Byko: Rich Negrin’s journey from victim to prosecutor -- and more

Former city managing director Rich Negrin is running for Philadelphia District Attorney.

Rich Negrin’s life was scarred by two deaths, decades apart. Each lit a candle within him.

The first death was the 1979 assassination by Omega 7 of his 38-year-old father right before his eyes. It was minutes before Negrin, 13, was to play in his first Pop Warner football game. (He would play briefly for the Cleveland Browns in 1988 and the New York Jets in 1989.)

Five years later, defying death threats, eyewitness Negrin testified at the trial of the leader of Omega 7, a rabidly anti-Castro group that resorted to terror in its war against the murderous Cuban dictatorship.  

Negrin’s father, Eulalio, emigrated to America from Cuba in 1961. Safely here, he was part of a committee that negotiated with the Castro regime to win the release of 3,000 political prisoners. In the warped view of Omega 7, dealing with Castro was treason, punishable by death.

The first lawyer Negrin ever met was the government prosecutor who convicted the Omega 7 leader. 

Negrin didn't see men in suits in the Newark, N.J., neighborhood where he was born in 1966. The neighborhood, he says, was “bounded by an oil refinery, a junkyard, a funeral parlor and the New Jersey Turnpike.”

The Omega 7 trial opened his eyes to a career that helps people get justice. After he earned his law degree at Rutgers-Camden, the son of the slain immigrant became a Philly assistant district attorney, worked in the private sector and then returned to public service. First he headed the Board of Revision of Taxes and then became Philadelphia’s managing director under Mayor Michael Nutter.  When Nutter’s term ended Negrin, 50, joined the politically connected Obermayer law firm, but never lost his itch for public service.   

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The second death that scarred him  was that of his 5-year-old daughter, Abigail, in 2006. That  motivated Negrin and his wife Karen McRory-Negrin -- who prosecuted child abuse and rape cases in the D.A.’s office where they met --  to form the Pennsylvania chapter of Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy. They have raised $1 million for the charity, he says, and Karen has been its president since 2001.

They live in East Falls and have three other children -- Rachel, 25, a Temple student, Connor, 21, a student at Fordham in New York City and Mariel, 11, who was named after the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980, during a recession,  the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro said anyone who wanted to leave the island prison, could. An estimated 125,000 Cubans set sail for freedom.

Negrin is one of four Democrats running in the May 16 primary to deny Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams a third term.  

Williams is vulnerable because he hired and protected three men tied to the Kathleen Kane porngate scandal. That was followed by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics slamming Williams with a record $62,000 fine for not reporting massive gifts.

Williams' ethical failures disqualify him, says Negrin, who was vice chair of the Ethics Board from 2006-2010. Also on the board was Rev. Damon Jones of West Philly's Bible Way Baptist Church.

Negrin " had a natural way of reaching out and making people feel comfortable,” says Jones. The clergyman, unfamiliar with legal terminology, says Negrin broke it down for him so “I got up to snuff. I saw his skill and expertise, but also his compassion." 

Negrin’s plans for the DA's office include better use of technology, “a fresh perspective on criminal justice reform and a more robust conviction review unit.”

That caught my ear because Williams has a record of being slow to respond to mistakes his office has made.

“As a prosecutor, justice has to be a search for the whole truth, it can't be just a win, a notch in your belt,” Negrin told me during an interview.

We briefly chatted about Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status, something we had discussed earlier when he was managing director.

He supports Mayor Kenney, who heads a renegade city that refuses to cooperate with the feds and shields even convicted felons from deportation. Negrin doesn’t see it that way. We agree to disagree, agreeably.

Another thing Negrin does not see, necessarily, is the difficulty of beating an incumbent where there is weakness, not strength, in numbers.

Political consultant Larry Ceisler, citing “politics 101,” says if  an incumbent is “going to have at least one challenger, then you want as many as you can get” because it splits the vote.

Negrin shakes off that opinion.

“I think I'm the best person for the job,” Negrin says. “I love this office. I walked in there 21 years ago and it’s where I grew up.”

And where he wants to return, to help victims find justice.