Democrats in Philadelphia’s suburban counties demolished the competition in municipal elections earlier this month, securing victories that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago. Nearly a month later, two who won posts as top prosecutors in former Republican strongholds must now make agile transitions away from politics.
The two new district attorneys, Jack Stollsteimer in Delaware County and Deb Ryan in Chester County, are poised to start historic terms in January: the first Democrats — and in Ryan’s case, the first woman — elected to the post in their counties.
Stollsteimer, a former federal prosecutor and Philadelphia safe-schools advocate, defeated Katayoun Copeland, herself a midterm appointment replacing now-Judge Jack Whelan.
Ryan, meanwhile, steps into the position vacated by Thomas Hogan, her boss during a stint as the head of the office’s child-abuse unit. Hogan, a career prosecutor, declined to seek a third term.
The similarities stretch beyond party affiliation. Stollsteimer, who received his law degree at 37, is the son of a Ukrainian woman who immigrated with her parents to Chester after they had been in a Nazi labor camp in Bavaria, he said. Ryan said her Jewish grandfather was a Holocaust survivor saved by Oskar Schindler.
Those backgrounds forged a strong sense of justice in both politicians, they said, and put them on paths to public service.
“This is not a political job, and it’s unfortunate that we had to go through this campaign to get here,” said Ryan, 48. “Our goal is to ensure the safety of our residents of our county. That’s what I intend to do, and it has nothing to do with my political affiliation.”
“My experience in public service is that people mean to do the right thing, but they do the same thing over and over again without ever questioning whether there’s a better way to be doing it,” said Stollsteimer, 56. “So we’ve got a chance, I think, with new people coming in, with the enthusiasm of open, transparent government, to figure out new ways of looking at everything we’re doing in county government.”
District attorney is a complicated position in Pennsylvania, its occupants straddling the line between politician and prosecutor. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub remains the sole Republican to hold that office.
Weintraub is up for reelection in 2021. His fate in a county where leadership flipped Democratic this year remains uncertain. During his tenure, he’s successfully overseen high-profile convictions, including, most recently, a guilty verdict against Solebury Township killer Sean Kratz.
To those who hold it, district attorney is largely considered an apolitical job, with elections necessary to maintain a career. But activity in the courtroom inevitably seeps into the campaign cycle.
In Montgomery County, Kevin Steele, a Democrat, ran on a platform in 2015 that skewered his opponent, Republican Bruce Castor, for not prosecuting Bill Cosby on rape allegations, and touted his involvement in the criminal case against former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. He beat Castor by more than 17,000 votes.
Steele’s reelection this year was guaranteed: No Democrats ran against him, and he received enough write-in votes from the GOP side to cross-file for both parties.
As they look toward taking office, the incoming district attorneys each have their priorities. Ryan is dedicated to combating the epidemic of child abuse in Chester County, in which she said allegations have increased by more than 700% in seven years.
“After being reactionary for so many years from these horrific cases, we’re trying to make headway in Chester County to prevent it in the first place,” said Ryan, who previously worked as the county’s coordinator for the regional Crime Victims Center. “I hope to make a difference by getting out there to increase awareness, arm citizens with knowledge of keeping kids safe.”
Stollsteimer, a vocal, founding member of the grassroots Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform, has expressed an interest in seeing the county jail revert back to public operation. (Currently, George W. Hill Correctional Facility is the only privately run county jail in Pennsylvania.) His position is strengthened by the incoming members of the Delaware County Council, which will have a supermajority of five Democrats for the first time in county history.
“It’s going to take a little bit of work,” he said. “I’ve been in government a long time. You don’t just throw a vendor out tomorrow and say, ‘We’re taking over the operation.’ But it’s a conversation we’ll all be having."
Both Stollsteimer and Ryan have expressed interest in greater transparency for victims during criminal prosecutions, and touted a reexamination of the cash bail system.
In line with their counterparts in national politics, the two Democrats want to reexamine how their offices handle mental-health and drug-addiction cases, particularly for nonviolent offenders.
“That means not just getting them into treatment, but job training, GED programs, and coping skills to ensure their success upon release,” Ryan said. “If you want to reduce recidivism and save lives, this is the alternative we should be pursuing: treating it like the disease that it is, and not locking them up.”
Stollsteimer and Ryan recognize that their victories represent a political upheaval in their counties. But they want to put residents at ease, with assurances that party posturing ended on Election Night.