Philly’s Public Defender: George Soros’s Associates Wanted Me to Run for D.A.

Keir Bradford-Grey says she isn't joining the race, and will push for justice reform in her current job.

L: Keir Bradford-Grey R: George Soros (Courtesy of

L: Keir Bradford-Grey (Courtesy of the Defender Association) R: George Soros (Courtesy of

Why would an up-and-coming progressive turn down billionaire George Soros?

That’s the question some Philadelphia Democrats are now asking, after chief public defender Keir Bradford-Grey told her employees last week that she would not run for district attorney in the upcoming Democratic primary. “This is the biggest D.A.’s race in the country,” said one incredulous political insider following the announcement. “Once you have [Soros’s backing], you can go on to be the U.S. attorney, to be the president!” 

In an interview with Philly Mag, Bradford-Grey confirmed that the rumor circulating among city politicos this month was true: Surrogates for Soros, one of the biggest Democratic donors of the modern era, had contacted her and encouraged her to run, she said. Soros and his Open Society Foundations did not respond to requests for comment. After this article was published, the Soros-funded Safety and Justice PAC provided a statement: “One of our representatives has met with proponents of criminal justice reform in the Philadelphia legal community. No decisions have been made about whether to support any candidate for office.”

If you think Philadelphia’s district attorney race is too small-ball for Soros, think again: He has funneled more than $3 million in the past year to seven D.A campaigns around the country, using super PACs and “527” groups. Such organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, but are barred from coordinating with political campaigns. Soros’s goal is “reshaping the American justice system,” according to a report by Politico. “His money has supported African-American and Hispanic candidates for these powerful local roles, all of whom ran on platforms sharing major goals of Soros’s, like reducing racial disparities in sentencing and directing some drug offenders to diversion programs instead of to trial.”

Bradford-Grey said she seriously considered running for D.A., but ended up deciding that she would be more effective in reforming the justice system by staying at the helm of the city’s Defender Association, at least for now. The organization provides pro bono attorneys to impoverished defendants.

“It was amazingly humbling and flattering that people would like for me to be in such a position,” she said. “But you need both the D.A. and the Defender’s Association to have viable solutions on criminal justice reform. We’re going to be rolling things out and bringing things to the community so they understand exactly how we are going to work to end mass incarceration, step by step. We’ve been working on that for a good part of a year, and I can’t walk away from it.”

Bradford-Grey became the first African-American woman to lead the Defender’s Association in 2015. Previously, she was Montgomery County’s chief defender and a federal public defender in Delaware. It’s easy to see why Bradford-Grey might appeal to Soros: In Montco, she created a youth court to keep minors out of prison and initiated “participatory defense,” a practice that teaches defendants and their families about the justice system in order to help their chances in court. In Philadelphia, she has called for the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent, low-level offenders: “We’re spending millions and millions of dollars [jailing] people that are not a danger to the community and not at risk of fleeing.” She plans to soon unveil a texting service that will remind defendants when they have to show up for trial, in hopes of both reducing no-shows and persuading officials that cash bail is unnecessary for some offenders.

The 42-year-old chief defender has also developed a good reputation among local elected officials: Both Democratic state attorney general Josh Shapiro and former Republican Montgomery County district attorney Risa Vetri Ferman have praised her in the press. And according to the Philadelphia Public Record, some city Democrats reportedly wanted Bradford-Grey to run for district attorney, including councilwomen Helen Gym, Cindy Bass and Cherelle Parker.

If Bradford-Grey had decided to throw her hat in the ring and a Soros-funded super PAC supported her, she could have changed the dynamics of the Democratic primary. It’s unclear whether any of the five Democratic candidates currently running for D.A. will have enough money to air TV ads for a sustained period of time, whereas there is little doubt that Soros would have blanketed the airwaves if he’d backed Bradford-Grey. (A Republican, Beth Grossman, is also running for D.A.) Bradford-Grey would have been the only African-American to challenge incumbent district attorney Seth Williams, who is black — a factor that could have proven relevant because, according to a recent analysis, city residents often vote along racial lines. (It’s important to note, however, that many voters did not follow this trend in the 2007 and 2015 mayoral primaries.) Bradford-Grey also would have been well positioned to win over progressive voters. That’s assuming that Soros’s money wouldn’t have backfired, as it sometimes does: Many conservatives loathe the mega-donor, and some progressives are unhappy with his power over the Democratic Party as well.

But Bradford-Grey isn’t running for D.A., at least not in this universe. Will she ever run for office? She isn’t ruling it out: “If an opportunity comes for me to do something that’s aligned with what my passion is, and my ability to help people and really make an impact on the qualities of their lives, I will do that when the time is right.”

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