As late as February, Jack O’Neill had no plans to run for district attorney.
The way he saw it, the entire campaign would be a referendum on embattled District Attorney Seth Williams.
As a 10-year veteran of the office, O’Neill did not want to engage in harsh criticism of the incumbent, explaining that morale would deteriorate among staff.
But when Williams announced on Feb. 10 that he would not be seeking a third term, O’Neill began organizing a campaign. He turned in nominating petitions on March 7, the deadline to do so, and officially declared his candidacy on the day of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Now that Williams is out of the Democratic primary and facing federal corruption charges, the seven Democrats and one Republican in the race can concentrate on issues, experience and qualifications.
And that is fine with O’Neill.
“This race is really important,” he said in a Sunday interview at the Mayfair Diner.
O’Neill, 35, is a Chestnut Hill native and still lives there with his wife and toddler son. He attended Julia Masterman Elementary School, Chestnut Hill Academy, Rutgers University and Florida State and Oxford universities for legal education.
He is the youngest candidate running, but notes that he is older than Arlen Specter and Ed Rendell were when they were elected district attorney.
While still in law school, he served as an intern in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, then was hired upon graduation by then-DA Lynne Abraham. He spent 10 years there.
“I learned everything there is to know about the office,” he said. “I know it really well. Only two of us (Democrat Tariq El-Shabazz being the other) have stepped foot in there in the last 10 years.”
O’Neill spent much of his stint in the special victims unit, and worked his final 3½ years handling homicide cases, winning dozens of convictions against some of the city’s best defense attorneys.
Most other candidates, he argued, would need on-the-job training and learning.
“I can walk in day one and run the place,” he said.
O’Neill has been in private practice since leaving the office in February 2016, but the last two months have been all about the campaign.
On Wednesday night, he’ll be at the Plumbers Union Local 690 hall on Southampton Road to accept the endorsement of eight member unions of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council.
“It’s been 24/7 campaigning,” he said.
O’Neill described the prosecutors in the office as professionals who work long hours, often at their desks at night and on weekends. Williams’ woes have not impacted that work ethic.
“There are a lot of hard-working people. People haven’t stopped doing their job,” he said.
The district attorney’s office has about 600 employees, half of whom are prosecutors.
When O’Neill was an assistant district attorney, he worked on cases with police officers, victims and social workers. Judges and defense attorneys, of course, play a big role in the criminal justice system.
“To run the office, you need to know how they all interact,” O’Neill said.
Two of O’Neill’s focuses in office would be on guns and drugs. He cited a statistic that 60 percent of the crimes in Philadelphia are committed by 6 percent of the people.
While working as a prosecutor, he was part of Focused Deterrence, an anti-gun initiative that helped reduce gun violence in South Philadelphia. He’d bring the program to other areas of the city experiencing gun violence.
Focused Deterrence targeted young people at risk of committing or being a victim of a violent crime. Prosecutors worked with the young person’s family and other support groups, often offering opportunities for education, job training and drug treatment.
“It is extremely effective on all levels,” O’Neill said.
As for drugs, O’Neill promised a “full-court press” from day one to address the opioid overdose epidemic. There were some 900 overdose deaths in Philadelphia last year.
Two ways to combat the epidemic, he said, are to secure more funding from City Council and to work with alcohol and drug residential treatment facilities such as Somerton-based Self Help Movement.
Immediate intervention is key, he believes, along with access to mental health treatment, if necessary.
The election is fewer than three weeks away, and all seven Democrats are running on progressive platforms rather than promoting law-and-order credentials.
O’Neill, though, points out that he successfully prosecuted people charged with murder, rape and child abuse.
“I did it and did it well as a DA. I’m very proud that those people are in jail,” he said. ••
Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org