Here’s What’s Behind the Sharp Left Turn in Philly’s District Attorney Race
Early in February, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams called an impromptu news conference. He arrived a few minutes after 10 a.m. in a pinstriped shirt, looking like he’d suffered through a long night with nothing but his own thoughts and a cigar. “Good morning, everyone,” he sighed into the microphone. “I have made the very difficult decision not to seek reelection to a third term.”
Williams was facing a rocky campaign. The FBI has been investigating him since at least 2015, and he recently was hit with the biggest fine in the history of the city’s ethics board for taking $175,000 in gifts and not bothering to report them. In those final moments of his political career, Williams made a revealing choice. He spent most of his time at the podium attempting to define his legacy as a victory for progressives: During his seven years in office, he said, he stopped locking people up for smoking pot, increased felony conviction rates, and helped bring humanity to the city’s punitive criminal justice system.
The only problem was that the reformer Williams described didn’t exist — not beyond PR spin, anyway. In the 2009 election, Williams had promised to be “a protector of the community, not seen as an oppressor.” He was supposed to be the antidote to Lynne “Deadliest DA in America” Abraham. And at first, Williams took steps that encouraged progressives: He sped up the investigations of police shootings and announced that people found with less than 30 grams of weed would only receive a fine or community service.
But Williams never truly went beyond the low-hanging fruit and instead took a U-turn toward the “tough on crime” ethos: When Governor Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on the death penalty, Williams fought it in court. He failed to give his unit aimed at reviewing wrongful convictions a single full-time staffer until his final year. He prosecuted a man who’d been cleared of murder by DNA evidence. And every year, horror stories emerged of little old ladies having their homes seized by the DA’s office because, unbeknownst to them, their sons and grandsons were dealing drugs in them. As civil rights attorney David Rudovsky puts it, “Seth Williams ran on a progressive platform, and he simply failed to deliver.”
At the same time that Williams moved in one direction, the world lurched in another. Right now, marijuana is being sold in suburban shopping malls in Washington. Black Lives Matter and The New Jim Crow exist. Sixty percent of Americans think pot should be legal, compared to 44 percent in 2009. In a deep blue city like Philadelphia, that’s created a lot of pent-up energy for change — or so the seven Democrats now running in the district attorney primary to succeed Seth Williams hope. Most are tripping over themselves to prove they’re the most progressive candidate in the field. They promise to rethink everything from cash bail to civil forfeiture to capital punishment. Even the sole Republican in the race is talking about finding “solutions” to help drug addicts. “Conservatives and liberals agree that we’ve incarcerated too many people for too long,” says Rudovsky. “Prosecutors are now running for DA on platforms they would never have thought about running on 10 years ago.”
Is Philadelphia really ready for a revolution? Or are we still the same city that elected Lynne Abraham four times in a row?
Perhaps the clearest sign that something has shifted in Philadelphia came over the winter, when a number of political insiders, looking at what appeared to be a pretty progressive field of candidates in the DA’s race, decided it wasn’t progressive enough and set about looking for another option.
The four challengers in the Democratic primary at that time were Michael Untermeyer, a former prosecutor who’s running to eliminate cash bail completely and divert even the hardest drug users out of the justice system before they’re booked; another ex-ADA, Joe Khan, who adamantly defends sanctuary cities and also hates cash bail; former managing director Richard Negrin, a more moderate voice who nonetheless rails against the city’s “unjust” civil forfeiture program and is campaigning to clean up the office; and Teresa Carr Deni, a centrist Municipal Court judge who has a decent reputation among liberal defense attorneys.
Some, if not most, of these candidates would have looked bold to Democrats a few years ago. But in 2017, criminal justice reformers were skeptical. Untermeyer was a Republican in a past life. Negrin has talked up stop-and-frisk, and Deni once suggested that the rape of a prostitute was a “theft of services.” So a search for someone else began, not only among locals, but also at a super PAC funded by billionaire George Soros. After a few big-shot progressives, including the head of the city’s public defender’s office, turned the opportunity down, a true believer threw his hat in the ring: Larry Krasner.
Krasner is a civil rights attorney known for doing battle with police unions and defending the First Amendment rights of protesters; he’s never worked a day in his life as a prosecutor. On the day he announced his candidacy, a horde of activists, including public-school moms, Black Lives Matter protesters and Occupy Philadelphia alumni, gathered behind him at the studios of a community TV station. He had, at one point or another, represented many of them in court.
Krasner was wearing his signature hipster glasses and a skinny navy blue suit, but he sounded like a West Philly activist at an anti-police brutality protest. “We have the highest percent of incarcerated people of the nations in the world,” he said. “We have more men of color in prison, jail, on probation or parole than there were in slavery at the start of the Civil War. And are we safe? The answer is we are not.”
Asa Khalif, the face of the local Black Lives Matter movement, took the unusual step of endorsing Krasner that night. Attorney Michael Coard, a militant critic of the city’s jails and police, also backed him. “He has fought and continues to fight the racist nonstop police brutality epidemic,” Coard wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune. “He is the blackest white guy I know.”
In the same week, the leader of the city’s police union called Krasner’s candidacy “hilarious.” It was Krasner, after all, who defended ex-Eagles player LeSean McCoy while he was being investigated for an alleged bar fight with two off-duty cops. McCoy was never charged. And it was Krasner who convinced Seth Williams to stop allowing a group of narcotics officers to be court witnesses because, he argued, they were unreliable.
Krasner simply wouldn’t have been a viable district attorney candidate a few years ago. He threatens the status quo as much as do Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But he has grassroots support, and there are rumors that the Soros-funded super PAC might back him. Even if the Fraternal Order of Police dooms his candidacy, the fact that it exists says something about how attitudes toward justice have changed in Philadelphia.
Krasner doesn’t need to win for the district attorney’s office to shift left. In fact, even the ex-prosecutors in the race have many of the same ideas he does. Every Democrat except Negrin and Deni wants to get rid of cash bail for nonviolent, low-level offenders. If that happens, it could change the local justice system as we know it: Almost 60 percent of city inmates are awaiting trial, and many of these are simply too poor to gin up a few hundred dollars on demand.
Khan and Untermeyer go as far as Krasner does when it comes to cash bail: They want to get rid of it entirely. Untermeyer is a technocratic nerd who hunts online for best practices late at night, and he likes what he sees in Washington, D.C.: “When an individual is arrested, there is a point system that determines the individual’s risk of flight to the community. If they’re above a certain point score, they are kept in custody. If they’re below a certain point score, they are released conditionally,” he says.
Every Democrat also thinks the city’s civil forfeiture system warrants reform. “I’m ready to all but dismantle that situation,” says Deni. Negrin doesn’t talk quite as aggressively, but he still wants to make changes: “You can’t put people out of their homes because their son is selling a little weed. That’s asinine. You’re ruining families.” In order to remove the financial incentive that so often corrupts civil forfeiture — the district attorney’s office is allowed to keep the millions of dollars it seizes from Philadelphians every year — Khan wants to send that money to the school district instead.
As for the death penalty, only Krasner wants to toss it onto the ash heap of history. But every other Democrat either supports Wolf’s moratorium or pledges to use capital punishment sparingly. “There is no question that the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to African-Americans and Hispanics,” says Tariq El-Shabazz, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who joined the race in February.
None of the Democrats talk fondly of “law and order” or Frank Rizzo. None think the city should double down on the war on drugs. None speak ill of Black Lives Matter.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between the candidates. El-Shabazz has his baggage: He was Williams’s right-hand man for almost a year, has $137,000 in tax liens, and once had a petition for a protection-from-abuse order filed against him. (It was withdrawn.) Jack O’Neill, the last candidate to throw his hat in the ring, is a young ex-prosecutor who wants to spread the crime-fighting “focused deterrence” program throughout the city. Negrin, who saw his father gunned down in the street when he was 13, talks as much about reducing violence as reworking the criminal justice system. At the same time, he’s positioned himself as the ethics-minded candidate; he was the first to announce he wouldn’t take campaign donations from criminal defense attorneys who could stand across from him in court. It’s also notable that he equivocates when asked if cash bail should be abolished for nonviolent, low-level offenders: “It’s tough to make that final decision without talking to the experts,” he says. Untermeyer and Deni also take moderate positions on some issues. Untermeyer wants to use a little-known statute that lets district attorneys charge defendants with homicide if they deliver drugs leading to death, which some progressives say is overly punitive. Deni believes police officers who shoot civilians shouldn’t be named immediately, and that the fine for smoking pot in public should be increased. “Why should your child walk by and see smoking marijuana as some sort of normalized behavior?” she asks.
That might sound old-school to some Democrats. Just a few years ago, the idea of merely getting fined for taking a hit outside was new-school in this town.
Unlike most local elections, the Democratic primary for district attorney is a real, honest-to-goodness fight. There is no clear front-runner in the seven-person race.
Some candidates have more advantages than others, though. Untermeyer is a self-funded millionaire. Krasner might have that super PAC waiting in the wings. Because so few Philadelphians typically vote in off-year elections — only 105,000 of the city’s 1.2 million voting-age citizens turned out in the last competitive Democratic primary for DA — factors like race and party endorsements could also make a difference. According to an analysis of local elections, whites and blacks usually cast ballots for candidates of their own race. El-Shabazz is the only black candidate in a city that’s 44 percent black in a year in which many African-Americans are worried about President Trump’s law-and-order agenda. Negrin is the only Latino at a time when many Hispanics have those same fears. Khan’s father is Pakistani, but the South Asian-American community here is comparatively small; the rest of the Democrats are white. Will the vote split along racial lines, or will a broad coalition usher someone into office, à la the 2007 and 2015 mayoral elections?
Bob Brady, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, says he isn’t sure the committee will endorse anyone. Negrin and El-Shabazz stand the best chances of winning the support of the Democratic machine, thanks in part to their many years in the establishment. Krasner and Khan could pick off some of the progressive ward leaders. Speaking of progressives, Brady finds it peculiar that most of the candidates are professing to be such a thing: “How come every one of them is calling me for support? I guess they want to be progressive, but they certainly want the support of the party.”
Purposefully or not, he raises a good point. There’s a possibility some candidates will drift toward the center as we move closer to Election Day. Most ward leaders aren’t left-wingers. The Fraternal Order of Police has also made it clear that it has a big interest in the election — it put up a billboard on I-95 seeking candidates earlier this year — and has endorsed Negrin. Another factor to take into account: At the very minimum, 25,000 non-Republicans in Philadelphia voted for Donald Trump. Could Republican Beth Grossman outperform her GOP predecessors in November if she adopts a tough-on-crime message? She has the résumé for it: She was a decades-long prosecutor who proudly led the city’s civil asset forfeiture program.
There’s another factor that could impact the primary: the anti-Trump movement. Across the country, there are signs that people who aren’t normally involved in politics have been moved to act after November 8th. More Democrats than usual voting in the district attorney’s race may indicate that the “resistance” is putting some of its energy into local elections.
The results of the primary will also tell us something about the city. Philadelphia has a reputation for being a leftist’s paradise, what with bike lanes and high taxes and powerful unions. But that’s not quite right. Though the Democratic Party reigns supreme, the truth is, it’s not all that progressive. The Philadelphia School District has been one of the most charter-friendly districts in the nation, and the City Council president insists raising the minimum wage isn’t legally possible. Last year, most of Philly’s top Democrats endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.
There is perhaps nowhere this political reality is more evident than in the city’s criminal justice system. Philadelphia locks up more people per capita than any other big city in the nation, and it’s been sued repeatedly for prison overcrowding. Despite Mayor Jim Kenney’s campaign promises to the contrary, stop-and-frisk hasn’t been significantly curtailed in the past year. And for almost two decades, Lynne Abraham was an immensely popular district attorney, not just in Northeast Philly or Pennsport, but also in African-American neighborhoods.
Do Philadelphians look at the Abraham era and see a generation whose lives were destroyed by the War on Drugs for no reason at all? Or do they look at the hundreds of people murdered each year and long for Frank Rizzo’s cummerbund? Do they believe an establishment Democrat can really bring about change? How do they feel about Black Lives Matter?
In the end, the district attorney’s race may be a referendum on whether Philadelphia wants to be a progressive city or a Democratic one.
Published as “Power: A Sharp Left Turn?” in the April 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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