Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee had to ask itself this question Saturday:
Who should be the city’s next district attorney?
Ward leaders from the party that has controlled the office for 26 years could not agree on an answer.
They had heard the campaign pitches from a crowded field of candidates in a meeting the previous Saturday.
In the week that followed, District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat, was indicted on 23 federal charges of public corruption, accused of trading official acts for bribes, and of stealing money meant for the care of his elderly mother.
Williams was already heading toward trouble last year, as his impending legal troubles went public and it became clear that he would not win his party’s endorsement in the May 16 primary election.
Hence the crowded field.
Five Democrats declared their candidacy before Williams announced last month that he was dropping his bid for a third term. Two more got into the race after that.
These lawyers, who have stood before juries to make cases, could not make a closing argument to swing a majority of support.
That is significant because 2017 is an off-year election. The ballot holds races for district attorney, city controller, and judicial posts.
Ward leaders count the most in off-year elections, when voter turnout is historically low. They get reliable voters to the polls.
Sources familiar with the count told me former city Managing Director Rich Negrin had the most party support, but that amounted to about a third of the ward leaders.
Tariq El-Shabazz, who resigned as Williams’ first assistant district attorney and declared his candidacy after his boss bowed out of the race, had about a quarter of the ward leaders.
Negrin and El-Shabazz, while winning the most support, also face some serious issues.
Negrin served under then-Mayor Michael Nutter, who is still deeply unpopular among many Democratic ward leaders. Guilt by association is a very real thing in ward politics.
El-Shabazz has a history of federal, state, and city tax liens filed against him personally and the law firm where he served as managing partner. And did I mention his last boss just got indicted?
The other 40 percent or so of the support was split among the other Democrats: former federal prosecutor Joe Khan, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner, former city and state prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, and former assistant district attorney John O’Neill.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the local Democratic Party, said an election with no endorsement makes the most sense.
“What good is endorsing somebody who gets 30 percent of the vote and the rest are all over the place?” Brady asked.
Instead, the party will print up sample ballots, used to inform voters on Election Day about endorsed candidates. The slot for district attorney will be blank unless individual ward leaders request sample ballots with a candidate’s name.
That makes this a money race. Courting ward leaders can be expensive.