Joe Khan's pitch to be Philly's next DA: 'Only in America'

Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor, is one of seven candidates for district attorney in Philadelphia's May 16 Democratic primary election.

Joe Khan talks about the job of district attorney in Philadelphia as a prosecutor who has seen people at the entry and exit of the criminal justice system.

Khan, who served six years as an assistant district attorney and then 10 as a federal prosecutor, is campaigning on the damage that public corruption cases cause to public faith in the justice system, making it harder to persuade people to testify.

But he also talks about trying to help people he put in federal prison successfully reenter society at the end of their sentences.

Both have been hot topics in the run-up to the May 16 Democratic primary.

A crowd of lawyers last year kicked around the idea of challenging District Attorney Seth Williams’ bid for a third term.  Khan became the first of seven candidates, declaring his intentions in September, 10 weeks before anyone else.

Early on, Khan focused on the scandal swirling around Williams, which led to his indictment in March by a federal grand jury on 23 counts, alleging that he took bribes from businessmen and stole money meant for the care of his elderly mother.

Williams announced in February that he was dropping his campaign for reelection.

Khan then pivoted away from the incumbent's problems, and went in a new direction that his primary opponents have followed -- attempting to nationalize the race, to draw attention of voters who typically do not turn out in strong numbers for district attorney elections.

He had a potent narrative to drive that effort.  

Khan’s father was a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan who came to this country and fell for an Irish Catholic native of the city. They married and moved to a Jewish neighborhood in the Northeast.

“Only in America could this love story happen,” proclaims one piece of campaign literature Khan has been mailing to voters, emblazoned with a picture of his parents on their wedding day.

That’s the happy story.  The flip side, also emblazoned in the campaign literature, is attacks on President Trump, who appears in a picture with a red line drawn across his face.

“Trump. Wrong. Read the story that proves how wrong Donald Trump is about immigration in America,” the flier reads.

Khan’s campaign touts his endorsement from former Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as the city’s district attorney from 1978 to 1985 and declared last month that the office “needs someone of unquestioned integrity” and “an experienced prosecutor.”

The seven Democrats tend to agree on many issues of public policy when they gather for the scores of forums they have attended to speak directly to voters. They mainly disagree on who has the right mix of experience for the job.

Khan has waged a more negative campaign than the rest.  Most of his fire has been trained on Michael Untermeyer, a real estate investor who served as a city and state prosecutor, and ran as a Republican for district attorney in 2009 and for City Council in 2011.

That’s a point Khan makes with unsubtle imagery with his first television ad, showing an elephant emblazoned with GOP marching across the screen, holding in its trunk a sign with a smiling picture of Untermeyer, labeled as a Republican.

It’s a remarkable transition.  The candidate who has the least amount of political experience is throwing the sharpest jabs.  And Khan can fund that because he has outperformed the field in fund-raising.  Untermeyer drew the fire because the $550,000 he lent his campaign allowed him to start advertising on television five weeks ago, long before any other candidate.

Khan is proud that his campaign has topped 1,000 individual donors, some who gave just $5 and others who maxed out at the $6,000 limit.

Still, he is not sure if his fund-raising prowess can match the interest of a new political action committee, expected to be funded by billionaire George Soros, that has suddenly dumped more than a half-million dollars into two weeks of campaign ads in favor of another candidate, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner.

“Whether or not that message gets drowned out by a larger voice, I can’t say,” Khan said of his ads. “It’s an exciting race to watch.”

Khan grew up in Bustleton and attended Central High School, Swarthmore College, and the University of Chicago Law School.  He rarely neglects to mention that one of his law professors was Barack Obama. His television ad and campaign literature feature a picture of Khan with the former president.

He joined the District Attorney’s Office in 2000, leaving six years later to become an assistant U.S. attorney. He quit that job in September to launch his campaign. His wife, Jessica, left her job as an assistant district attorney just before he became a candidate.

The candidates, since they agree on so many issues, are seeking ways to set themselves apart. Khan points to one issue where he split from the pack at a recent forum, where he said the other six agreed with and then repeated the position that anyone serving a life sentence for murder in Pennsylvania should become eligible for parole after 15 years.

“I think that kind of across-the-board approach is fairly radical, and I was very surprised to hear all the candidates agree with it not just once but twice,” Khan said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections this week said 61 percent of the 5,476 inmates serving life sentences have been incarcerated for 15 years or more.

A district attorney could not unilaterally have an impact on those sentences.  The General Assembly, the governor, and the courts would have to be involved.

Despite the differences, Khan is encouraged by the way reform has become a theme in the primary, and by the interest the race has generated among voters in local political matters.

“I hope to be an inspiration to people to say, look, if you lead with courage and with conviction, people will follow,” he said.