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Bucks County Democrat Joe Khan Wants to Be Pennsylvania’s Next Attorney General

He sat down with the Bucks County Beacon to talk about his experience and his vision for representing and protecting all citizens of the Commonwealth.

As the 2024 election looms on the horizon, there is a renewed sense of anxiety about the strength of our Democracy. Although the presidential election has consumed the majority of national attention, local and statewide positions will be critical in determining the future of our country. There are few more vital roles to fill than that of Pennsylvania Attorney General.

The importance of the role of the Attorney General, which historically had been less understood by the general public, took prominence during the 2020 election when then-AG Josh Shapiro defended Pennsylvania’s election results and helped protect the right to vote.

Since 2022, when Shapiro vacated the position to be elected as Governor, Michelle Henry has served the office. With Henry’s decision not to seek re-election, five contenders have stepped in to earn the Democratic nomination in the April primary.

One of the candidates for Pennsylvania State Attorney General is a resident of our own Bucks County. Joe Khan, former Bucks County Solicitor, has a long history of fighting corporate and political corruption, protecting voters’ rights, and keeping our community safe. He was named PA’s Government Attorney of the Year in 2022 and Outstanding Solicitor in 2021. He hopes to set himself apart from a crowded, talented Democratic field that includes: former two-term Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, former Montgomery County Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, State Rep. Jared Solomon, and Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.

I had the opportunity to get to know Joe during the CBSD school board elections. Joe understood the urgent threat we were facing, not only to the Central Bucks School District, but to public schools as a whole. His strong and consistent support was a tremendous asset to the Democratic candidates for school board.

As he moves forward in his bid for state office, Bucks County residents have the unique opportunity to get a firsthand perspective of Joe’s significant and impressive impact on our community. 

I was excited for the chance to speak to Joe about his achievements and his vision for the future of Pennsylvania.

How do you see the role of Attorney General?

The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of Pennsylvania. There are a lot of ways to go about running the office, but the way I look at it is that the attorney general is supposed to be the person who keeps us safe from crime, corruption, and attacks on our rights. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing throughout my career and why I’m running for Attorney General.

What sets you apart from the other Democrats in the Primary Election?

Public safety will be the top issue in this race and I have the longest and strongest record as a prosecutor of any candidate running on either side of the aisle. I am a career prosecutor who has spent 16 years keeping people safe from crime, which is an issue facing every city and county in our Commonwealth. As Attorney General, I would use my extensive knowledge and experience to ensure Pennsylvania is a safer place for everyone. Besides having been a prosecutor, I’ve also served as a county solicitor and understand, at a county level, all of the opportunities that local governments have to address the problems that we face every day and what attorneys in those roles can do, whether it’s as DA or a county solicitor.

There are certainly big fights that I’m going to make sure that the AG is taking on, things like how we’re going to protect our environment, how we’re going to take on issues like housing, how we’re going to stay on top of big tech. But there are also a lot of smaller fights where folks on the ground really need to be supported and empowered, to protect people from threats like quality of life crimes and small-time crooks. As a county solicitor I was very successful in partnering with our District Attorney to address challenges like this in Bucks County.

But first we’ve got to win this office. As I travel across Pennsylvania, I’ve been talking to so many people who are excited to support me as a first-generation American. The latest polling suggests that the Democratic Party is losing ground among voters amongst communities of color and first-generation Americans. I am someone who has spent my whole life engaging with these communities, someone who has done the work and will continue to make sure that the AG’s office is engaged with those communities. We’ve never had an Asian American elected to any of Pennsylvania’s statewide offices before, and as the only Asian American on the Democratic ticket, I see an opportunity for me to do my part to make sure that folks turn out and support Democrats.

What role does AG have in protecting marginalized communities?

The scales of justice don’t balance themselves. As a prosecutor, I always stood up for marginalized communities. I began my career prosecuting child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Unfortunately, it’s often the most marginalized members of our society who are preyed upon and targeted, because the people that victimize them think that they won’t fight back or be heard.

I was constantly fighting against those kinds of biases, and those kinds of gravitational pulls that make it really hard for sexual assault victims to get justice, or for child abuse victims to be understood let alone have an advocate. That was very much what I was doing in the trenches in the DA’s Office for six years. 

When I went to the US Attorney’s Office and started taking on corruption, I was very tuned in to the fact that when you have people in these incredible positions of power who are looking out for themselves, the biggest cost is paid by those who need government the most.  They’re the ones who can’t afford to hire a private security force. They’re the ones who need to call 911 for police or first responders when they have no other resources. 

And beyond the folks who actually do call 911, some folks don’t even have the privilege of calling 911. These are people who are afraid of being deported or afraid of being mistreated by police or the justice system. We need to be thinking about those people too. Being aware of the issues marginalized communities face has always informed how I have seen my responsibility long before I ran for attorney general. 

And when you listen to marginalized voices, you often make changes that benefit society as a whole. For example, I’m proud to say that the only place where you have a bill of rights for used car buyers in Pennsylvania is here in Bucks County. The reason that everyone has that right is that we were very intentional in listening to the voices that hadn’t been listened to before, including immigrant communities and communities where English was a second language. When we talked to folks from these communities, we learned that many of them felt like they were being mistreated by used car dealers. And because we took the time to listen to these marginalized communities, we now have Pennsylvania’s first used car law in Bucks County, which benefits all of us. 

There’s always more that we can do, whether it’s language access or cultural issues, to make sure that we’re always doing more to reach out to the folks who aren’t reaching out to us. And It is important to me to do that as the people’s Attorney General.

What challenges do you face as a Democrat running for AG?

Only two Democrats have ever won this office, because Republican attacks have accused the Democratic Party of not being serious about public safety and being the party of defunding the police. But the truth is that we are the party of good government. Having been a prosecutor allows me to carry that message credibly, to look people in the eye and say, “I am serious about keeping you safe, not just because it’s what I’m going to do, but it’s what I dedicated my life to doing.”

When I was in the DA’s office, I was one of the first prosecutors to enforce a hate crimes law that some folks had thought wasn’t necessary.  We can thank the Democratic Party for changing the law so that prosecutors now pay appropriate attention when people are the victim of a crime because of their race or religion.  I served in the US Attorney’s office when Barack Obama was elected president, and we saw a rise in Pennsylvania of hate groups, and individual actors finding each other on the internet and feeling emboldened to openly spew their bigotry against African Americans, against Muslims, against Jews. We were proactive in rooting this stuff out and I was aggressive but responsible in enforcing our hate crimes law. 

Unfortunately, in the last 15 years, things have gotten worse. It’s 100 percent the responsibility of the Attorney General to combat this hate. The fact that I come from a family with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian relatives helps assure people that whoever they are, I’m going to fight for them like they’re part of my family.

What do you think is the most important issue facing our state right now that you could address if you were AG?

I think it’s critical that we keep people safe from crime, corruption, and attacks on our rights, and I think we have to do all those things at the same time. And we will. 

But with this next election, our rights are very much at stake. The Republican candidate will talk tough to try and scare people into thinking that they need to vote Republican to elect someone who’s going to prosecute crime. But the reason the MAGA Republicans are going to pour millions of dollars into this election is not about criminal justice policy. The truth is that they want to come after the right to abortion and they want to undermine democracy. 

The work that we did here in Bucks County and in leading other counties in defending the right to vote in the 2020 election was just a warm-up for the next time the MAGA folks flood the courts with bogus claims. They’ve learned their lessons and they’re going to be better prepared … It’s not gonna be Rudy Giuliani calling the shots from the Four Seasons parking lot. 

In Pennsylvania, they didn’t just run up against our coordinated defense at the county level, but also a firewall in Josh Shapiro’s Attorney General’s office. They want that firewall gone. Because it’s not just about what happens on election day in 2024, it’s about these bogus cases that will still be on my desk the first day that I come into the AG’s office in 2025. 

As hard as things seemed in 2020, we kind of had it easy in that we didn’t have to take a single county commissioner to court. Since then, election deniers have found refuge all over Pennsylvania. With these threats to democracy, the most urgent and pressing issue that we face right now is making sure that on day one, we have not just elected a Democratic Attorney General, but that our Attorney General understands how to manage this very, very complex litigation and knows how to force government actors to do their job. 

Is there still room for bipartisan work in the current political climate?

We have to be able to both understand the value of bipartisan work and also have the ability to do the right thing even when we can’t get that bipartisan support.

Protecting our planet is a good example of where I’ve done both.  I’m the first county solicitor to enforce Pennsylvania’s environmental rights amendment, and I’ve done it both with and without bipartisan support. 

We found out that companies like Dupont were responsible for exposing our Bucks County firefighters to “forever chemicals” in firefighting foam being used at our Training Center here in Doylestown and that these chemicals then contaminated our water supply and left our community vulnerable to health risks. 

In this situation, we were able to send a bipartisan message of standing up for our constituents who wanted to be able to drink clean water, go fishing, and protect their kids.  When I went to court on behalf of the county, it was not only with the support of the two Democratic Commissioners who recruited me, but also our Republican Commissioner and our Republican District Attorney, both of whom I had a phenomenal working relationship with. 

But we can’t always get the other side to join us. When companies like Halliburton, and Exxon thought that they should be able to start fracking in this part of Pennsylvania, some Republican-controlled municipalities challenged the fracking ban. As State Senator Steve Santarsiero led the defense in the Senate, we saw an opportunity for county government to have a voice in this issue under our Environmental Rights Amendment. When we couldn’t find Republican support in Bucks County, we built a different kind of coalition. We went to our neighbors in Montgomery County and got the county solicitor and the Democratic commissioners to join our legal action. And working together, we got the job done.

READ: Fracking, Green Amendments, and Defending Democracy in Pennsylvania and Beyond!

There are times when you can get bipartisan buy-in, and there are times when you have to go forward without it. I think it’s important to have an Attorney General who understands the value in getting bipartisan support and also the need to do the right thing even when you have to take a different approach.

Who are some of your mentors and what have you learned from them?

I can’t overstate the impact that Barack Obama had on my life. I was very fortunate to go to the University of Chicago Law School when he was teaching there in the 1990s. Like me, he had a father who was a Muslim immigrant and a mother who was a Christian American woman, and was always navigating different cultures. And he helped me understand that a lifetime of figuring out how to relate to people from different backgrounds wasn’t my burden, it was my superpower. He helped put me on the path of connecting with child abuse victims in order to become their champion and get justice for them as a prosecutor. 

My other formative role models are my parents. I never lose sight of how lucky I am to have been born in this country. My dad had this dream of coming here and building bridges, and had there been a president who thought that we should ban brown Muslim immigrants from coming in at that time, my dad never would have been here. Our kitchen table discussions were not so much about politics as about being a good citizen, being a good neighbor, being a good person, and being a good family member. Having an immigrant parent raise me with the American values of hard work, integrity and being a good neighbor has been a cornerstone of my life. 

I learned similar values from my mother, especially from her perspective as a nurse. She told us stories about the people she cared for in the ER, especially women who had survived sexual assault or domestic violence. Issues like that weren’t typically discussed at the time when I was growing up. But Mom taught me about women who suffered all kinds of harm and didn’t have the economic independence and freedom to leave very abusive relationships.  There’s so much that you see on the front lines as a nurse. One story I’ve never been able to shake was when she came home and told us about a mother of four who had become pregnant again and tried to terminate the pregnancy. Sadly, she didn’t have access to safe abortion care, and was rushed to the ER and bled out in the hospital. That story was how I learned about the word “abortion” and how I understood what the stakes are and what happens if that right is taken away. 

I heard that story from my mother over 40 years ago. It’s hard for me to believe that now in 2024, we have to win this office to stop that right from being taken away in Pennsylvania. The reality is that whatever the Republicans say about cracking down on crime, their goal is to take away the right to abortion. We have seen it again and again and again.

What are some ways you would use the powers of the AG office to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians?

No state in the country has a constitution as strong as Pennsylvania in terms of defending the rights of the people to have a clean environment. It is written into our constitution that every public official, whether an entry level clerk, or the top law enforcement official for Pennsylvania, must prioritize environmental concerns. We have a responsibility to our kids to ensure that happens. 

I think we’ve barely even scratched the surface of addressing environmental issues. It’s time for Pennsylvania to join the climate change litigation that’s happening nationally. It is time for the Attorney General’s Office to go beyond prosecuting environmental crimes and think more broadly, about the incredible power of this office to stop bad activity, to force other branches of government to do their job, and to always put our planet first.

READ: The Importance of Pennsylvania’s Judicial Elections for the Environment

Beyond environmental issues, there are many other concerns that the AG office can and should address. For instance, the housing crisis is something that everyone understands exists, but very few people are asking what can be done by an Attorney General to improve it. It’s time to change that. 

Whether you’re talking about the housing crisis from the standpoint of the shortage of attainable housing (that is often the result of investors who may not even live in this country manipulating the market), or you’re looking at it from the standpoint of tenants who are renting in more densely populated areas who are being mistreated and don’t have an equitable power dynamic, or you’re looking at rural communities where folks who live in mobile home communities are being mistreated by those who own the land, there are a lot of different components to a shared problem. 

The Attorney General is exactly the person to be taking the lead in the housing crisis because you have access to criminal powers of prosecution, as well as all kinds of civil tools. The right Attorney General would be able to see all the different forces at play and take a holistic approach to finding solutions. When I take office we’re going to create the first housing justice unit in Pennsylvania to address these issues. 

What is an accomplishment you are particularly proud of?

I’m really proud of all the work that I’ve done over 23 years. But, I’m especially proud of taking on social media, not only as Bucks County Solicitor but as a dad. All of us as parents are trying to find the right barriers and balance for when we should allow our kids to use screens. The last thing that we need is to have companies preying on our kids to exploit their developing brains. 

So I was proud to stand with a bipartisan group of elected officials that included the DA and the Commissioners from both parties when Bucks became the first county in America to sue Tiktok, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube for targeting our kids. 

I announced that I was standing in the shoes of parents all across America who were asking the question, “What are our elected officials going to do about this?”  

I don’t think anyone in America was asking what the Bucks County Solicitor was going to do about social media fueling a youth mental health crisis. But parents have every right to expect that somebody would stand up for their kids, that somebody would ask the right questions, and that somebody would take action. That is what people need from their Attorney General.

What I bring to the table is 23 years as an attorney in the public interest, who understands how to use his training and his experiences in the law to make people’s lives better … whether that’s putting away sexual predators, or taking out crooked politicians or suing companies that are looking out for profit instead of their basic obligations of the public. The Attorney General needs to be doing all of these things really well, while also protecting our rights. There is simply no time to wait on things like climate change or housing or AI. I know I have to win the election this year and to be sworn in 2025. But I am eager to get to work.

What does it mean to you to be an Attorney General Candidate living in Bucks County? 

It is so exciting to be running as part of this community in Central Bucks. There is a big overlap in enthusiasm from people who have tuned in to the fact that their kids’ schools were under threat from groups like Moms For Liberty. That was the spark that got many folks engaged. Many of the same folks see the urgency of what’s at stake if their daughters are not going to have autonomy and the right to choose what to do with their bodies, if their children are not going to have an earth that is here for them, if their families can’t be safe when they’re walking down the street. It’s been awesome to have the support of this dedicated community, which has become family for my kids and me.

LISTEN: Unmasking Moms for Liberty’s Extremism

We are a very Bucks County-focused campaign in terms of where operations are. I’m really excited about that. It’s an asset for both the primary and general elections because I’m also the only candidate who’s running from a battleground region like Bucks County. Here in Bucks, we’re working against a lot. We have Republicans gaining on us with voter registration and we have an incumbent member of Congress who continues to do things like vote for Mike Johnson as Speaker of the House. 

And despite those challenges, we flipped our school boards, we elected Brian Munroe and Tim Brennan, and we re-elected a Democratic majority for the first time in history. None of that was easy. Our tremendous success these last couple of years came from working hard and being intentional about having the right candidates and having the right message. 

And if you can win Bucks County, you can win Pennsylvania.

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Lela Casey

Lela Casey has been writing professionally for over a decade. Her work has included entertainment journalism, scientific articles, and historical profiles. She has spent the last few years dedicated to making Bucks County a more tolerant, inclusive place for everyone.

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