Candidates for DA in Philly agree on policy, but still clash in person

Rich Negrin, second from right, speaks as the candidates running to be Philadelphia's next District Attorney gather for a forum sponsored by the Business Association of West Parkside at Philadelphia Business &Technology Center in Philadelphia. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was put on trial Thursday morning by the eight candidates -- seven Democrats, one Republican -- seeking to lead the scandal-plagued office.

Everyone agreed that change is needed. They just disagreed on the right person to accomplish that.

The most notable clash came between a candidate with no ties to the District Attorney’s Office, civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner, and the candidate with the most recent ties, former First Assistant District Attorney Tariq El-Shabazz.

Krasner noted that all of the other candidates, with the exception of former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, previously served as assistant district attorneys.  That makes them “part of the problem,” said Krasner, while noting that there were few disagreements among the candidates about policy.

“They all have their progressive pants on today,” Krasner said. “But some of us have holes in those pants.”

El-Shabazz, who left the District Attorney’s Office last month, pushed back at times when the office was criticized. And he seemed to twice laugh off Krasner, mocking “civil rights” work but not mentioning him by name.

“I know that you notice that I’m smiling, because it amazes me when people talk about what they did with respect to civil rights violations,” El-Shabazz said. “People are talking about things they know nothing about.”

El-Shabazz also derided a comment by former Managing Director Rich Negrin, who said he was glad the candidates were talking about reaching out to the neighborhoods and said a program to fight poverty and crime in his former job made him the only Democrat who “has touched every single neighborhood.”

El-Shabazz responded: “The funniest thing I ever heard was that ‘I’m the only candidate who touched every neighborhood.’  I’ve touched every neighborhood in Philadelphia. But I’ve done it with the people. I’ve walked with the people. I’ve eaten with the people.”

The candidates share many of the same ideas.  They spoke of abandoning the death penalty or using it in rare instances. They advocated for drug and mental-health treatment instead of prosecution and incarceration. They had ideas on helping inmates released from prison find training and jobs to avoid returning to criminal activity.

John O’Neill, who spent 10 years at the District Attorney’s Office and left last year, said there were 40,000 people on probation in Philadelphia. While they lack access to an attorney to end that probation, the next district attorney could help with that, he said.

Deni said she became interested in criminal justice two decades ago because of a lack of treatment for those addicted to drugs, a problem she continues to see on the campaign trail amid the opioid crisis.

Joe Khan, who left the District Attorney’s Office to become a federal prosecutor, said he would bring to the city a federal program that works with violent offenders behind bars, preparing them to return successfully to their former homes.

Michael Untermeyer, who left the District Attorney’s Office to become a state prosecutor, said his former agency “is not listening to us. In pursuit of statistics, they are going after the wrong people." Untermeyer said he would shift focus, in part, to pursue more white-collar crime.

The lone Republican in the May 16 primary election, Beth Grossman, agreed with many of the ideas advanced by the Democrats. Grossman, who was a Democrat until last year, said “one-party rule” in Philadelphia “leads to corruption and complacency.”

District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat, last month dropped his bid for a third term amid controversy about a federal investigation into his political and personal finances, and more than $175,000 in gifts he accepted from 2010 to 2015 but failed to report until 2016 and 2017.

All of the candidates pledged to reestablish trust in the District Attorney’s Office. Several complimented the prosecutors who still work there.

“The misactions, the missteps, the bad decisions, the problems of one person, who happens to be the DA, does not reflect those hardworking men and women that are in that office,” said El-Shabazz, who was hired by Williams last year. “The trust is there among those individuals.”