Tariq El-Shabazz began boxing in middle school, defying doctors who said his asthma meant he would never play sports. A featherweight barely topping 110 pounds, he said he dominated in the ring by outthinking, not outmuscling, his competitors.
“Come straight for them this round. Go around them the next round,” El-Shabazz said, reminiscing from his Germantown campaign office. “Throw punches one round. The other round, just have my hands up and dodge them.”
Now a Democratic candidate for district attorney, the 53-year-old former first assistant district attorney still has the fighter’s mentality — charismatic, calculated, and secretive when it comes to strategy. In a primary race where his six opponents are focused on reform, he is pulling no punches when it comes to the most self-evident distinction. He is the only candidate who is black. And that’s not insignificant in a city where 44 percent of the population is, too.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “The experience of being stopped and frisked, not representing someone who was stopped and frisked … I can relate to the community. And I'm not just talking the African American community. The Hispanic community, the Asian community, the LGBT community. I can relate to those communities because I understand being marginalized.”
El-Shabazz has highlighted his race at other times, most recently last week in response to an investigation by the City & State website that uncovered several cases in which former clients said El-Shabazz took their money and provided inadequate counsel. El-Shabazz called the reporter a racist who is “in the pocket of those in our community who seek to inject their racist views into this important race.”
El-Shabazz was raised in Brooklyn’s projects. His mother was an educator who he said read her children history textbooks rather than children’s books. His father, he said, worked long days as a supervisor in New York City’s garment district and died at age 45, the toll of years spent as a functional alcoholic.
El-Shabazz said he stopped boxing when he got into college. He graduated from Hofstra University, then went on to law school at the University of Baltimore.
In 1989, El-Shabazz took his first job out of law school as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. After five years he went into private practice and spent the next two decades handling some of the city’s highest-profile criminal cases.
It was during this time that El-Shabazz was accused by clients of being negligent and of missing court dates and filing deadlines, according to the City & State report. El-Shabazz denied the allegations and said he handled each case “zealously and effectively.”
El-Shabazz said that if one case from his time as a defense attorney stands out, it was helping represent four men charged in the 2000 Lex Street shootings, which left seven dead. Prosecutors let the men go, then charged four others, who were convicted. El-Shabazz said it was a case where the prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, and judge all worked together for justice.
“You can get sick and tired of being sick and tired of thinking things just aren’t just and not right,” he said. “And to actually see it work the way it's supposed to work, that's why you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
El-Shabazz uses the same phrase — don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater — often when talking about the office. He returned there in August 2016 after being recruited by District Attorney Seth Williams, a friend.
Unlike other candidates, who stress the office’s ills, El-Shabazz often focuses on improvements during his time there. For example, in November 2016 the office announced a new protocol for investigating police-involved shootings, which includes sending assistant district attorneys to crime scenes and releasing investigative files to the family of the deceased and the public even if charges are not filed.
“I think the crisis belonged to the individual that made [those] decisions,” El-Shabazz said of Williams, who is facing federal charges for, among other things, taking bribes from defense attorneys. “That’s reflective of the district attorney at that time. It’s not reflective of the office.”
He said it is certainly not reflective of his ethical compass, and pledged to have a strict no-gift policy.
He is deeply critical of the office in other ways.
“There is not enough diversity,” he said. “Without that diversity, there is no understanding of the community. In that office, there is systemic racism.”
He said renewing trust with the public, so witnesses feel comfortable coming forward, is key to bringing down violent crime.
He said he would also do away with cash bail for low-level offenses. And he would eliminate from his office’s budget a line for money raised from civil asset forfeiture so prosecutors are not tempted to seize property for financial reasons, he said.
As he pushes these ideas and others, El-Shabazz has some clear challenges in the lead up to the May 16 primary. As of March 27, he had $10,425 on hand, the least of his competitors. He said he would make up for it with an expansive network of volunteers.
Then there is his debt.
Since 2001, El-Shabazz has accumulated a string of tax liens against him and his law firm, which add up to nearly $200,000. A $51,000 city lien has been satisfied. About $137,187 comes from six IRS liens, filed between 2013 and 2016.
Among the most recent debts is a $757.57 lien against his Philadelphia home for an unpaid gas bill filed in January and paid off in March. (Court records show El-Shabazz as having lived in Montgomery County as recently as March 2015. Candidates for district attorney must live in Philadelphia for one year before the election, and El-Shabazz said he moved to the city several years ago while his wife and teenage son still live in Montgomery County.)
El-Shabazz said he had paid all but $74,000 and was on a payment plan with the IRS for what remains, which he said accumulated from a dispute with the IRS over what he owed, not an attempt to dodge taxes.
He said the liens have no bearing on his ability to be district attorney and called the focus on them a diversion pushed by his opponents.
“They know they can't beat me on experience,” he said. “If they want to have a conversation on that, we can have that conversation any day of the week.”