On a Monday afternoon in late July, I pay a visit to the D.A. community office on Ogontz Avenue and chat with Vernon Price, a former ward leader Williams hired, about engaging the community. It feels like a good idea—a D.A.’s office in the neighborhood, where ordinary citizens can come in and air grievances. But Price, who is making $76,500 a year, shows me the sign-in log: 100 signatures over three months. That’s one person a day.
Such a trickle of visitors hardly portends newfound belief in the D.A.’s office, or relief from the powerful fear of speaking out about violent crime. Many Williams critics believe the community offices are simply there to help him politically, and that D.A. is a stepping stone to mayor.
“I love being D.A.,” Williams says. He says it so often, he might have convinced himself that this is the job where he wants to make his mark.
And what a job it is! On the day I spent with Seth Williams in early August, after chatting up troubled kids at a church, after urging young drug offenders to get their lives together, he had lunch at the Union League. (Williams’s memberships there and at the Sporting Club are paid for by his political fund-raising.) Over crabcakes, Williams gets William Hite, the city’s new schools head, on board with his bold plan to threaten to charge parents of truant students with endangering the welfare of a child. Then he gives Dr. Hite a tour of the venerable club, flinging open doors of vast rooms like Jay Gatsby wooing Daisy as he promises to bring Hite and his wife back for an eight-course meal. He stops to admire the portraits of League presidents in Lincoln Hall, bursts in on Jim Kenney—“Hello, Councilman,” Seth purrs—and other power players enjoying a midday beer and cigar.
So there he is, both sides at once: the man of ideas who wants to put a dent in crime before it happens, and the charmer. Maybe he can make it work. Maybe he will become a shining example of that intersection of political skill and a desire to change the world. If he doesn’t get tripped up on his own hubris, and on his own excesses. In the end, that may turn out to be the only meaningful question about Seth Williams: Which side of him wins?
Additional reporting by Victor Fiorillo