Grossman: Philly “Deserves Better” Than Seth Williams

Ex-city prosecutor Beth Grossman is running for D.A. as a Republican. She wants to lure Trump voters — but there's a slight catch.
Former city prosecutor Beth Grossman announces her candidacy in front of a Kensington pawn shop where her family once owned a candy store.

Former city prosecutor Beth Grossman announces her candidacy in front of a Kensington pawn shop where her family once owned a candy store. Photo by David Gambacorta

If you’re going to try to hold a press conference in the middle of Kensington, you have to expect the unexpected.

Former city prosecutor Beth Grossman seemed prepared for most of the little interruptions that came her way on Wednesday afternoon: the occasional burst of thunder from the Market-Frankford El, the get-out-of-my-way horns from passing motorists, the locals who hovered nearby and talked over portions of a short, formal speech that outlined her decision to run as a Republican to unseat her former boss, District Attorney Seth Williams.

And she knew to throw a couple of sharp elbows at Williams — who is facing what could be a difficult bid to win a third term — and the city’s atrophied political machine. The D.A.’s race is always an off-year affair that attracts smaller crowds of voters than mayoral races … which don’t exactly bring ’em out in droves, either.

“The district attorney must hold him- or herself to the highest of ethical standards when enforcing our laws. Seth Williams, our current district attorney, has failed to do so,” Grossman said as she stood in front of a pawn shop on Kensington Avenue near Allegheny that her parents owned and operated as a candy store decades ago. “It is a disappointing irony when Philadelphia’s chief law-enforcement officer is himself the target of a law-enforcement investigation. Not only is it disappointing, but it is absolutely unacceptable.”

But the one thing Grossman apparently didn’t see coming was a question about Donald Trump. Earlier this week, her campaign cited the 109,000 votes the president-elect won in Philadelphia in November as evidence that a Republican candidate could top a Democrat like Williams — who won his second term in 2013 with 89,238 votes — if she “micro-targets” Republicans, Democrats, and independents who are all about change.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Chris Brennan asked Grossman — a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat-turned Republican (we’ll get to that bit in a minute) — if she voted for Trump. “I’m not going to answer who I voted for,” Grossman said. “I don’t think that’s relevant.” She was also quick to note that she’s not “carrying water for the national GOP.”

Instead, she framed her candidacy as an attempt at trying to loosen the local Democratic Party’s decades-long grip on elected offices in the name of honesty. “I am arguing,” she said, “that when elected officials think they can’t lose an election, or when a party machine almost always backs the incumbent, common sense tells us that is far too much power in too few hands for far too long.”

Touche. 

Grossman spent more than two decades in the D.A.’s Office, working in the trial, juvenile, law, narcotics, and investigations divisions before serving as the chief of the Public Nuisance Task Force. She faced pointed questions over the task force, too. The city’s civil-asset forfeiture policies have been singled out as among the most problematic in the country; a recent bipartisan bill that was supposed to lead to fairer forfeiture practices statewide was gutted behind closed doors in the 11th hour.

She contended that the task force helped Philly residents who were stuck living near drug dealers or other dangerous properties, like bars that played host to multiple shootings. Grossman left the D.A.’s Office in 2015 to become the chief of staff of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Grossman said Philadelphians “deserve better” than Williams, who, you’ve probably heard, has been having a tough go of it lately. She changed her registration from Democrat to Republican in 2013, she said, then switched back two years later to vote for former colleagues who were running Democratic primary races for judicial seats. She returned to the Republican party to mount her run for district attorney.

“It’s a surprise she’s running after working for District Attorney Williams for more than half a decade,” Dan Fee, the D.A.’s campaign spokesman, wrote in an email.  “She must have thought things were OK for years, right? But I guess ambition and underemployment make people do strange things like this.”

Joe DeFelice, the head of Philadelphia’s GOP, praised Grossman as a “unique candidate” for the party after she finished delivering her remarks in front of the cluttered pawn shop window. Republican Daniel Alvarez managed to attract only 19 percent of the vote when he ran against Williams in 2013. But maybe the current climate would be more favorable to a non-machine candidate, DeFelice theorized. “I think Seth’s had a rough of couple of years,” he said.

The FBI has been investigating Williams’s campaign finance spending, as well as eyeing a nonprofit he founded. His ex-girlfriend, Stacey Cummings, was charged in August with slashing the tires of two city security vehicles outside his home. (Let’s not get started on the Porngate stuff.)

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 is refusing to support Williams’s re-election bid. On Wednesday, the union’s president, John McNesby, sent a letter to his members that derided Williams for not filing assault charges against a teenager who allegedly admitted to hitting a police officer as part of a scuffle that led to troubling video footage of the officer pummeling the girl. “It has been very disappointing over the last seven years watching a once-promising District Attorney degenerate into a morally and ethically challenged sideline playboy,” McNesby wrote.

We pause here to note that four other candidates are also challenging Williams for the Democratic nomination: former city managing director Rich Negrin; former federal prosecutor Joe Khan; former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, and former city prosecutor Michael Untermeyer.

So yeah, this should be interesting.

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