Noone and Ryan contend for county’s District Attorney seat
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
The respective campaigns of Republican Michael Noone and Democrat Deb Ryan to become the next District Attorney for Chester County could not have begun any more differently.
When Ryan approached Barnaby’s in West Chester on the cold evening of Feb. 7 to officially announce her candidacy, the only sounds that could be heard were from passing cars on High Street. When she entered the popular hotspot, however, the contrast in sound was immediate and jarring. Ryan was surrounded in every direction by law enforcement officers, elected officials, county executives and general public well-wishers, all of whom had come to support her efforts to defeat long-time DA Tom Hogan, who was pursuing his third term.
While estimates of the crowd size varied, the exact numbers didn’t matter. What did matter was that for many in attendance, this event served as the refueling station for a locomotive that was churning over the county, one that was now ushering Democrats to top positions in county, regional and national government. Ryan’s kick-off served as the latest whistle stop.
To add even more fuel to the train, shock waves reverberated throughout Chester County politics when Hogan announced on July 3 that he was stepping away from his campaign for a third term as DA to spend more time with his family.
In direct contrast to the fanfare of Ryan’s announcement, Noone, the second-in-command at the DA’s office for the last seven years, quietly announced his candidacy.
“In life, sometimes opportunities set themselves in unexpected ways, and I view myself as someone who steps up when those opportunities present themselves, whether it’s stepping into a tough case or stepping into the position of District Attorney,” Noone said.
“It is often a natural progression for someone who is essentially the vice president of the department to seek the higher office.”
While the course of their respective political affiliations are different, the campaigns of Ryan and Noone form a slight overlap of similarity. Both enter the DA race with resumes stacked with qualifications and experience: Noone has over 20 years of legal experience, and as Hogan’s second-in-command, he oversees an $8 million budget and an office that handles 7,000 cases a year and works with more than 100 attorneys, detectives and staff. He also serves as the co-chairman of the county’s Overdose Prevention Task Force and Elder Abuse Task Force.
Ryan, currently the county coordinator for the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative at the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc., is campaigning on 15 years of experience as a criminal prosecutor. She began her career as an assistant DA at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and later became Deputy District Attorney for the Chester County DA’s office.
Both Noone and Ryan -- who are running their first campaigns -- have also received high praise from local law enforcement groups, who have followed up with endorsements: the Chester County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 11, has endorsed Ryan, as has former District Attorney Joe Carroll, a Republican.
Noone has received endorsements from the Chester County Police Chiefs Association, the County and State Detectives Association of Pennsylvania, and the International Police Association for Region 13, among others.
While the changing winds of the voting public in Chester County may be on the back of Ryan’s campaign, there are very few other intangibles in this race that come into play. It frees up Noone and Ryan to put the emphasis of their campaigns solely on the key issues affecting the future safety of Chester County residents: the rising use of opiates; combating child and elder abuse; enforcing laws that properly prosecute criminals; and removing guns from the hands of the wrong people.
Tackling Rise Opioid Abuse and Child Abuse
When it comes to understanding the growing scourge of opioid abuse in Chester County, very few lawmakers know more than Noone, who has served as the co-chair of the DA’s Overdose Prevention Task Force for the past several years and given more than 100 presentations on behalf of the task force across the county. Last year, the county saw a 22 percent reduction in the number of drug overdose deaths than the previous year, but Noone said that it’s a percentage he said will continue to fall, providing the DA’s office continues to partner with the more than 50 local organizations and agencies it works with.
“We have to approach this from all disciplines – law enforcement, prevention education and health,” he said. “In terms of accidental drug overdose deaths so far this year, we’re about where we were last year, but there is so much work to be done. Every one of those numbers is a human life, who has hopes and dreams and people who love them.
“It helps to educate people as to how we got here, how serious the problem is, and reduce the stigma for people who are struggling. There are about 35,000 people in this county who identify themselves as recovering from substance abuse, and that’s actually a positive message, because people know that they can save their life.”
Noone also noted the efforts made by the District Attorney’s Office to reduce the number of deaths due to gun violence in the county. He said that up until a murder-suicide occurred in London Britain Township recently, that there had not been a murder in Chester County in 2019.
“When you look across the county, you begin to see the efforts of the police to prevent crime by working with the DA’s office, in ways that are innovative,” he said. “We have worked together through effective communications. We have an understanding of who the most likely offenders are, and we are aware of all aspects that contribute to gun violence.
“Law enforcement is the ultimate team effort, and working together, the police and the DA’s office have been able to drive down the homicide rate in this county, and that is remarkable for a county of over a half million people.”
On the issue of combatting child abuse in the county, Noone said that the DA has increased the number of staff in the office’s child abuse unit. It’s a subject he knows very well; in 2012, Noone, serving as first assistant under Hogan, successfully prosecuted the murderer of three-year-old “Scotty” McMillan.
On Feb. 6, 2018, the DA’s Office released a press release that stated that the office’s Child Abuse Unit had handled a record number of child abuse cases in 2017 – rising from 1,681 in 2016 to 1,924 in 2017. To handle the increase case workload, the release stated that the DA’s Office doubled the number of prosecutors and detectives working on child abuse cases, and added staff members to record incoming reports.
“When it comes to child abuse, I have handled some of the worst cases of child abuse as first assistant, and I am committed that as first assistant to make sure that I handle the tough cases in the court room,” he said. “I will do the same as district attorney. It’s a job that you lead by example.”
In the first paragraph of Ryan’s priorities for the office of District Attorney on her website, she is defined as the “Tough, Experienced and Fair District Attorney we need to bring a new era of Smart on Crime criminal justice reform in Chester County.”
In the second paragraph, it reads the following: “Chester County has seen an unacceptable increase in drug overdoses, homicides, suicides and gun violence. Over the last eight years, we have had the highest increase in child abuse allegations in our county’s history.”
In the length of one sentence, Ryan refuted the progress the District Attorney’s Office – and Noone – has claimed to make during the Hogan administration.
“With respect to the child abuse allegations, there is clear evidence that demonstrates we have seen an increase that is unconscionable,” said Ryan. “There has been a neglect in the District Attorney’s Office in taking care of the people who are running that unit, which is in my opinion, the most difficult unit in the entire office.
“We have neglected an entire child population, and that is unconscionable,” said Ryan, who called for the hiring of more qualified staff and devoting more resources to handle the increased number of child abuse cases.”
While Ryan is running against Noone, a key component of her campaign is directed at Hogan, whom she criticized on several counts, mostly in what she sees as the DA’s efforts to micromanage criminal investigations during the time of Hogan’s tenure, which she said has complicated law enforcement’s ability to do their own job. She called it an example of “grandstanding.”
“One of the reasons I got involved in this campaign was at the request of law enforcement friends, who are very dissatisfied at the way this office has been run, and they are looking for new leadership,” she said. “There have been fractured relationships with law enforcement over the county [with the District Attorney’s Office] during the eight years Hogan has been in office.
“I respect what law enforcement does,” she said. “They are out there every day putting their lives on the line to protect us. We need to let them do their job. We are experts in our own areas, and while we need this collaborative effort, we also need to remain in our own lanes.”
Ryan links Noone as a co-conspirator in the way the DA’s office has been run.
“There have been many instances where Mike could have attempted to prevent some of the things that have happened, or at least expressed his opinion in order to repair these relationships.”
Whether it is real or imagined in politics, there is the long-held myth that believes that when a second-in-command takes over for his or her predecessor, that he or she will merely keep the seat warm and offer no new initiatives. Noone adamantly rejected the speculation that he is running in order to further Hogan’s objectives.
“I am not a seat-warmer for anyone,” Noone said. “I am seeking the office because I want to be the person who is ultimately responsible for law enforcement in this county, work with the local and state police and work with the community, to make sure that Chester County is a safe place to live, work and raise a family.
“It is my name on the ballot, and no one else’s. I respect Mr. Hogan and the opportunity he has given me, but I am the one who is running for District Attorney.”
Whether it is deemed a cloud or a silver lining – a tidal wave change or a temporary aberration -- the changing demographics of Chester County have become a major presence on Chester County politics in the last few years. After a 200-year run as the dominant party in the county, the Republicans were soundly defeated in 2017, when four Democrats were elected to county seats. After Ryan Costello decided not to run again for his seat in the U.S. House, Democrat Chrissy Houlahan earned an easy victory in 2018, at the same time Democrat Christina Sappey defeated Republican Eric Roe for a seat in the Pa. State House.
Noone said that he is unfazed by these voting trends.
“I focus on my qualifications and what I can control and what I control is my record and what I bring to this position,” Noone said. “I am not a politician. I am a prosecutor. The shifting demographics is beyond my control. What I can focus on is my approach to what affects the citizens of this county. It’s not about the politics of that person. It’s about the qualifications, record and experience of what that person will bring to that office.”
If she is elected as District Attorney, Ryan said her main objective will be to bring integrity and transparency to the office, while also repairing relationships with law enforcement. She also said that she wants to ensure that everyone who comes in contact with law enforcement is treated equally regardless of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, age or income level,” as stated on her campaign website.
She also wants to create an office that is more reflective of the changing demographics of the county, and will not allow disparities in the treatment of defendants based on who represents them in court, or their income level.
“I don’t think that office is representing the population well,” she said. “What I hope to do is hire people who are like minded who care about effectuating justice for the right reasons and in the right way, and show a more diverse people who handle these cases.”
While Noone and Ryan are both first-time candidates, it is largely and unofficially assumed that they both have taken on respective roles. Ryan, the Democrat, is seen as the challenger and Noone, the Republican who is second in line to Hogan, is thought of as the incumbent. If Noone has an advantage, it is that he is already familiar with the protocol of the office, and if he is elected as the new District Attorney, he said a changing of departments will not be required.
“If I am elected, I will know what it is like to run that office,” he said. “There will be no learning curve when I take that office.”
Noone said that at its core, the Office of the District Attorney has one key mission.
“I like having a job where the only thing you have to focus on is doing the right thing,” he said. “When you are the District Attorney, your focus is on doing the right thing. You get to help victims, and you get to hold people accountable for violating the law and jeopardizing the safety of others.”
Ryan saw her February kick-off campaign in West Chester not only as a moment when she announced her candidacy, but as a tell-tale confirmation that the changes seen in Chester County politics over the past few years have fully taken hold.
“That [event] demonstrated the desire for new leadership in this area,” Ryan said. “I have received a lot of endorsements from a lot of law enforcement agencies, who have been incredibly supportive, and it’s encouraging that they have faith in me, because these are the men and women I have worked with throughout my career, and will continue to work with.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.