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Dems for DA: A crowded field swings toward chaotic

Lynne M. Abraham has seen a lot in four decades of public service, including 15 years as a judge and then 18 as Philadelphia district attorney.

But the suddenly chaotic Democratic primary election for district attorney, now just three months away?

"I've never seen anything quite like this," Abraham said this week.

Five Democrats had already declared their candidacy by the time District Attorney Seth Williams, dogged by an ongoing federal investigation of his finances and ethical questions for accepting $175,000 in gifts from 2010 to 2015, announced on Friday that he was dropping his bid for a third term.

Three more potential candidates have expressed interest since then.

Could the Democratic Party be facing an eight-candidate field for an open seat that is typically won in an easy race by an incumbent?

That question was bandied about over the weekend and on Monday but pushed aside Tuesday, amid swirling rumors in political circles that Williams had turned himself in to federal authorities or had been taken into custody by U.S. marshals.

Williams shook his head in wonder Tuesday afternoon while leaving a Center City restaurant.  He called the rampant rumors "crazy" and untrue.

"Look, I made some mistakes," Williams said in a brief interview. "But I was a great DA with what we did internally," a reference to changes to his office's operations.

Tariq El-Shabazz, brought on in August by Williams as first assistant district attorney, resigned from that $165,576-per-year post Monday, and acknowledged that he is mulling a run for district attorney.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, who has represented parts of West Philadelphia and Delaware County since winning a special election in August 2015, said Wednesday that she was still mulling a run.

Kevin Harden Jr., a white-collar crime defense attorney who served as an assistant district attorney for nearly four years under Williams, said he was "leaning toward" a run but was "concerned that there may be an incumbent in the race."

Absent a reentry to the race by Williams, the only way there could be an incumbent running would be if the post of district attorney became vacant by his resignation or removal.

That is how Abraham came to be district attorney in 1991.  District Attorney Ronald Castille resigned in the spring to enter the Republican primary election for mayor. Castille lost that election and went on to become chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The judges of the Court of Common Pleas, as directed by state law, met in private in April 1991 and selected Abraham, then a judge, as Castille's replacement. She won with 39 votes, narrowly defeating another judge.

Abraham said Castille pushed her to pursue the job while she urged him to remain as district attorney and stay out of the mayor's race.

"It's the same thing I asked myself 20 years later," said Abraham, who left office in January 2010 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2015. "What the hell was I thinking?"

There is considerable speculation about jockeying by judges who might pursue the job of district attorney in the event of a vacancy.  But there are risks.

"You know, a lot of judges are not interested in giving up a judgeship, because it's a lifetime job," Abraham said, noting the easy retention votes judges face once elected.

Abraham, who became district attorney in May 1991, ran unopposed in that year's general election to complete Castille's term, which ran until 1993. She was endorsed by both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

The state law controlling the appointment in the event of vacancy requires that the appointee appear on the next general election ballot unless the appointment occurs fewer than 30 days before that election. In that case, the appointee appears in the next year's general election ballot.

Abraham said that if there is a vacancy, the Board of Judges should select a temporary district attorney to "keep the ship afloat, awaiting the next DA." The appointee should not be a candidate for a full term, she said.

The declared Democrats are former city Managing Director Rich Negrin, former city and federal prosecutor Joe Khan, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, real estate investor Michael Untermeyer, and civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner.

"The Board of Judges would do well not to pick someone out of the field," Abraham said. "It would look like they're engaged in politics. And it would put the other candidates at a terrible disadvantage because they'll be running against an incumbent."

One thing is certain: The Democratic candidates have until March 7 to get on the May 16 ballot.

It takes at least 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters from a particular political party for candidates to be listed on the ballot.  Petition season started Tuesday.

A crowded field means more chances for ballot challenges, when candidates face legal filings questioning the validity of their petition signatures and the accuracy of the campaign filings and residency claims.