groups, environmental polluters and civil rights violators.

"I know how to do these cases. Fisher hasn't," Eisenhower said. "This is a big job. This is an important job. I'm not a career politician. Mike Fisher is a career politician."

Eisenhower also wants tougher prosecution of gun laws, mandated use of trigger locks on guns, and to find ways to keep guns away from children and those diagnosed with a mental illness. He favors the death penalty.

Fisher was an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County from 1970 to 1974 and served in the state Senate from 1980 to 1996. He also favors the death penalty, as well as gaining new laws to increase prosecutions of gun violations. He has been an advocate for stopping violence in schools and has gone after telemarketing scams.

Fisher has argued cases before the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. He joined other attorneys general in a case against the tobacco companies and helped gain Pennsylvania a $11.3 billion settlement, spread out over several years.

Critics, however, point out that Fisher entered the case late in the game and gained credit for doing little.

Fisher noted that he has not shied from cases that could, potentially, have damaged him politically.

He prosecuted former state Sen. Dan Delp in a case that involved an expense account, underage prostitutes and alcohol. Fisher also filed legal action to force the removal of state Rep. Frank Serafini, R-Lackawanna, after Republican House leaders tried to protect Serafini from being booted from office when convicted of perjury.

"I stood up against my own party with that," Fisher said.

Eisenhower promises not to run for governor in two years, when Gov. Tom Ridge will step down because he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

When Fisher was elected attorney general four years ago, he promised not to run for governor. He won't make that pledge this time.

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