With Williams out, Democratic primary for DA is wide open
The political theory before Friday in the race for Philadelphia district attorney: The more candidates, the merrier incumbent Seth Williams would be in the Democratic primary election.
Williams' decision Friday to drop his bid for a third term has upended all that.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, predicted that at least one more candidate, likely an African American, will enter the May 16 primary, which already has five contenders.
Brady had said for months that Williams did not have enough support in the party to win an endorsement for the primary. He doesn't see any of the other candidates unifying support, either.
"None of them are scaring anybody out," Brady said. "None of these guys have prominent names."
Williams, the state's first African American district attorney, had been the only black candidate, which was seen as advantage in a city where African Americans make up a large percentage of eligible voters.
Rich Negrin, who was managing director under Mayor Michael A. Nutter, is the son of Cuban immigrants.
Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor, is the son of a Pakistani immigrant.
Former prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, and civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner are white.
"There's no front-runner that I know of," Brady said.
State Rep. Joanna McClinton, an African American from the 191st District in West and Southwest Philadelphia, said she is considering entering the Democratic primary. McClinton, a former assistant public defender who also worked for State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, won her seat in a 2015 special election.
Candidates have from Tuesday until March 7 to obtain signatures on nomination petitions from at least 1,000 registered voters in their party to appear on the May 16 primary ballot.
"I have a very short timeline," McClinton said. "I've been talking to a lot of different people around the city to get feedback and find out what the support level would be. This would be a late entrance for a packed race with opponents who have done a lot of fundraising."
Campaign finance reports for 2016, filed Jan. 31, showed that Khan had raised $212,941 and Negrin raised $133,665. Most of the money raised by Untermeyer and Deni came from themselves. Untermeyer lent his campaign $300,000 in 2016 and said he lent it $250,000 more on Jan. 4. Deni lent her campaign $35,000 in 2016 and $185,000 last week.
Krasner, who just entered the campaign on Wednesday, has not reported on his fundraising.
The current candidates all sought to cast Williams' announcement as good news for their campaigns.
Khan lingered in the lobby of the District Attorney's Office on Friday morning as reporters left. He had called on Williams to resign, but said his dropping out of the race was "a step in the right direction."
"Williams is doing the right thing by answering the calls from people all over this city to step aside so that we can finally move past the scandals, move past the mismanagement, and start to have the important discussions," Khan said.
Negrin presented himself as the best-known candidate now that Williams is out of the race.
"Regardless of his issues, he would have been a formidable opponent," Negrin said. "It's a highly competitive and open race. It was all along."
Negrin said he was being bombarded Friday by calls, emails, and texts from people excited by the news, as the lack of an incumbent in the race might encourage support from people who had been avoiding the race due to the looming controversy for Williams.
"I think there are some people who see a crowded field as an opportunity to sit it out," he said.
Deni said the Democratic primary would be a better discussion since "the distraction that has captured everybody's attention over the last year is diluted at this point."
Now begins the scramble to pick up Williams' supporters, including defense attorneys.
"Some people were holding back because they have cases and they don't want to get on the bad side of an incumbent by siding with a challenger," Deni said.
Untermeyer, who was meeting with Democratic ward leaders Friday morning when he heard the news, also said Williams' supporters are up for grabs.
"I think there's a base that would simply vote for him regardless of what happens," he said. "I just think everyone is listening now. With Seth out of it, everyone is listening."
Krasner said he was running a "grass-roots, organic campaign" that is unaffected by the actions of any other candidate.
Beth Grossman, a former assistant district attorney and the lone Republican in the race, said Williams had been left with "no other reasonable choice" but to drop out.