Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams’ abrupt announcement that he would not seek a third term in office sent shockwaves across the city’s political landscape, turning a race that historically favors incumbents into a free-for-all. But his departure amidst a flurry of ethics scandals also left a city that is 44-percent African American without a single black candidate for DA.
But that won't be true for long.
"Seth deciding not to seek re-election changes the dynamics of the race significantly,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “There is now a concentrated effort to rally behind one African-American candidate that people feel will do the best job of implementing the criminal justice reforms that will have a significant impact on communities of color."
Indeed, many said Williams’ surprise Friday morning press conference had sent political insiders and major donors scurrying to convince prominent African-American attorneys and elected officials to make a late entrance into an already crowded race.
There are already six declared candidates: five Democrats who will square off in a May primary, with the winner running against a sole Republican candidate, Beth Grossman, in November.
But the list of possible new contenders is even more sprawling.
Numerous sources told City&State that Tariq El-Shabazz, a defense lawyer and radio personality who landed a slot as Williams’ top lieutenant in the DA’s Office, was considering declaring. Several said El-Shabazz, the DAO’s deputy for investigations, could enter the race as early as this week.
The Legal Intelligencer also reported on Saturday that Eckert Seamans trial lawyer Kevin Harden, Jr. was being pressed to run. A youthful lawyer with a lengthy list of professional ties (and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do), Harden linked to the Intelligencer story on Twitter and wrote, “I have a lot to think about.”
However, sources close to Harden said he was still undecided as of late Sunday night.
West Philly state Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Villanova law grad, told the Inquirer she was considering running, too. She was previously the subject of a small online petition that sought to “draft” her as a DA candidate – although sources said that effort was largely the product of a small group of friends and professional colleagues. The 30-year-old McClinton is an ally of state Sen. Anthony Williams who was elected to a seat that had, ironically enough, been vacated after Williams brought corruption charges against former Rep. Ron Waters. But as of Sunday night, McClinton was said to still be lukewarm on the prospect.
Others reported that Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker had talked openly about his interest in running for DA. But judges have historically been averse to resigning their seats – as required by law – to gamble on campaigning for another elected office.
Amid the flurry of new names, Fraternal Order of Police head John McNesby – politically influential and long one of Williams’ loudest critics – pointed to a candidate who has reportedly been mulling a run since last summer.
“Renee Cardwell Hughes will get in and win. Bank on it,” he said, referring to the one-time Philadelphia judge-turned-Red Cross regional CEO.
However, despite his certitude, McNesby said he and the FOP had lost in interest in the race.
“Seth is out. That was what we needed,” he said.
While Williams' exit appears to have reignited hopes for that a progressive African-American candidate will enter the race, others have sensed opportunity as well. Political consultant Ken Smukler said there has also been an ongoing effort to get Dan McCaffery, a former ADA who ran against Williams in 2009, to declare.
Over the weekend, a Twitter account called “@BrianSims4DA” appeared, leading some to speculate the state rep was considering his own unexpected shot at becoming the city's top lawyer. The account was was quickly deleted and a spokesperson for Sims said the account may have been a hoax.
“[The] Twitter account was in no way associated with Brian or the campaign,” said Dan Siegal, speaking on Sims’ behalf. “We were just as, if not more, surprised than everyone else.”
But even assuming that only a few of the rumored (non-hoax-related) names actually do commit to run, what comes next?
David Maser, a local attorney and onetime associate of Williams, said one word comes to mind: chaos.
"With Seth dropping out less than a week before the start of petitions, this is going to be a mad dash to the finish,” he said. “Everyone should buckle up."