The election for district attorney in Philadelphia is shaping up as the weirdest race since....well, you know. How weird? Consider the allegedly powerful Fraternal Order of Police and its desperation to find a candidate who will take out incumbent DA Seth Williams in the May Democratic primary while presumably also supporting its "Blue Lives Matter" agenda.
Friends who stay up and listen to WIP sports-talk radio at 4 a.m. (Memo to friends: Please don't do that) are telling me they've been hearing radio ads from the FOP seeking to recruit a candidate for the race. One wonders how that will work out: "Hi, this is Mike from Roxborough -- I was wondering who the Sixers can get for Okafor and I'd also like to support a law shielding the names of officers in police-involved shootings..." This after the FOP also took the highly unusual step of seeking candidates with a billboard on I-95.
The quick backstory is this: Incumbent Williams would normally be expected to win in a cakewalk -- but that was before his acknowledgment that he accepted more than $160,000 in initially unreported gifts, before the bizarre episode when a girlfriend was charged with slashing the DA's tires, and before the FBI started asking questions about his personal and political finances. Now, to muster up a lawyer cliche, the sharks are circling: As many as five Democrats and one Republican are planning to challenge Williams in either the primary or November's general election.
The possible ouster of Williams would be a positive thing -- his ethical lapses are appalling, and after first winning election as a reformer on 2009, he's been too often a disappointing voice for an unacceptable status quo. But the early tone of the race has been troubling: Too much of what we've heard has been along the lines of "my ethics are better than Seth's ethics" (kind of a low bar) and not enough to address a city that on one hand has far too many murders and on the other hand has seen neighborhoods ripped apart by the badly botched "war on drugs" and mindless mass-incarceration-style justice.
Now the good news is the apparent entry of a candidate with the potential to reshape the entire race. The city's best-known civil rights attorney, Lawrence Krasner, won't officially announce his intentions until Wednesday -- but his new email address of firstname.lastname@example.org seems to be something of a giveaway. Who knows -- maybe Krasner was cruising down I-95 and saw this billboard and....
Actually, I'm pretty sure that Krasner will NOT be the FOP's endorsed candidate. He's a pit bull lawyer for civil rights, having defended score of protesters from the 2000 RNC, Occupy Philly and other movements who challenged their arrests -- and more often than not won. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Krasner is one candidate who will keep police misconduct on the front burner. In the era of Trump, his record on the 1st Amendment is unimpeachable. To be fair, some of the other candidates also have promising ideas on justice reform, but I think Krasner's presence will ensure the race won't just be about ethics.
So what's the bad news? There's now a...boatload of candidates in this race, and the Politics 101 assessment is that the more people who are on the ballot, the better Williams' chance of hanging onto the job, warts and all. Why? The DA's race is the ultimate "off-year" election in which it seems no one but the most dedicated church ladies actually trudge to the polls; the 2013 election in which Williams won his second term inspired so much apathy I couldn't even find a primary turnout number, but it was probably in the 10-15 percent range. That's a huge advantage for the only candidate in the election with a high name ID, and that would be Seth Williams -- whose lesser known rivals would be splitting the protest vote five ways.
This is where you, the riled-up voter, come in. Since President Trump's election victory last November, we've seen record numbers of folks -- in Philadelphia and elsewhere -- vowing that they want to get involved in politics at the grassroots level. And so we've seen massive protest turnouts, as well as surprisingly spunky events like the Tuesdays with Toomey rallies outside a certain GOP senator's office.
But here's the thing: Pat Toomey won't be appearing on the ballot until 2022, and who knows what the world will even look like then. (Hopefully, Joel Embiid and the Sixers will be celebrating their 4th straight NBA title, but I digress...) The district attorney's race here in Philly is a chance for some of that raw energy to be put to use right now -- and to embrace the widely held dictum that "all politics is local." Many of the things that seem threatening about Trump to people in #TheResistance right now -- the return of "stop and frisk" and mass incarceration, limits on free speech or the right of assembly -- will require an ally in the Philadelphia DA's office. Watching some of the energy of the street flow into this election could be a beautiful thing. Think about it.