In four days, Philadelphia will select a new district attorney. The race features a crowded field of seven Democrats that has skewed in an unusually progressive direction after decades of officeholders who trumpeted “law and order” credentials. In the profiles assembled below (condensed and updated since originally appearing in City & State PA), the candidates often share similar policy positions.
Complex issues like reforming cash bail, overhauling civil asset forfeiture and movement away from harsh sentencing guidelines are widely espoused among nearly every candidate. Most of the campaign trail friction has emerged from arguments over who supports a complete moratorium on the death penalty versus those who would merely reserve its use for only the most egregious offenders – a far cry from former DA Lynne Abraham, who earned media nicknames like the “Queen of Death” and the “World’s Deadliest DA” for her use of capital punishment.
One of the biggest contrasts between the candidates: fundraising. Candidates like former Judge Teresa Deni and former First Assistant DA Tariq El-Shabazz have struggled to scrape together campaign cash, while former defense lawyer Larry Krasner and former ADA Jack O’Neill have enjoyed the late support of two well-funded super PACs. Michael Untermeyer has meanwhile poured nearly a million dollars of his own money into his campaign.
The similarities between candidates, an unusually high number of split ward endorsements and uneven fundraising means that while some campaigns could safely be counted out, none can be assured of an easy victory on Tuesday.
Teresa Carr Deni
Deni gave up a 21-year career as a municipal court judge, a position that’s the next best thing to a lifetime appointment, to run for district attorney. Deni, who holds a bachelor’s and law degree from Temple, said that her candidacy, which launched in December, is something she has been ruminating on for some time.
“I did what I could on the bench,” she explained during an interview. “I wanted to run eight years ago, but I could see it wasn’t my time. I saw an opening and decided it was my time.”
She’s referring, not so obliquely, to the litany of legal and ethical issues dogging incumbent DA Seth Williams, who is not seeking re-election. Deni says her motivation for becoming DA is to continue ushering in criminal justice reforms to the troubled office.
“There’s a unique opportunity in Philadelphia with the MacArthur grant,” she said, referring to a $3.5 million grant awarded to the city last year to help reduce its prison population. “We’re putting together new diversionary courts all the time. We have a goal of reducing mass incarceration – we need to see this stuff through.”
She is also planning to back the practice of “restorative justice,” which seeks to repair the harm done by criminal behavior by rehabilitating the perpetrators and reconciling them with their victims in court.
Deni’s other priorities include reforming civil asset forfeiture, a process that involves the DA’s Office liquidating cash, cars and houses seized in criminal investigations for departmental revenue – often before a defendant has been convicted. The former judge says she would “redesign, if not dismantle” the forfeiture unit.
Not part of an otherwise progressive agenda: Deni wants to crack down on public marijuana use. Deni’s time as judge is also scarred by her most notorious case, a 2007 trial where she downgraded a prostitute’s charge of rape – the plaintiff had agreed to have sex with two men, but was forced at gunpoint to have sex with four men – to theft of services. The resultant uproar catalyzed movements against her retention in 2007 and 2013, and resulted in the Philadelphia Bar Association calling her ruling “an unforgivable miscarriage of justice.” Deni refuses to discuss the controversial ruling, but likes to point out it was just one of over “100,000” she heard during her career.
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Operating Engineers Local 542
Deni received $1,000 from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.
Editor’s note: Tariq El-Shabazz declined repeated requests to be interviewed for a City&State DA profile. Read our special investigation into El-Shabazz’s questionable conduct as a defense attorney here.
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Laborers' District Council, Transport Workers Union (Local 234), Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Councilman Curtis Jones, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
The Laborers District Council PAC Fund donated $11,600 to the El-Shabazz campaign. El-Shabazz also received a small, $500 donation from Dominick Cipollini, who owns Keystone Outdoor Advertising Co., a billboard company.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Khan’s candidacy is timing. The former federal prosecutor – Khan served stints in both the DAO and the US Attorney’s Office – was the first opponent to declare against incumbent Seth Williams. He declared last September, well before Williams was indicted by the US Attorney from New Jersey.
Khan, who has worked at the Center City law offices of Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., since leaving the US Attorney’s Philadelphia office, is also a professor of trial advocacy at Penn Law School. He says he felt he had no choice but to run.
“I asked myself how I would feel if I walked away from this opportunity. I knew I would never be able to look my kids in the eye and ask them to do something difficult if I didn’t do this,” he explained. “I’m the only candidate who is a lifelong Philadelphian and a product of its public schools.”
This isn’t the first time Khan has been involved in the electoral process: As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, he worked on the campaign of former US Rep. Bob Borski. While at the University of Chicago Law School, he helped out on the state representative campaign of his law professor, Barack Obama. He credits both with motivating his decision to run, along with “role models like my parents” – his father is a Pakistani immigrant who worked as an engineer for the City of Philadelphia; his mother a nurse.
The story of his father is also a motivating factor in Khan’s outspoken stance against Trump administration initiatives like the immigration crackdown. Khan said that he would ensure the DA’s office did not cooperate with federal immigration authorities’ deportation efforts.
He would also direct the DAO to step up its efforts to deal with a less publicized aspect of immigration – human trafficking – while discouraging the use of cash bail, curbing death penalty sentences and reforming the office’s use of civil asset forfeiture funds. Khan also praised two of Williams’ initiatives: the expansion of the Conviction Integrity Unit and a focus on community-based prosecutions.
He also cited the DAO’s failure last year in handling the case of Philadelphia Police Officer Christopher Hulmes, who committed perjury.
“The response of the district attorney’s office was to basically do nothing,” he marveled. “The assistant district attorney who eventually blew the whistle, instead of being given a medal, or being encouraged, ended up leaving the office on unhappy terms. There is a cultural problem with that office if that is the kind of story that we’re hearing.”
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, National Organization for Women (Philadelphia chapter), Former U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Rep. Mike O'Brien, The Philadelphia Tribune.
Developer Bart Blatstein gave Khan’s campaign $1,000. He also received $3,000 from Marsha Perelman, a daughter-in-law of billionaire Ruth Perelman with extensive ties to the energy industry. Barbara Schiffrin, a prominent Clinton fundraiser, also kicked in $6,000.
Krasner, a longtime criminal defense attorney, joined the DA fray in February, just two days before Williams announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election. In a race that has tilted notably leftwards, Krasner goes a step further, drawing direct comparisons between himself and progressive icon Bernie Sanders.
“There was another candidate who, if she entered the race, I would have supported: Keir Bradford Grey,” he explained, referring to Philadelphia's chief public defender. “Bernie said the same thing about Elizabeth Warren. He tried to get her to run and she wouldn’t. I didn’t try to get Keir to run, but if she had, I would have been happy to stay out.”
A lot has changed since then. Rumors that a progressive PAC tied to billionaire George Soros was eying Krasner were confirmed, and the candidate has since seen nearly $1.5 million poured into the race on his behalf – a development that has generated searing criticism from rival campaigns.
But Krasner says that, even without the support of the out-of-town largesse, the left-leaning crop of candidates and renewed public interest in court reform plays to his three decades as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. The St. Louis native – his family moved to Philadelphia when he was 8 years old – has burnished his defender’s reputation since graduating from Stanford Law School in 1987. Among his clients: protesters arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention and the 2016 Democratic National Convention, as well as Black Lives Matters activists and former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy in a nightclub brawl last year.
One of Krasner’s most high-profile positions is his vocal stance against the death penalty. While a district attorney can’t independently abolish the practice, Krasner says he would never seek capital punishment as DA. He said he is also eager to use the post to tackle a host of other systemic issues, including tackling exploding prison populations through decarceration.
One of the ways Krasner would reduce the numbers of people behind bars is through cash bail reform, another hot-button topic among the candidates. His approach involves declination – the rate at which the District Attorney’s Office declines to prosecute cases is around 1 percent in Philadelphia, compared to 15 to 20 percent in other jurisdictions in the state. He would also implement what he calls “sweat bail” to replace cash bail when possible for those who can’t afford to secure their release in legal tender.
“The notion is that you can be poor, but as long as you are going to show up in court and you pay your debt to society when you get out, by reporting to a grass-roots organization or to a mental health center – if that’s what you need – that is a viable form of bail,” he elucidated of the system, which is currently in use in Washington, D.C.
Krasner adds he would change the work culture at the DAO, which, he says, “largely disregards its ethical obligation to seek justice in favor of a hyper-competitive attitude, almost a sports mentality where the goal is to find the heaviest charge possible.” He said he would seek to change that culture by letting “younger, more sensible attorneys and the older, more progressive attorneys know that the district attorney has their back and the policy is going to change.”
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Philadelphia Safety & Justice, Democracy for America, UNITE HERE (Locals 274 and 634), AFSCME District 1199C National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, Pa. Association of Staff Nurses & Allied Professionals, Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, Philly for Change, MOVE ON.org, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, Philly Gay News, Philadelphia Working Families Party, UPenn Dems, RECLAIM Philadelphia, Philly SURJ, Temple Association of University Professionals, Right to Redemption, Lifers Inc., Erotic Service Providers Union, The Political Revolution PAC, Community College of Philadelphia AFT, Real Justice PAC, Food & Water Action Fund, Center for Carceral Communities, former Councilwoman Marian Tasco, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, State Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald.
Billionaire philanthropist George Soros is supporting Krasner’s campaign with $1.45 million invested in a super PAC called “Philadelphia Justice & Public Safety.” Krasner has also received $5,200 from Deborah Sagner, a progressive philanthropist, $3,000 from Chloe Cockburn, who heads the Open Philanthropy Project’s criminal justice reform fundraising, and $3,000 from Mary Delaney of Akonadi Foundation, a racial justice organization.
Finally, Krasner has, unusually, attracted the attention of Silicon Valley: He received $2,000 from Michael Kieschnick, the founder of CREDO mobile; $6,000 from Lori Park, one of Google’s first female engineers; and $6,000 from Nicole Shanahan, founder of ClearAccessIP.
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. More specifically, it can be found on the city’s Philly311 mobile app – which lets residents report nuisance violations like graffiti – he helped develop at the Managing Director’s Office, where he also oversaw infrastructure improvements and other new initiatives.
Negrín previously served as an executive in the private sector, including stints at the law firm of Morgan Lewis and at foodservice giant Aramark. The son of Cuban immigrants, an All-American football player at Wagner College and a former assistant district attorney under Lynne Abraham, he said he decided to get back into politics because he wanted to “change neighborhoods and revitalize communities.”
An outspoken proponent of gun control, Negrín plans to focus on “not criminalizing addiction, not criminalizing poverty,” adding additional review and diversion for offender’s first contact and first felony. He notes that he led efforts to “ban the box” in Philadelphia, which disallows employers from asking about a job applicant's criminal history.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Negrín also said he would push the office to get “smarter” on crime, promoting a systems like Open File – used by states like Texas – that “minimizes the ability for officers and prosecutors to hide evidence.” He also promotes himself as the most capable of restoring integrity to a troubled office, adding that his time in the Nutter administration makes him the candidate with the strongest ethical track record.
“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,” he said.
In a city with a perpetually high homicide rate, Negrín also frequently describes the life-changing horror of seeing his father murdered in the street as a teenager.
“I don’t talk about it because I like to; I talk about it because I’ve spent time in classrooms,” he says. “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.”
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge 5), Guardian Civic League, National Black Police Officers Association, Pennsylvania Democratic Latino Caucus, Sheet Metal Workers (Local 19), African-Caribbean African-Latino PAC, Philly Set Go, Former US Senate candidate Katie McGinty, State Rep. Donna Bullock, State Representative Emilio Vazquez.
Negrin has accepted donations from a number of current and former Aramark executives, including $15,000 total from former Aramark chairman and CEO Joseph Neubauer and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. Other donations include $9,000 from John Dodds, a Morgan Lewis partner who has represented pharmaceutical companies and financial services companies; $9,000 from Richard Glazer, the founder of Cozen O’Connor and chief of the Innocence Project; and $250 from Heather Podesta, a powerful Democratic lobbyist.
He also received $4,000 from Exelon PAC, which regularly contributes to both parties but leans Republican; $2,500 from William Hankowsky, the president and CEO of Liberty Property Trust, which spearheaded the city’s stadium projects and the Comcast building; and $6,000 from Michael Silberman, vice-president of chemical corporation Celanese.
The 35-year-old first-time candidate, who left the Philadelphia district attorney’s office in 2016 after a 10-year stint, made a surprise entrance into an already crowded Democratic primary, filing on the last day possible.
“I wasn’t interested in running against Seth,” O’Neill said of his former boss, indicted current district attorney Seth Williams. “I saw everyone going to attack Seth, ignoring all the good reforms put in place the past eight or nine years, the great staff implementing those reforms – I didn’t want to be part of that.”
Of course that all changed with Williams’ resignation. (And changed even more radically after the April publication of O’Neill’s City&State PA profile with revelations that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 would pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into young prosecutor’s campaign.)
Given the current tilt of the campaign to malign virtually every aspect of the Williams era, O’Neill not only acknowledged the DA’s accomplishments, but willingly listed a number of initiatives he would like to keep in place in his own administration.
“For example, for first-time drug offenders, we have a program called AMP” – the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program – “and we have AMP 2 as well. These are programs to basically release upon arraignment people who are drug offenders and give them certain things to do, and link them with rehab programs. It currently covers about 40 percent of the people eligible; we would like it to cover more – we just don’t think people know it exists.”
Touching on one of the flashpoints of the campaign, O’Neill agrees that cash bail should be among the first reforms implemented by the new district attorney. For him, one key is to rethink the way the city deals with detainers and their impact on those incarcerated with no way of paying bail in a timely manner.
“There are approximately 40,000 people on probation in Philadelphia right now...We can reduce that number substantially – I believe by half. If people have been following the conditions of their probation for two years, then probation isn’t doing them any good anymore – it’s preventing them from getting a job and from moving forward in their lives,” he said.
O’Neill’s other main policy focus – reducing gun violence – stems from his years in the DAO homicide unit. To combat the epidemic, O’Neill would return to what he knows best: DAO programs that have already proven successful, like Focused Deterrence and Gun Stats.
“These programs seem expensive at first, but it just needs to be argued better to City Hall that you save a lot more keeping people out of jail, from being shot and being murdered, than by keeping them in jail at $43,000 per person per year,” he enthused. “The Focused Deterrence program, which worked wonders in South Philadelphia – it reduced gun-related homicides 70 percent – is a program we can expand to every neighborhood in Philadelphia. The problem is that many of the candidates running haven’t worked in the DA’s office.”
Endorsements - Official campaign website
Building a Better PA Fund (PAC tied to IBEW Local 98), Sprinkler Fitters (Local 692), Plumbers (Local 690), Reinforced Iron Workers Riggers and Machinery Movers (Local 405), I.A.T.S.E. (Local 8), IAFF (Local 22), Elevator Constructors (Local 5), Insulators and Allied Workers (Local 14), Ironworkers (Local 401), Communication Workers of America, Roofers Local 30, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, state Rep. Kevin Boyle, City Councilman Bobby Henon, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, State Sen. Margaret Tartaglione, City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, State Rep. Ed Neilson, State Rep. Michael Driscoll.
O’Neill’s campaign is being supported by $144,000 from Building a Better Pennsylvania, a super PAC controlled by union leader John Dougherty that once backed Mayor Jim Kenney’s political ambitions.
This is the 65-year-old Untermeyer’s second run at becoming Philadelphia’s next district attorney, although he first ran as a Republican. After decades spent in public service doing everything from working as an ambulance driver in his native New York City to an 11-year run as senior deputy in the state attorney general’s office, Untermeyer became a successful real estate developer and businessman.
“I really love public service; I get a real satisfaction out of doing it,” he said when asked what motivated him to run again to head the office he worked in some three decades ago under then-District Attorney Ed Rendell. “I think service is more than a noble cause: Doing something for another human being gives most human beings satisfaction.”
What Untermeyer wants to do for Philadelphia is to make the District Attorney’s Office more just, responsive and responsible through a combination of lessons learned first-hand and from observing best practices in law enforcement around the country. And, like virtually every other Democratic candidate in the race, one of his top priorities is reforming civil asset forfeiture and the city’s bail system.
“I think we have the worst bail system in the country,” he said. “People with money get out the next day and they’re back in business. People of limited means sit in jail because they couldn’t come up with a few hundred dollars.”
To even the scales, Untermeyer would go with a variant of Washington, D.C.’s successful cashless bail system, which uses risk assessment algorithms to determine how likely defendants are to show up for their court date and the likelihood of their getting into more trouble if they are released.
As ubiquitous in the DA race as his commitment to bail reform is, that is how sui generis his other priority is: attacking white-collar crime.
“I don’t think you want to take away from the emphasis on violent crime, but you want to take away from the emphasis on minor, non-violent crime,” he explained. “If somebody steals your cell phone, it’s one person who is victimized. If Uber is overcharging for distance and time, it affects hundreds of thousands of people.”
Among Untermeyer’s other plans for the office: creating a vertical system of prosecution so that people would have the same prosecutor through every phase of the process, and focusing on outreach.
“The DA’s office should be a community-based office,” he elaborated. “If there are 250 assistant district attorneys, every one of them should be assigned to a community in the city.”
That’s not to say Williams’s tenure hasn’t produced initiatives Untermeyer feels are worth continuing. He has particular praise for the Conviction Review Unit, which investigates cases that may have produced wrongful convictions, although he notes that it has been woefully understaffed – with just one prosecutor assigned on a part-time basis – until the last month.
“He’s moving in the right direction, I applaud him for it,” Untermeyer said, before continuing a pattern of rattling off details about a specific case that underscored his position on an issue. “Anthony Wright was convicted of homicide and rape he didn’t commit” in 1991. “The Pennsylvania Innocence Project was able to get him cleared through DNA evidence. The District Attorney’s Office fought Mr. Wright, and wouldn’t release him. It took another three years to get him released. That’s why we need to have a robust conviction integrity unit.”
He insists that if he is successful this time around, this will be his last campaign.
“This job isn’t a stepping stone for some other political office,” he emphasized. “My commitment to this will be seven days a week. I want to serve, to do what I can do for a city I love.”
Endorsements - Official campaign website
State Sen. Anthony Williams.
Untermeyer received $6,000 from Park American President and Founder Jay Weitzman, and another $6,000 from Weitzman’s wife, Carole. He received $5,000 from Daniel Berger, an attorney whose law firm has been one of the highest-grossing in the nation. Law firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, where opponent Richard Negrin currently works, also donated $3,500 to Untermeyer’s campaign.