Debate for district attorney

The Democratic candidates hold strongly progressive views, though their backgrounds are quite different.

Battle for the ballot: Seven district attorney candidates discussed issues during a forum sponsored by the Northeast Times last week. All agreed that restoring integrity to the office was a top priority. MARIA YOUNG / FOR THE TIMES

The district attorney’s office is up for grabs, as incumbent Democrat Seth Williams is not seeking a third four-year term.

Williams is facing federal corruption charges with his trial scheduled to begin on May 31.

Eight candidates are vying for the office in next Tuesday’s primary and seven of them were at the Cottage Green last week for a forum sponsored by Northeast Victim Service, the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Northeast Times.

The forum included Republican Beth Grossman, who joined the race early on a theme of “Beth, not Seth,” when Williams was still expected to run.

“I am proud of my 21½ years experience in the district attorney’s office,” she said.

Democrats Teresa Carr Deni, Joe Khan, Michael Untermeyer, Larry Krasner, Tariq El-Shabazz and Jack O’Neill also attended the forum. Democrat Rich Negrin skipped the forum.

The Democratic primary appears up for grabs.

Philadelphia Weekly reporter Max Marin surveyed ward leaders, and created a color-coded map showing support for each candidate.

To view the map, click here.

As for the forum, Grossman will soon find out which Democrat she will face in the general election. Her background is as a former assistant district attorney and chief of staff for the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The Democrats all hold strongly progressive views, though their backgrounds are quite different.

Staying informed: Local residents listen to the candidates during last week’s public forum. MARIA YOUNG / FOR THE TIMES

Deni, a Crestmont Farms resident and mother of two who is the only candidate from the Northeast, was a longtime Municipal Court judge.

Khan is a former city and federal prosecutor who described himself as “a career prosecutor” and a “son of the Northeast,” having grown up in Bustleton. He was the first Democrat to challenge Williams and said Philadelphia deserves a “progressive, dynamic district attorney.” He’s been endorsed by Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia DA and mayor and Pennsylvania governor who said Khan would be a “game-changer.”

Untermeyer has 15 years as a prosecutor in the district attorney and state attorney general’s office. He ran as a Republican against Williams in 2009, and is refusing to accept donations from criminal defense lawyers and would not accept gifts in office. He wants to run a “victims-first district attorney’s office.”

Krasner is a longtime civil rights lawyer who vows to bring “real change” to the office.

El-Shabazz has largely worked as a defense attorney, but has had two stints in the district attorney’s office, once as an ADA and recently as the first assistant DA under Williams.

O’Neill worked in the DA’s office for 10 years.

The youngest candidate at 35, O’Neill believes he is best positioned to run the office because of his recent stint there. He knew he wanted work there upon graduating from law school.

“I applied to just one place,” he said, later spending seven years handling domestic violence cases and three years prosecuting homicides. “I wanted to stand up for victims. I had 10 years as a prosecutor and I did it very well.”

The candidates, especially those who’ve been assistant DAs, all expressed sadness at the damaged reputation of the office.

“It’s broken my heart,” Khan said.

Grossman, too, said it “breaks my heart” to see the place she worked for more than two decades in scandal.

The candidates, though, are hopeful the public will believe again in the office.

“There’s only one place to go, which is up,” Khan said.

Restoring integrity should not be hard, they agreed.

“Just don’t take gifts,” Krasner said, alluding to the source of Williams’ woes. “It’s not that hard. You don’t need a free roof.”

The district attorney’s office consists of about 600 employees, almost evenly split between attorneys and support staff.

Through Williams’ troubles, the employees have done their jobs.

“It’s a passion for us,” O’Neill said.

Court hearings are held in the Criminal Justice Center, but some previously were held in police districts.

Deni recalls hearings at the 8th Police District, at Academy and Red Lion roads. She believes community hearings would be more convenient for many victims and witnesses, and would cut down on police overtime.

“It should be moved back to the way it was,” she said.

O’Neill, too, thinks hearings involving misdemeanors can be held in neighborhood settings.

“I absolutely favor community courts,” he said.

The candidates said they would investigate alleged acts of police misconduct and prosecute cases that have merit.

“Justice is for everyone,” El-Shabazz said.

Krasner said police officers would support such prosecutions.

“They hate bad cops,” he said.

On the death penalty, none of the candidates were eager to use it. At present, Gov. Tom Wolf has issued a moratorium on the death penalty.

El-Shabazz called the death penalty “inhumane.”

“The moratorium is there for a good reason,” said Khan, adding that some innocent people have been sentenced to death.

“It does not act as a deterrent,” Untermeyer said.

“”I would never ever ever seek it,” Krasner said. “It gets fear-mongering candidates elected.” ••

Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com