Last time there was a race for Philadelphia district attorney, about 7 percent of registered Democrats in the city cared enough about the uncompetitive race to cast a vote in the primary. Womp womp.
But this year will be different. The question is: How different?
We now have a district attorney under indictment and a field of candidates to replace him with diverse backgrounds, support systems and values. But what could change that low turnout is a national wave of political engagement that some experts say hasn’t been seen since the ’60s. It’s “the resistance” against President Donald Trump, and organizers are dying to harness that new energy and funnel it into enthusiasm for local elections like the historically lackluster Philadelphia DA’s race. And there are parallels here.
“The criminal justice system, while it’s a national problem, it’s really upheld by local actions and local policymakers,” said Bryan Mercer, executive director of the Media Mobilizing Project. “And so the district attorney in Philadelphia really determines what our criminal justice system looks like.”
Mercer and a handful of other organizers, including from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, have teamed up to form “The Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney.” The group of organizations won’t be endorsing anyone, but is hosting a forum on April 18 with the DA candidates and is pushing for criminal justice reform they didn’t see under current District Attorney Seth Williams. The goal is to recruit voters who care about reform to care enough to get to the polls for the May 16 primary.
The group has a few main tenets of its platform that it wants to see accomplished, including:
- Ending cash bail
- Declining to prosecute charges that disproportionately criminalize black and brown communities
- Committing to transparency, including releasing data like how many people of color they convict a year
- Continuing to re-sentence juvenile lifers to provide the chance of parole
- Consideration of immigration crackdowns and how arrests could lead to deportations
Lucky for them, most of the handful of candidates running to replace Williams — who ran on criminal justice reform but by many measures didn’t achieve it — have platforms centered around reform as the race has taken a turn toward the left. Meanwhile, the city’s Democratic party isn’t endorsing a candidate at all.
Voters on the Democratic side will choose between former prosecutor Joe Khan, former managing director for the city Rich Negrin, civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner, former prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, ex-Seth Williams right-hand-man Tariq El-Shabazz, Municipal Court judge Teresa Carr Deni, and prosecutor John O’Neill. Former prosecutor Beth Grossman is running as a Republican.
Of the candidates, Krasner quickly emerged as the darling of the left. He made a name for defending protesters and, just after announcing a run for district attorney, was endorsed by Black Lives Matter organizer Asa Khalif and other progressives. El-Shabazz has a history of supporting reforms to the criminal justice system, and other candidates have laid out detailed platforms that could satisfy what longtime activists and newbies to the activism scene are looking for. The not-exactly-excited-about-criminal-justice-reform police union has endorsed Negrin.
But, as mentioned above, getting people pumped about a local district attorney’s race isn’t easy. Turnout is always extremely low — that’s everywhere, not just Philadelphia — during local elections.
In 2013 when Williams ran for DA unopposed, just about 58,000 people cast votes for him in the Democratic primary, representing about 7 percent of registered Democrats. That number was much higher in 2009 and 2005 when there was actual competition in the race for DA. In the 2009 Democratic primary, about 104,000 voters cast votes (still only about 12.4 percent of registered Democrats) for five different candidates, and Williams ended up winning with about 43,000 votes, or just about 42 percent of the overall vote.
Turnout in municipal elections has continued to dip in recent years. There just isn’t the same enthusiasm for local elections like there is for presidential ones, a problem local electeds have faced for years. For example, more than 700,000 people cast votes in the presidential election in November, representing about 63 percent of registered voters in the city — almost six times the number of people who cast votes in the 2009 general election for district attorney.
Sara Mullen, associate director/ advocacy and policy director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the group was already planning on getting involved with the Philadelphia district attorney’s race, but said political engagement right now that they can harness is a “silver lining.”
“The attorney general is really going back to tough-on-crime policies, and we can harness that in Philadelphia to make a change then at the local level,” she said, “to show that Philadelphia does not want to go in that direction.”
She also said this isn’t just about the election. The coalition’s goal is to nail down specific policies that each district attorney candidate supports so constituents can “hold their feet to the fire” long after the election.
“For folks in the movement, for people doing this work for social justice, this is a chance to move forward a progressive proactive agenda for reforming the criminal justice system,” Mercer, of Media Mobilizing, said, “and stopping mass incarceration.”