DAN MCCAFFREY LOOKS like a prosecutor, albeit one who worked with Eliot Ness. Big and beefy, with the slicked-back silver hair and square, ruddy face of an Irish cop, he even wears a gray fedora. At the moment, he’s telling me why he’s running for district attorney for the City of Philadelphia.
“This isn’t rocket science,” he says, slowly sipping his steaming paper cup of morning joe. There is, he says, “a sense of lawlessness that’s kind of sprung up, this thuggish culture in our city, and it’s put a cancer in our neighborhoods.” People just want to feel safe. “For some reason, young kids in our society think it’s okay to carry a gun. When we were kids, you had a problem with somebody, you went outside, you punched him in the mouth, he punched you in the mouth, you went back inside. Now someone getting shot is an everyday occurrence.”
It’s the tough-and-gruff stuff that D.A. platforms are made of: Take the guns off the streets! Better prosecutions! Stiffer sentences! You’re going to be hearing a lot of this sort of thing over the next two months, as several men attempt to elbow each other out of the way in the city’s first open D.A.’s race in almost 25 years. They’re jockeying to succeed Lynne Abraham, the tough cookie with the Mike Ditka haircut who’s held the job since 1991. And while none of them particularly look like Law & Order’s wizened Jack McCoy (McCaffrey’s fedora aside), their respective campaign literature will paint them as various renditions of him: smart, tough, fair, no-nonsense, the guy with both the brains and the guts to put the bad guys away and return — dare we say it? — “law and order” to the streets.
It’s not a particularly sexy race, doesn’t pack the sizzle we had during last year’s obsessive presidential sweepstakes, or the ’07 mayoral contest, for that matter. The body politic in Philadelphia is already looking over this election’s shoulder, turning its collective attention and gossipmongering to what promises to be a fascinating battle to unseat Arlen Specter in the U.S. Senate next year. “This race,” says one seasoned vet of city campaigns, “doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to people in the political sphere.”
Still, top legal eagle in our crime-ridden metropolis is a showy, glamorous gig, one that controls a 570-person office with an annual budget of $30 million. And this is still Philadelphia. Which means the fight for the job already includes a healthy dose of power-grabbing, public spats, long-simmering grudges, revenge and money. It’s a race about many things. The one thing it most definitely is not about is who might actually make the best D.A.
IN MANY WAYS, the biggest surprise of this crowded field may be that it exists at all. As recently as last fall, rumors were circulating through the corridors of City Hall that Abraham was going to resign before her term expired, setting the stage for a board of judges election like the one that got her the post when Ron Castille abruptly bolted for his ill-fated mayoral run in 1991. The murmurs actually go back to 2004, when she was said to have mulled a possible face-off with Tom Corbett in the state attorney general’s race. Then recently, “Especially with the Obama election,” says one prominent city criminal defense attorney, “everyone thought with the Dems in power and with the Governor’s backing, there would be a position for her somewhere.”