Everything you need to know about why Rich Negrín is so driven to return to the political whirlwind so soon after resigning his post as Philadelphia’s managing director in 2015 (he subsequently joined the politically connected law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel) can be found on your phone.
Or, more specifically, it can be found by his reaction to finding that a visitor doesn’t have the city’s Philly311 mobile app on his phone. “Oh, you’ve got to install it – it’s free!” he exclaims. “Someone can see graffiti on a wall, report it and it’s gone in 48 hours.”
This palpable pride of ownership, of creating something that can tangibly improve his adopted hometown, is still evident more than a year since his departure from city government, where he oversaw multiple infrastructure improvements and new programs like PhillyRising and the Innovation Lab.
During his time in the Nutter administration and as an executive in the private sector, including stints at the law firm of Morgan Lewis and at Aramark, Negrín developed a reputation and a skill set for turnarounds and crisis management – both of which would come in handy were he to become the next district attorney of Philadelphia.
During a wide-ranging interview, Negrín, the son of Cuban immigrants, an All-American football player at Wagner College and a former assistant district attorney under Lynne Abraham, held forth on everything from how he is the only one of the candidates who can walk the ethics walk to the reason behind his unblinking willingness to talk about how, as a teen, he held his father as he lay dying from a gunshot wound in New Jersey.
This interview, the first in a series on the candidates for Philadelphia district attorney, has been condensed for clarity and content.
How do you pronounce your last name?
It depends on whether you can roll your tongue or not. The right way is with the accent on the “I.” I’m not uptight about it, though – I grew up with a long list of people who couldn’t say it – it doesn’t matter to me.
Why are you getting back into politics?
I think I have an important message, some good ideas on how we’re trying to change neighborhoods and revitalize communities and really connect. That’s the thing I miss the most. My folks knew that we have lots of meetings. They knew that if I wasn’t in the community and in front of young people at least once a week, preferably more than that, that I would start to get cranky. It would start to wear on me – I can’t do the stuff that energizes me.
It’s like when I stopped playing football. You don’t miss the practices or the crowds – you miss the people.
What separates you from the other candidates in the race?
I don’t think there is anyone in the race that has the skill sets I do. Managing an organization is not something you should guess at. I’ve proven over time I can do that – I’ve had 70,000 employees as the executive leadership counsel at Aramark; as managing director of Philadelphia, I was responsible for 30,000 employees, and I did a great job running a thoughtful, modern shop.
The integrity piece really matters – people throw that word around, especially in this election. Everyone is painting themselves as the integrity candidate: “Here is what I’m doing; here is what I have done.” I’m the only one in the race with a proven record of driving ethics, of driving integrity, whether it’s my service on the ethics board or my service on the board of the Committee of Seventy or as the city’s managing director, where for six years, there wasn’t a whiff of a subpoena, a whiff of an investigation, because we did things the right way as a senior leadership team.
When you talk about those things, when you reward those things at the Managing Director’s Awards ceremony, you’re pushing ethics and integrity through the culture. It’s a lot more important than just saying, “Hey, I’m an ethical guy, I’m going to bring back integrity,” when you really haven’t done it.
Finally, I think I’m the only candidate who has spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working side by side with our residents across the neighborhoods. My 11-year-old has spent more time in our neighborhoods than many of the candidates running for office, not just the DA candidates.
Some folks think community engagement means pulling up in your SUV, giving a speech, taking a picture, tweeting it out, getting back in your SUV and getting out of there. I tried to set an example when I was there that leadership is leading from the front, so that employees could see that management was working on weekends, not for 10 minutes, but working for three hours, bringing family, painting that mural, cleaning that lot. I wasn’t doing that because I was running for office; I was doing that because that’s what a leader does. Not just to build trust and relationships with our neighbors, but also to show city employees that this is what service is about.
You’ve talked about the need for the DA’s office to be more innovative. Do you have an example of how you would do that?
There are things that go to the core of the DA’s function, like something called Open File – it actually helps capture the discovery process in a way that minimizes the ability for officers and prosecutors to hide evidence that’s not good for them. The whole state of Texas has Open File. It’s crazy that we’re not leading the way.
You can use technology to do your job better, to have more transparency as a prosecutor. I want Philadelphia to be the national model for reform and technology. We aren’t today. When I got to Philadelphia, we couldn’t run our email. When I left, our CIO was named national public servant of the year and we were named the No. 1 digital city in the country by Government Technology magazine. That happened in five years. I can do the same thing in the DA’s office.
What would District Attorney Negrín focus on once in office?
I’d like to be smarter on crime, so that we’re not criminalizing addiction, not criminalizing poverty. That means everything from bail reform to giving folks opportunities for things beyond mass incarceration. I think that the most important time in a young person’s life that’s wrapped up in the criminal justice system is his first contact and first felony. One of the things I’m considering right now is a second-level review and an alternative-disposition issue around that first contact and first felony. I led the effort on “ban the box” in the city. I understand the impact of that first felony and how it can push people into an institutional life of crime that is impossible to get out of.
We have to be thoughtful, and that gives us the credibility over time to be tougher on violent crime, so when you do bail reform for the nonviolent offenders and the folks who need help and those who cant afford it are being incarcerated for minor offenses, you also need to be able to say, “You know what, we are going to jack up your bail, be aggressive and not plea bargain you when it’s a violent crime.” I believe that of the 70,000 to 80,000 cases the DA’s office handles every year, a large percentage of them are conducted by a small group of violent people. If we’re smarter on the entire group, and tougher on that small, violent group, I think we’ll be a safer city. There’s a balance to be struck there.
You are an outspoken advocate of gun control. How would you tackle gun violence in the city?
The answer is to be smarter about solving the problem. I support universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, banning magazines we have no need for … Here’s the truth: My daughter loves sports. She gets animated about it. When I ask her, “Mariel, what gets you so excited about it?” she says, “You know, Dad, when I’m on the court, I feel powerful.”
If we’re going to do something about guns, we need to make our kids feel powerful. That’s why I think they pick them up to begin with. It's not just about gun control, but about respect, a chance for self-determination. We need to change gun policies, but we need to give kids some hope. Many of our kids go to bed hungry. It’s not an accident that Philadelphia, the biggest major city with the highest poverty rate, also has the highest mass incarceration rate. Those two things go together. I haven’t done all the research, but America incarcerates more people than anywhere in the world, so that means that we here in Philadelphia have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. I’m disgusted by that. Until we do something about poverty, we aren’t going to progress as a city.
Whoever becomes the next district attorney will have to deal with what numerous accounts portray as a demoralized office environment. How would you change the professional culture?
Judging by the thumbs-up I get from many of the employees there, I think they’re looking forward to me coming in there. I think that starts on Day 1 when I walk in there with a record of professionalism and integrity.
The integrity piece matters. When you’re a young ADA, you walk into court cloaked in the integrity of the office. When that is marred from the top and the brand is challenged, that makes it difficult for you to have credibility with the courts, with lawyers, with juries – it hurts the office.
The DA’s office should not just be a good, well-running office. It should be a national model for social justice reform, for competence and good management, and integrity. We are going to set the standard for integrity, leadership, management and community. Those things matter.
Anything else you would like to talk about?
We didn’t talk a lot about my dad. Here’s my point about it. I don’t talk about it because I like to; I talk about it because I’ve spent time in classrooms. There’s a school not far from here – the Russell Byers School. I could say this about 20 schools or more, but I’m using this one because we’re right in the neighborhood. I was speaking to first-graders there. They’re kids from all over the city, because it’s a charter school. We start talking about gun violence, and I tell them my story in a way that isn’t very graphic – I just give them the bare-bones version. I asked those kids how many of them had been touched by gun violence. I had maybe 80 percent of them raise their hands.
People love to talk about the story itself, the violence, what I saw. That’s not the relevant part of why I talk about it. The relevant part is that what happened to me doesn’t make me special. If you think it’s special and unique, and you want to talk about it because there is the human-interest component, you’re missing the point. The point is that it happens all too often today. Those kids, 80 percent of them raising their hands, they’re looking at the yellow tape, they’re looking at the blood on the ground, looking at the makeshift memorials with the stuffed animals. The worst part of it is, that’s been normalized. They walk past it every day like it’s something they expect to see. That is unacceptable to me. That’s why I’m running for DA.