Michael Untermeyer has spent a lot of time trying to get into the District Attorney’s Office.
As a young lawyer, he applied four years in a row to be an assistant district attorney before finally being accepted. Twenty-five years later, he ran as a Republican for the office’s top post, in an improbable and idealistic campaign against Democrat Seth Williams.
Today, Untermeyer, a 66-year-old real estate investor, businessman, and former senior deputy attorney general, is vying again to be Philadelphia’s district attorney. What’s different this time around? Most significantly, his registration (Untermeyer has returned to his roots as a Democrat) and his resources (he is still self-funding, but this time has put just shy of $1 million into his own campaign).
He was the first candidate to run television ads, giving him a boost in a crowded field where name recognition could be key.
“I’m going to do whatever I have to do to win and whatever I have to do to get my ideas out there,” Untermeyer said. “I want to be the independent candidate. I don't want to be owing anybody when I take over this office.”
Among seven Democratic candidates who all in some way are focused on reforming the office, Untermeyer argues he has the purest intentions. He said he has no desire to use the post as a stepping stone to higher office and wasn’t lured by the job’s six-figure salary.
Rather, he describes himself as a true public servant, a pursuit he said started when at age 18 he worked as an ambulance driver in Harlem. He said the experience is what years later developed into his interest in the District Attorney’s Office and helping victims of crime.
“I mean, I, as an 18-year-old, I saw people jumping out of windows. I saw suicides. I saw shootings. I saw homicides. I saw everything at a really young age,” he said. “And it had a real impression on me.”
After graduating from Rutgers-Camden Law School, Untermeyer spent two years in New York City’s law department, then moved to Philadelphia, where he went into private practice and started applying to work at the District Attorney’s Office.
Once accepted, Untermeyer volunteered to work in the newly created domestic violence unit, a job he said was challenging and rewarding, given that domestic violence at the time was not fully accepted as a crime by the justice system. He went on to spend more than a decade at the state Attorney General’s Office, where he specialized in tracking the money tied to major drug operations.
He has spent much of his time since leaving the Attorney General's Office working in real estate, where he has derived much of his personal wealth, and continuing work in law with a focus on small businesses. Last year, he and a partner purchased the Famous 4th Street Cookie Co. in Reading Terminal Market.
He has also taken to running for office — in 2007 as a Democrat for sheriff, in 2009 as a Republican for district attorney, and in 2011 as a Republican for City Council.
His affiliation-flipping is now ammunition for some of his competitors. Last week, Joe Khan, also a candidate in the primary, started airing a television ad that begins with an image of an elephant carrying an Untermeyer campaign sign as the narrator says Untermeyer “switched parties just to run for DA.”
Untermeyer said he registered as a Republican in his first bid only because his father was sick at the time and he missed the deadline to run in the Democratic primary. He said his affiliation in his City Council race was “kind of an afterthought,” since his main goal was to promote his ideas.
Some of those ideas have remained consistent between his two runs for district attorney. For example, he wore an electronic ankle monitor during the 2009 race to promote the cheaper alternative to pretrial incarceration, something he still supports. (He linked the monitor to his website and invited voters to track him.) In both races, he also advocated for a more victim-focused model of prosecution, where a single prosecutor is assigned to a case from start to finish.
Other parts of his platform lack the same consistency. For example, in 2009, Untermeyer’s plan for bail reform included returning to the bail-bondsman model, while today he wants to do away with cash bail. And some of his zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime rhetoric from his first campaign stands at odds with his current pitch.
“When I’m DA?” he said during his 2009 bid. “Do the crime, you’ll do the time.”
Untermeyer sees no inconsistencies in his positions over the years. He said that some of his ideas have evolved as he has studied best practices from around the country but that he has always been focused on reform.
“The system is broken,” he said. “I said it then, and I’m saying it now.”
Untermeyer, a wonkish guy with an excitable energy when stumping, has outlined his plans for office in great detail, issuing five policy papers totaling 35 pages. They are sprinkled with references to initiatives from district attorney's offices around the country.
He wants to adopt the bail system found in Washington, which in lieu of cash bail uses a risk-assessment tool to determine the likelihood a person will reoffend or fail to show up in court, then uses pretrial monitoring such as phone or in-person check-ins.
He wants to use Seattle’s pre-arrest diversion program for low-level, nonviolent drug cases, which steers defendants to treatment and other support options other than jail.
He wants to increase prosecution of white-collar and corporate crimes, pointing to the $25 million settlement San Francisco’s district attorney reached with Uber. He sees it as a way to help many victims of crime in a single cases while using the office’s resources more effectively to go after major institutions rather than small cases.
Untermeyer hits that note — going after the “big guys” — often on the campaign trail, saying the office is currently too focused on winning cases rather than seeking justice.
“I believe we have to go after the big guy,” he told said at a packed candidate forum held in a Central Philadelphia church last month. “I believe we have to go after the big organization. Narcotics organizations. Corporations that are hurting our community and our city. I think for too long now, our District Attorney’s Office has been going after, really, the pursuit of statistics.”