How Seth Williams and Donald Trump shadowed the DA's race

Philadelphia Prosecutor Gifts
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams departs the federal courthouse May 11 after his arraignment on additional charges in his bribery and extortion case.

On primary day, the shadow of Seth Williams hovered.

And how could it not?

Even if our indicted district attorney was still a leading voice for reform and not a criminal defendant, even if he did not stand accused of selling out his office for a custom couch and all those spring-break getaways, this election would have undoubtedly have turned left.

With his downfall came an even more compelling case for reform.

Play revisionist-Seth history and the narrative turns. Cut out the specter of corruption and stupidity that Seth's brought to the office for the last two years, and he is still the city’s first African American DA who gained some moderate returns on incremental reforms in a systemically broken criminal justice system.

In that scenario, even in 2017 America, the conversation of this election could have been narrowed to a discussion of the crime-prevention and diversionary programs that have worked reasonably well – and the need to build from them. That you needed a steady hand. That the best way forward was the slow road of incremental reform.

But then news of Seth’s alleged misdeeds surfaced last year and the argument for slow change faltered.

No matter how much progress was made under his watch -- diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders, reforms for fair sentences, and reducing the death penalty caseload -- the case against Seth Williams called it all into question. His buffoonery tainted every aspect of his legacy. What were once lauded as admirable attempts at reform were now obscured.

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the argument for incremental change to the criminal justice system was blown to smithereens.

Rather than being a conversation about measured gains, our district attorney’s race became an early proxy war against the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back decades of criminal justice reform. A battle line at the last level available -- the most local level. And in a town, no less, with the highest incarceration rate of America's 10 biggest cities. 

Jeff Sessions pledged to lock up everybody for good, and horrified voters everywhere – not to mention George Soros and Susan Sarandon and John Legend – turned their lonely eyes to Philadelphia. And Larry Krasner.

Eight years ago, Williams ran as a reformer against Lynne M. Abraham. Were he running today, he would have been the most conservative Democrat on the ballot, a tarnished relic in the Age of Trump. Instead, Williams is busy, trying to sell his house – custom couch not included – to pay his lawyers.

The challenge of arguing for continued incremental change was evident in an anti-Krasner letter released Friday and signed by 11 former assistant district attorneys. They chafed at the notion that the office still toils in the dark ages of Abraham, when death penalty cases were the norm, draconian sentences were sought for every offender, and no cops ever got prosecuted. But argument for merely moderate reforms is not easy to make in a year when the status quo has been upended entirely, especially when your boss is Seth Williams.

And the challenge for the incremental-change argument was clear, too, in the weeks before the primary, as mainstream candidates elbowed each other for daylight, and Krasner's message for broad and sweeping change won increasing national attention. Even if some of those promises are more than what a district attorney has the power to deliver. 

Regardless, our next district attorney will be accountable for pursuing deep and sorely needed reforms. The kind Williams staked his legacy on and failed to attain. The sort that, in his failings, he will usher in more quickly. 

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