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Williams locks up win

In a decisive victory that his supporters heralded as "historic," R. Seth Williams won the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney last night, taking more than 41 percent of the votes in a five-man field.

R. Seth Williams, Democratic candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, with supporters in West Philadelphiaa after winning the nomination. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
R. Seth Williams, Democratic candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, with supporters in West Philadelphiaa after winning the nomination. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)Read more

In a decisive victory that his supporters heralded as "historic," R. Seth Williams won the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney last night, taking more than 41 percent of the votes in a five-man field.

"I've been running and walking for district attorney for about five years," Williams said in his victory speech to supporters at a West Philadelphia banquet hall. "My feet are tired, but my soul, my soul is rested, because together, we will work to make the system better."

Williams ran once before, and lost to incumbent Lynne M. Abraham in 2005.

As it became clear that he would win this time, he said, all four opponents called him to concede.

"We didn't always agree, the five of us, but I think this campaign thickened my skin," Williams said.

He noted that the ultimate race was not over, that he would continue to build momentum so he could hold another victory party on Nov. 3, after the general election in which he will face Michael Untermeyer, a lawyer and real estate developer who ran unopposed on the GOP ticket.

"Philadelphia, it's a new day, a new D.A.," Williams said, echoing his campaign slogan.

At just 13 percent yesterday, voter turnout reached a near-historic low.

In Philadelphia, Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 7-1. The last time there was a Republican district attorney was in 1985, when Ronald Castille defeated Robert W. Williams Jr., the first African American Democratic nominee for district attorney.

Looking ahead to an anticipated victory in the general election, J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said: "Seth is going to be the first elected D.A. of color in a seriously major American city. It's a historic election."

Williams' victory celebration last night included elected officials, a Penn criminologist who helped him formulate criminal-justice policy, and members of the Fraternal Order of Police, the powerful law-enforcement union, which endorsed him.

With virtually all of the vote counted by 11:30 p.m., Williams led with 41.8 percent; Daniel McCaffery ran second, with 30.1 percent. No other candidate had higher than 15 percent.

The field of former prosecutors vying to succeed Abraham included Brian Grady, Michael L. Turner, and Daniel McElhatton. Abraham, who has served more than 18 years as district attorney, decided not to run again.

Criminologist Larry Sherman said Williams' "biggest challenge will be to integrate police, the D.A.'s Office, and probation around a clear set of priorities, especially in managing over 100,000 offenders. It's a challenge because it's never happened. And if it could happen, it'll be a safer city, and that's what the election is all about."

City Councilman Frank DiCicco, a Williams supporter, said he thought that McElhatton took away some votes from McCaffery in the First Ward and other South Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Williams' strongest showing was in North, West and Northwest Philadelphia. "Last time he [Seth Williams] ran, he had 10 cents and bubble gum. This time he had a campaign structure. Ultimately, Seth's enthusiasm, his nonwavering idealism and his hopefulness transcended any of the negatives that were being thrown at us," said State Sen. Anthony H. Williams.

Serious maneuvering for Abraham's seat began in late March, when McCaffery sought to knock Williams off the ballot for alleged improprieties in the way he spent money from the campaign fund he opened for his 2005 run for district attorney.

At the same time, Williams attacked the ballot petition submitted by Turner, alleging it lacked the required 1,000 valid signatures from registered Democrats.

After a week of testimony on both matters, and tens of thousands of dollars spent on combined legal fees, Turner's petition was approved, with 1,082 valid signatures. Williams was initially jettisoned from the ballot, but returned 13 days later when a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel ruled unanimously that Common Pleas Court Judge Allan Tereshko erred in throwing him off.

Tempers cooled throughout the next six weeks of mostly bland debates and community forums in which the five candidates were more likely to agree with one another - on gun control, plea bargains and the death penalty, for example - than sharpen their differences in their areas of disagreement, such as how to fight municipal corruption.

The mood of the campaign swung sharply again in the final week with a barrage of TV, radio, and print ads, some of which attacked opponents. Only McCaffery had the war chest for a sustained TV blitz, which he leveled at Williams.

Buoyed by $200,000 that he loaned his campaign in the final week, and by substantial contributions from political action committees affiliated with the building trades unions and teamsters, McCaffery's TV spots ran in heavy rotation throughout the weekend and into this week. One attack ad cited a case from Williams' tenure as a prosecutor. It alleged he made a "bad plea bargain" deal in which the defendant he prosecuted was eventually released and killed a man. The other ad focused on McCaffery's Irish heritage. It highlighted how his family came from Belfast to the United States to escape violence and injustice after his father, a Catholic, was beaten into a coma by a group of Protestants in an apparent hate crime.

Throughout his campaign, Williams' mantra was, "The justice system is broken." Because he served in the D.A.'s office most recently - and at the highest supervisory level - he said he was best positioned to fix it.

Grady stressed the value of his experience as a former prosecutor and now active criminal-defense attorney.

Turner stressed his experience as a civil litigator, managing partner of one of the city's largest law firms and cofounder of a bank.

McElhatton, a former city councilman, former chairman of the board of Philadelphia Community College and former member of the city Board of Ethics said his broad experience at all levels of government made him best suited to run an office that has 300 attorneys, 250 support staff, and a budget of around $32 million a year.

McCaffery called his supporters onto Spring Garden Street in front of the Quiet Man Pub at Finnegan's Wake to concede.

"I'm buying a round for everyone!" he said. "You're not kidding," shouted a supporter. Then McCaffery said: "Seth ran a good campaign. He benefitted from the name recognition from the last time he ran and he did a great job of energizing his supporters."

According to the election watchdog group, Committee of Seventy, the lowest turnout recorded in a primary for district attorney was 11.4 percent, in 1985.

In 2005, when Williams ran unsuccessfully against Abraham, turnout was 15 percent.

Several voters interviewed yesterday were uninspired by their choices.

At one Center City polling place, Ben Regotti, a chaplain at the Federal Detention Center, described the race as "pretty much a toss-up." In the end he voted for McCaffery, he said, primarily because of a Philadelphia Gay News interview in which McCaffery "was the only [candidate] to give an unqualified endorsement of gay marriage."

Another voter, Linda Blank, an executive assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, was initially clueless about who would get her vote - until a McElhatton worker spoke to her outside the polling place and pointed out that Mayor Nutter supported McElhatton.

With just an hour left before the polls were to close, just 67 of 642 registered Democrats had voted there.

At St. Malachy Church in North Philadelphia, several voters supported Williams.

"I liked his approach," said one, Eleanor Walker, 68. "He said he'd bring the district attorneys into the community, as opposed to having them in the main office. The closer you are to the community, the better."