Only on the streets of Philadelphia could $6,400 be worth more than $1.45 million. Well, sort of. Let me try to explain. It was reported the other day that the incumbent Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams was able to send his daughters to a summer-camp-of-a-lifetime experience -- one went to Spain, the other Japan -- thanks to an unusual funding source: The politically wired Electricians Local 98 led by union boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.
The enterprising Inquirer reporter who broke the story, Jeremy Roebuck, didn't find similar scholarships from the union for kids who weren't children of an influential city politician. So the whole thing -- now reportedly under investigation by the feds -- looks a little fishy, but is it really that bad.
Just five months later, the occasionally bombastic Johnny Doc and some of his pals got caught on camera on a raucous brawl at a non-union job site in South Philly. According to a man who got beat up in the incident and Roebuck's law-enforcement sources, DA Williams ignored detectives' pleas to charge the union men, and then demoted an assistant DA who recommended the same thing. The case was then kicked to state prosecutors -- with Williams, who's since been indicted on other matters, citing a “long-standing professional relationship" with Dougherty -- who have done nothing. It appears that justice was not well served.
It's a no-brainer: We want prosecutors who can't be bought, even if it's just for a summer-camp romp. So what are we to make of the news that an out-of-town billionaire, the ever-controversial George Soros, is spending at least $1.45 million to help arguably the most progressive candidate, Larry Krasner, win next week's Democratic DA primary to replace Williams?
Not surprisingly, some of Krasner's opponents in the seven-person race (the winner faces the GOP's Beth Grossman in November) aren't thrilled by the news that Soros, an investor who's reportedly one of the world's 30 richest people, wrote that $1.45 million check to a political action committee to pay for TV and radio ads, as well as literature and canvassing in support of the veteran civil-rights attorney. Barring an unexpected development, Krasner -- who's pledged to end the use of the death penalty and unwind a criminal-justice culture that's produced mass incarceration -- will greatly outspend his six rivals between now and Tuesday.
Is this fair?
No. It's absolutely not fair. In fact, the ability of an outside billionaire financier to swoop into Philadelphia -- or any election, for that matter -- and spend so much money in an effort to impose his viewpoint is a gross bastardization of democracy. Indeed, I'd argue that American politics will remain an unfair mess -- tilted toward the 1 Percent of which Soros is a charter member -- until we pass a constitutional amendment, or do whatever it takes, to overturn the Supreme Court's horrific Citizens United ruling and other legal precedents that have allowed money to swamp our elections.
So should you make Krasner pay for this at the polls on Tuesday? Absolutely not, in my opinion. Why should the candidate suffer for an out-of-control system that was not his doing. Soros' spending may be gross -- but thanks to our lax laws and corporatist courts, it's 100 percent legal. There's no evidence that Krasner even asked for this money. What's more, there's no evidence that Soros has a corrupt ulterior motive -- that this guy who's worth $25 billion wants a city contract, or is planning to come to Philadelphia with some goons and rough somebody up during the next four years.
For several years, Soros has taken the unusual step of investing political dollars -- nearly $10 million and counting -- in local DA and sheriff's races to elect people who want to end the death penalty and enact progressive criminal justice reforms. That's what he believes in. Krasner has been opposed to capital punishment for decades, so it's not like he changed his stance to get a chunk of Soros' cash. When big money changes an elected official's mind (as may have been the case with that $6,400 camp check), that's an indictment of the individuals involved. When big money like Soros' $1.45 million can change voters' minds, that's an indictment of the system. A system that needs to be radically changed.
We live in strange and, in many ways, unfortunate times. Our kleptocracy and its political bias toward wealth has created a class of billionaires with money to burn -- Soros, the Koch brothers, the financial-trader guys from Bala Cynwyd who spent $7 million in 2015 trying to elect Anthony Hardy Williams as Philadelphia mayor -- who don't need to buy influence but who want to use their dollars to sell society on their "big ideas." Remember that Williams campaign two years ago? He lost -- because the money wasn't the deciding factor. It turned out that most voters hated the "big idea" that he and his billionaire pals were selling: The expansion of charter schools.
Now, Krasner deserves that same opportunity: To be judged on his ideas, and whether he'd bring the kind of change that the DA's office desperately needs. I don't endorse candidates, and this race is no exception, but I've been quite impressed by Krasner's lifetime of commitment to fighting social injustice, as well as his plans for future reform. I don't like the Soros money one bit, but rejecting Krasner for that reason -- when those are the rules of our screwed-up system -- would be stupid. Whoever does win on Tuesday, I hope Philadelphia's next DA will join the fight for real campaign finance reform, so that in 2021 George Soros only can write a check for a couple thousands dollars, if he wants, and then watch what we do from the sidelines.