Candidates Take Center Stage at #DAforPHL

Candidates Take Center Stage at #DAforPHL

For additional event information you can head over to Generocity for additional town hall coverage or view the video of the event thanks to PhillyCAM. Also, you can follow #DAforPHL to see the stream of tweets during the event. Our guests were active!


In a period of political upheaval and significant renewed political engagement–particularly among the millennial demographic – Philadelphia will hold primary elections on May 16 for its District Attorney (DA), Controller and various judgeships.  To leverage that enthusiasm, Philly Set Go hosted a millennial-focused town hall on April 12 featuring all eight of the Philadelphia DA candidates before a packed millennial audience at Plays and Players Theater in Center City.


The candidates – seven democrats (Joe Khan, Rich Negrin, Michael Untermeyer, Jack O’Neill, Larry Krasner, Tariq El-Shabazz, and Teresa Carr Deni) and Beth Grossman, the lone Republican – were looking to prove to the engaged 200-plus attendees that they have what it takes to fill the office that many have deemed to be “in crisis” in the wake of current D.A. Seth Williams’ recent indictment on a number of criminal charges.  The night started with a wonderful introduction by Philly Set Go Co-Founder Gabriela Guaracao about historic millennial engagement statistics and a description of how Philly Set Go plans to work to increase millennial engagement and activate what would be the largest voting bloc in the city of Philadelphia.  After that, board member Meghan Claiborne provided an overview of the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the DA’s office, providing context and highlighting the significant role that the DA’s office plays in the everyday lives of Philadelphians.

After a brief introduction and explanation of the format for the town hall by Philly Set Go Co-Founder Matt Fontana, the evening’s main event began.   Each candidate had the opportunity to give a two-minute opening statement, highlighting their experiences and qualifications for the position of DA.  Each of the candidates had unique motivations to run for DA as well as backgrounds with deep and meaningful experiences in the criminal justice system, from Assistant United States Attorney to Criminal Defense to Community Leader.  In fact, many of the candidates have worked in more than one of these roles at various points in their respective careers. 

 Then, candidates turned their attention to attendees who had submitted questions online through Philly Set Go’s event registration.  The rules allowed each candidate to respond to each question.  The questions touched on both broad policy principles, such as the use of the death penalty, prosecutorial discretion, the handling of certain types of criminal offenses, such as low-level drug crimes, and balancing gun violence prevention with the Second Amendment.  Other questions concerned more specific programs or policies,  including criminal record expungement programs, bail reform programs, use of the City Jails and the Conviction Review Unit.  One of the most noteworthy takeaways from the event was the degree of agreement between the candidates on many of the issues, particularly in the context of a bipartisan town hall held during a hotly contested democratic primary.

Although the candidates differ significantly in background, style, and tone, they all tend to agree that the DA’s office needs significant change.  They generally agreed that the office should move away from mass incarceration, deemphasize the prosecution of low-level drug crimes, reform bail to keep people out of jail while they are awaiting trial or sentencing and focus on programs that will aid those re-entering society from incarceration and stop the cycle of recidivism.  While there are certainly differences among the candidates in how they will achieve each of those aims, attendees were left with little doubt that the DA’s office will head in a different direction on many important criminal justice issues after the new DA is elected and sworn in.  

And the broad agreement on high-level policy issues is not to say that the forum was a giant recitation of “kumbaya” among the candidates. During closing statements, candidates highlighted areas where they differed from their opponents, most notably Mr. El-Shabazz’s comment about Mr. O’Neill’s youth and, in Mr. El-Shabazz’s estimation, lack of experience. The comment generated a buzz among the millennial audience, both offline and online. 

The event concluded amicably, however, and was well received by those in attendance who provided comments to Philly Set Go. Perhaps most importantly, it was a small step in breaking the perception of millennial disengagement in Philadelphia, as a DA forum in an off-year primary election generated more than 200 attendees and filled a Center City theater. Additionally, the event raised more than $900 for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a wonderful charity providing access to legal services to underserved communities across the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Thank you to all of the candidates and all of the attendees!