Jennings, Pepukayi vie to succeed Denn as attorney general

DOVER — For the second time in four years, the attorney general’s office is open. The two candidates competing to fill the post have taken drastically different paths to get there: One is a former state prosecutor with more than two decades of experience in the Department of Justice, while the other is a felon-turned-attorney who switched his party affiliation to run for the seat.

Kathy Jennings and Bernard Pepukayi have many similar goals but differ as to what the Department of Justice needs in a leader. Ms. Jennings believes her background as a prosecutor and defense attorney with strong ties to the agency makes her more qualified, while Mr. Pepukayi argues his experience on both sides of the criminal justice system means he is the one who can deliver needed change.

When Matt Denn, a Democrat elected in 2014 after then AG Beau Biden opted not to seek a third term, announced in summer 2017 he did not plan to run again, it set off a firestorm of speculation about who would hope to succeed him. In the end, four Democrats, three of whom have held leadership roles in the Department of Justice, filed.

Ms. Jennings, who served as state prosecutor under both Mr. Biden and Mr. Denn, won the four-way primary by a wide margin, collecting 56.6 percent of the vote.

On the Republican side, the GOP turned to Mr. Pepukayi after its initial candidate, Peggy Marshall Thomas, dropped out of the race in August about a month after filing.

Mr. Pepukayi has described himself as unlike anyone who has ever ran for attorney general of Delaware, and that certainly seems to be correct. Not only is he a longtime Democrat who switched his registration in August, he was convicted as a teenager of a felony relating to drug distribution.

Kathy Jennings

Bernard Pepukayi

He ended up receiving probation, and, as noted in a 2008 advisory opinion from the Supreme Court, went on to do “many extraordinary things”: earning a college degree, becoming a lawyer, working for the Delaware Department of Justice and several Democratic politicians and receiving a pardon.

Now, he’s running for attorney general out of frustration with what he sees as politics as usual and because of a belief major reforms are necessary.

“It just seemed like those in power wanted to keep the same type of people in power that would have changed nothing. That’s what I was fundamentally dissatisfied with, because something has to change,” he said when he announced his run over the summer.

He’s gone after Ms. Jennings at debates, describing her as part of the status quo and as hypocritical for promising to push for criminal justice reform when she could have done so at points when she held key positions in the agency.

Ms. Jennings has defended her record and her vision, saying she has spent years trying to effect change and is committed to building a more just system.

A veteran of the Department of Justice across two stints, she served as chief deputy attorney general from 1993 to 1994 and as state prosecutor from 2011 to 2016, working for five attorneys general in total.

Ms. Jennings has highlighted her decades of experience working not just as prosecutor but as a defense attorney, arguing those years being around the criminal justice system will enable her to make necessary changes to make Delaware not just safer but also more equitable.

“We need to do so much more to end that kind of injustice that we see … and it begins with changing minds, it begins with being in our communities, it begins with ending the stacking of minimum mandatory sentences on top of one another and eliminating our cash bail system because it imprisons people,” she said at a July debate.

She would be the second woman to serve as attorney general, while Mr. Pepukayi would be the first African-American to hold the office (and presumably the first felon).

Both candidates have promised to bring systemic change with an eye toward reducing the prison population. While comprehensive state-by-state statistics on incarceration rate are surprisingly hard to come by, some suggest Delaware imprisons people at a rate greater than the national average. Other figures indicate recidivism is high in the First State.

Ms. Jennings supports legal marijuana, reducing minimum mandatory sentencing, allowing most prisoners to vote and providing more resources for youth entering the system. Mr. Pepukayi has similar priorities but does not currently support recreational cannabis.

Both candidates oppose the death penalty, although Ms. Jennings initially supported it when she declared her candidacy in January. She has since moved to the left on the issue and pledged to fight restoration of capital punishment.

The state has been without a death penalty statute since the Delaware Supreme Court struck it down in August 2016.

Unlike, say, the candidates in the U.S. Senate race in Delaware, the two AG hopefuls share a similar vision. Because of that, the race could come down to whether voters prefer an insider with decades working in the criminal justice system or an outsider who has been through it as an offender.

“I believe the office over the years has been dehumanized,” Mr. Pepukayi said at a debate last week. “Everyone is a checkbox, everyone is just a case or a file. I want to humanize it.”

Both have called for building trust between law enforcement and prosecutors and the community, especially in Wilmington, a city known for its high crime rate.

“We need to hear from voices in the community affected by the criminal justice system and we need to hear on a regular basis,” Ms. Jennings said at an August debate.

If races were determined by money, Ms. Jennings would win in a rout: She has raised $704,000 this year, about 13 times what Mr. Pepukayi has brought in, although he had a later start. Registration numbers are also on her side, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans about 329,000 to 194,000.

Delaware last elected a Republican attorney general in 2002.

The general election is Nov. 6.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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