Northampton DA candidates tangle
In TV forum, sharp words traded over Houck’s residency, Carroll’s stuffed monkey
The two candidates for Northampton County district attorney traded barbs at a televised candidates debate Monday night, with Republican Tom Carroll facing questions of his racial sensitivity and Democrat Terry Houck forced to defend his personal roots in the community.
Carroll bristled when asked about a more-than-decade-old incident in which he resigned from the district attorney’s office days after he left a stuffed monkey on the desk of a black colleague. He called the queries part of an “agenda driven by the left” and insisted he meant no offense by the monkey, which he said was intended as a joke to cheer up a colleague he considered a friend.
“I can’t imagine that anyone would equate a human being to an animal,” said Carroll, who became flustered as one of the
televised debate’s moderators, PBS host Monica Evans, continued to press him over the monkey’s symbolism.
“This is garbage,” Carroll said, adding: “This is just an agenda driven by the left to misdirect the issues.”
Houck, meanwhile, was asked to defend his Northampton County ties, since he lived in Bucks County until just one month before longtime District Attorney John Morganelli announced he wasn’t seeking reelection.
Houck noted that he has served as the second-in-command in Morganelli’s office for 13 years, and worked in Lehigh County for several years before that. Houck said he’s prosecuted some of the most high-profile cases in the county in his tenure, and said Morganelli never worried about residency when he offered Houck the first deputy’s job.
“I’ve never once had a victim, not one single time, ask where I live,” Houck said.
Carroll said the issue was fair game, and he highlighted his Bethlehem roots during his opening statement of the debate.
“You get a job up in Northampton County 13 years ago and you decide not to live up here and move up here,” Carroll told Houck. He said that raised “a legitimate question of political opportunism.”
The live debate was held at the PBS39 studios in south Bethlehem and was sponsored by the station and The Morning Call. It was conducted before an audience of dozens of supporters from both candidates’ camps.
The debate offered Houck and Carroll a chance to introduce themselves to voters before the Nov. 5 election by painting the broad brushstrokes of their resumes and their legal philosophies. But it also marked an opportunity for each to contrast himself with his opponent.
And contrast themselves they did.
Houck, 63, has been a prosecutor for three decades. A former Philadelphia police officer, Houck trumpeted his experience, given a career in law enforcement. He noted he has been endorsed by police unions across Northampton County.
“This is my life. This is my passion. And this is who I am,” Houck said.
Carroll, 57, of Bethlehem said he has 30 years of legal experience as a defense attorney and a prosecutor. He cast himself as a law enforcement-friendly reformer, offering criticism of the war on drugs and saying it was “almost outrageous” that Northampton County doesn’t have a diversionary court that caters exclusively to veterans.
Carroll said his experience as a criminal defense lawyer who has worked in 18 counties across Pennsylvania gives him a good perspective on what is working and what is not.
“I’ve also had a sole practice of criminal defense and I’ve covered cases in 18 counties in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Carroll said.
Carroll is a former assistant district attorney in Northampton and Montgomery counties, serving in both as a chief prosecutor in juvenile cases. He is also a longtime GOP activist, as the chairman of the Lehigh Valley Tea Party and the Bethlehem Republican City Committee.
In 2007, Carroll resigned from his post as an assistant district attorney at the courthouse in Easton after colleague Constance Nelson said he left a stuffed monkey at her desk in mimicry of her at work, The Morning Call reported in June.
Nelson said the monkey embarrassed and angered her, given the longtime trope comparing blacks to apes. Nelson told the newspaper that when she confronted Carroll about it, he told her, “F- you if you can’t take a joke,” she said.
On Monday, Carroll denied uttering those words, saying he left the office after the incident and did not see Nelson again.
“That never happened,” Carroll said. “That never happened.”
Houck, who was Nelson and Carroll’s supervisor at the time, said Carroll was given the option of resigning or being fired. He said he remembers Nelson coming into his office “shaking” so much that Houck was “frightened to death for her.”
“In the light most favorable to Mr. Carroll, it was extraordinarily bad judgment,” Houck said.
The debate also saw points of agreement. Neither candidate said they would lobby for tougher gun laws. Both said they will prosecute death-penalty cases. Both also said they will cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
The debate was moderated by Evans, Nicole Radzievich of The Morning Call and Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick.
Northampton County District Attorney candidates Republican Tom Carroll, left, and Democrat Terry Houck shake hands Monday after a debate at the PBS39 studios in Bethlehem. The debate is part of PBS39’s “Who Will Lead?” series.