May 13, 2017
For the first time in my 17 years as a Philadelphian, I found myself unsure about my vote in an important municipal election.
Yeah, I’m talking about the Democratic primary to replace disgraced District Attorney Seth Williams, a seven-headed battle that’ll likely draw an insultingly low percentage of voters to the poll next Tuesday.
Don’t take that last statement as holier-than-thou sanctimony. I didn’t start paying close attention to it until a bunch of campaign mailers started littering my front stoop.
Even elections that don’t capture the public’s attention need to be examined closely. In my case, that means both as a writer and a resident.
This column’s coming from the perspective of a citizen trying to figure out who’d be the best choice and – in the spirit of a nation now led by a reality-show hack who got his jollies from firing people – it didn’t take very long to eliminate a few from contention.
Teresa Carr Deni’s out of the mix for deeming the alleged rape of a prostitute to be a “robbery” from her Municipal Court bench. That’s just unconscionable, as is her take on relaxed marijuana laws.
At the risk of being the target of a sternly worded Tweet, I’ll just say this: Even the threat of being sent to a CIA dark site in Romania and getting my fingernails and toenails yanked off couldn’t convince me to vote for Tariq Karim El-Shabazz.
This will remain the case even if he wins the primary and advances to face Republican candidate Beth Grossman in the fall. A man – the disgraced DA’s one-time first deputy, no less – who reverts to Trump-speak and allegations of racism after a critical article is written about him isn’t fit to lead the city’s prosecutorial body.
The FOP’s open support of former managing director Rich Negrin gives me pause. Some cops are bad cops. To have a union who – from time to time – willfully protects bad cops backing a district attorney candidate with whom they’d be at odds when it comes to prosecuting such cases doesn’t sit well with me.
That leaves us with Joe Khan, Larry Krasner, Jack O’Neill and Michael Untermeyer, three of whom have prosecutorial experience and one who doesn’t.
Khan’s a former federal prosecutor; O’Neill and Untermeyer used to serve as assistant district attorneys, with the latter also doing time as a deputy attorney general. This serves as a major distinction from Krasner, a progressive defense attorney banging the drum for criminal justice reform with a healthy cash influx from a controversial figure in national politics.
Each is a respectable candidate in his own way.
Sure, I respect O’Neill’s willingness to draw attention to the good things that happened within the DA’s office during his decade there. But I’m not comfortable with this quote he gave to City & State Pennsylvania to explain why he didn’t file until the last possible day:
“I wasn’t interested in running against Seth. I saw everyone going to attack Seth, ignoring all the good reforms put in place the past eight or nine years, the great staff implementing those reforms. I didn’t want to be part of that.”
That’s some wishy-washy talk from someone seeking a position that needs to be anything but wishy-washy.
Untermeyer wants to do away with cash bail and “change the way (the office) handles minor drug convictions.” Alas, he’s a self-funded millionaire and the last self-funded rich guy to win American office has taken to threatening the fired FBI boss on Twitter.
That’s not to say Untermeyer is in any way, shape or form similar to that other guy. He’s totally not.
What gives me more pause is the fact that he was once quoted as saying, "only a Democrat can win this office” to explain why he switched parties in pursuit of victory. (It’s as wishy-washy as O’Neill not wanting to run against Williams.)
And with that, we’re down to two: Khan and Krasner who – per a press release issued Friday by the former’s campaign – are in a statistical dead heat four days before voters head to the polls.
Does the city need an experienced prosecutor who will make much-needed changes to the system, or a prosecutorial outsider who’s willing to rip the rules and establishment to shreds before starting anew?
That’s the essence of the choice between Khan and Krasner.
Sure, my personal politics bend toward Krasner’s civil rights focus. The system is broken.
And when I see people railing against him because a George Soros super-PAC slid him a substantial amount of coin, I recoil. No, super-PACs aren’t good. You know what’s worse, though? Throwing away a chance to win a race because you don’t think the established rules of the game are good.
Still, there’s a nagging thought that it’s patently unwise to hand the city’s prosecutorial reins over to a defense attorney, especially one that’s diametrically opposed to my stance on capital punishment. (I’m for reform; he’s for elimination.)
Khan’s not all gung-ho about picking up where Gary Heidnik’s executioners left off, though, saying he’d only seek it in the most extreme circumstances in a commonwealth that spends a lot of money on capital cases that never end with the ultimate punishment.
On Friday, rather than flipping a coin or writing in a vote for T. Milton Street, I took my lingering questions to those two candidates. Both graciously gave me a call, the sort of thing that’s more apt to happen when you realize every vote could likely count on Tuesday.
When I spoke to Khan, I asked him to explain why I should vote for him when my politics closely align with Krasner’s, especially when the office they both seek is in need of an overhaul that a career prosecutor may not be capable of achieving.
He didn't speak ill of Krasner, but noted their backgrounds are so divergent that he'd be the better choice.
Khan made that case by saying he too has drawn some progressive support, attributing that to the works he’s done before stepping aside from his career to run for this job.
"I’d rather people not think about why they’re voting against somebody but who’s best suited to run this office." – DA candidate Joe Khan
“If I’m a voter, I’d be looking for who is the right person for this job,” he said. “We’re not choosing a senator. We’re picking the next prosecutor.”
He noted that he and Krasner agree on many topics: the need to drastically reduce the incarceration rate, reform of the bail system and, among others, a view on re-entry for people returning to society after incarceration.
“One of the talking points in this campaign has been ‘who’s walking the walk?’” he said. “I made sure not one defendant of mine remained in custody because they were too poor to make bail. In the District Attorney’s Office, I didn’t handle low-level cases. I handled sexual violence, child abuse cases. There was one rapist who was able to buy his way out of jail and offend again. It left me committed to fixing a broken system.”
When he was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he kept an eye out for questionable police officers so they couldn’t testify.
“We shouldn’t be taking cases with cops who we were worried about as witnesses,” he said. “We can call that a progressive idea.”
He said the next district attorney has to have the level of credibility he’s built up with local, state and federal officials because of the depths to which the outgoing DA let it sink.
As far as Krasner’s concerned, Kahn said a defense-attorney background shouldn’t be “disqualifying.” Rather, it’s his opponents' lack of experience in knowing how the prosecution side operates that’s “a concern.”
“This is about having the experience to run an office that, number one, is among the most important in the city and, number two, is completely broken and in crisis,” Khan said. “We’re making life-and-death decisions. “I’d rather people not think about why they’re voting against somebody but who’s best suited to run this office.
“I have a progressive vision, expertise and judgment. What we don’t want I someone who doesn’t understand how the office works because there’s a lot of rough work ahead.”
Now, onto Krasner. When we talked, I asked him this question: “Our politics align, but I need you to tell me why I should vote for the non-prosecutor in the field, particularly when I feel that the death penalty should be reformed, not eliminated.”
He had some kind things to say about Khan: That he’s smart, with “academic credentials similar to mine.” He also got a dig in, noting that his opponent has proven he’s good at getting on the phone and raising money.
“I’m not here to tell you he’s a terrible person,” Krasner added.
He tackled my death-penalty query first which makes sense since he has “strong feelings” about it. Make that against it, and it stems from his personal and professional experience with capital cases.
He hearkened back to being on a capital-case jury in his early 20s in Chester County. It was a high-profile case involving the mother of an FBI agent. The suspect – about whom guilt was never really in question thanks to irrefutable physical evidence – was an African-American man in his 30s or 40s.
"I don’t have any problems going after bullies.” – DA candidate Larry Krasner
One of his fellow jurors noted that “we gotta get this boy.” It was a statement tinged with racism, and he heard other similarly ignorant comments in that room despite the fact that jurors agreed to leave their personal biases out of it.
“It can be wonderful to have 12 brains working together, but the bad part of it is that it can be a recipe for bad outcomes,” he said, explaining another fellow juror was dismissed during deliberations after officials learned he’d hidden a mental illness that required medications.
Those early experiences, later research about racial sentencing disparities and observations from his decades as a defense attorney led him to feel the death penalty is clearly wrong, both morally and from the perspective of seeing millions upon millions upon millions of dollars wasted on cases that never result in execution.
It’s money that could go to things like schools and people have turned against it – he said – because they see it’s not “political suicide” to do so.
As for the other prong of my concerns, he said his experience as a defense attorney has injected him into more homicide cases than most of his fellow candidates with prosecutorial backgrounds. His trial experience also offered a lot of insight into – and connections with – assistant district attorneys.
“In many ways, it’s more difficult to be a defense attorney than a prosecutor,” he said, noting that the latter often involves being a trial traffic controller – making sure witnesses show up and say what they’re supposed to say. “I think (mine) is very relevant experience.”
Upon law school graduation, he applied for jobs on both side of the courtroom aisle. When he and his wife moved to Philadelphia, though, he “went to work with what I think was the best Public Defender’s Office in the country” as opposed to a Frank Rizzo-era DA’s office “drunk on the death penalty and mass incarceration.”
As a defense attorney, can he truly sympathize with crime victims, though? As one – he was slashed during a robbery attempt – it's easier to sympathize, as does having helped track down a suspect responsible for some 20 burglaries “in a civilian capacity” in his Mt. Airy neighborhood.
“I’m going to guess the other candidates don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “I’ve always hated all kinds of bullies, from those in the school yard to those on the streets shooting innocent bystanders to those who use their (police) uniform who are rotten f****** people. I don’t have any problems going after bullies.”
After hearing those answers, I have zero problem voting for a progressive defense attorney who thinks he can deliver a wide array of justice by jumping over to the prosecutorial side.
But if a Krasner victory is not to be, as it wasn't for Bernie Sanders to whom he's often compared, a Khan win would serve the city well, albeit in a less radical fashion.
Translation: I'm voting for Krasner, but won't chide you for making a bad decision if you vote for Khan.