by Brendan Sample

With the Democratic primary coming up in May, the eight candidates for Philadelphia District Attorney, seven of whom are Democrats, came together last Thursday for a debate at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

The Chestnut Hill Local co-sponsored the debate with WHYY, and Local editor Pete Mazzaccaro and WHYY’s Dave Davies served as moderators. Participating candidates were Teresa Carr Deni, Rich Negrin, Michael Untermeyer, Joe Khan, Tariq El-Shabazz, Lawrence Krasner, Jack O’Neill and Beth Grossman, the only Republican candidate

After making their opening statements, the candidates were quickly asked whether they felt that current DA Seth Williams should resign in the wake of a federal indictment on corruption charges stemming from gifts he received while DA. While the candidates would go on to express differing opinions on a number of issues, all eight were in agreement that Williams should resign.

When asked questions about how they would handle certain issues, such as prison overcrowding, gun violence, corruption and quality of life crimes, the candidates largely emphasized the need for reform in the DA’s office. Krasner, a longtime criminal defense attorney, consistently brought up reform and how, as a political outsider and the self-proclaimed most progressive candidate running, he was the best one to make the necessary changes to the DA’s office.

“If reform is what is needed, then that reform needs to come from the person with a proven track record for supporting reform and for making reform from the outside,” Krasner said.

Where Krasner emphasized his status as an outsider, however, El-Shabazz had the most direct connection to the current DA, having served as First Assistant District Attorney until resigning last month. While El-Shabazz has come under scrutiny for his close ties to Williams and his own reported tax debts, he addressed both of those concerns over the course of the evening and focused on the progress he had made since joining the DA’s office in August.

“The actual debt that is owed, tax-wise, is $74,000,” El-Shabazz said. “It’s not $137,000 or anything like that. That doesn’t have anything to do with the ability to run a particular office.”

Jack O’Neill, 35, who entered the race on the March 7 deadline, was asked whether or not his candidacy was really nothing more than an attempt to enhance his reputation. He directly denied such claims. After Williams announced that he would not run for another term, O’Neill said he looked at the candidates and felt that, given his 10 years working in the DA’s office, he would be the most qualified person for the position.

“My intention before I even left law school was to be a career prosecutor,” O’Neill said. “I want to be the DA because everything I’ve done in my entire professional career has shown that what I want to do is keep people in this city safe … It has nothing to do with any future ambitions.”

As the only Republican in this race, Grossman will not have to worry about getting a nomination, but still took the time to get her platform out to voters. She placed a great deal of emphasis on keeping innocent people safe from crime and finding creative solutions to problems that require them, such as how to deal with quality of life crimes.

Grossman was asked to explain her role in the District Attorney’s civil forfeiture program – a program that has been called by many experts the worst in the nation and one that is facing scrutiny in federal court. She maintained that the program was effective and that everything she had done heading the unit was in the spirit of the law.

“I followed the law as it was written,” Grossman said. “The story that always gets lost with that is the people who live in the neighborhoods next to drug houses, where they’re scared for their children to walk past the drug-dealing houses, where they cannot sit on their porches and where gunplay comes into play as a result of drug territories.”

With this being his fourth campaign in 10 years, Untermeyer was questioned as to whether he might be prioritizing gaining public office over actually wanting to help people. He responded by saying that he has always run as a reformer, and that he would continue to run for office until he saw the change in Philadelphia that he feels is necessary. Some of the plans he would have as DA included setting a minimum amount of money for seizure of property, having zero tolerance for illegal handguns and having a physically separate office for dealing with corruption on both the political and police level.

“I really care about getting my ideas out there,” Untermeyer said. “I’ve had the best ideas before, I have them now and when I become District Attorney, I’ll be able to implement those ideas for the benefit and safety of every Philadelphian.”

While there were disagreements on certain issues, there were other issues on which most candidates could agree. These included reforming the city’s cash bail system, focusing on treatment over conviction for addicts, using discretion when deciding whether or not to refer a political corruption case to a state or national office, allowing refugees and other undocumented immigrants to stay in Philadelphia and not accepting gifts of any kind.

As the debate came to a close, candidates were able to provide one last statement to sum up their platform. Deni emphasized how she resisted pressure from both sides in her career as a judge, Negrin kept the focus on his desire to make the office more community-based (“When they go low, we go local.) and Khan acknowledged the privileges of his upbringing while simultaneously saying that he wanted to ensure everyone in Philadelphia had the privilege of simply reporting a crime.

The Democratic primary for District Attorney will be held on May 16, with the general election coming on Nov. 7.

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