Democrats seek to nationalize DA campaign, and a billionaire obliges

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Jeff Ashton describes it as “a hostile takeover of the criminal justice system.”

Ashton was seeking a second term as the state attorney for the Ninth Judicial District in Florida last year, challenged in the Democratic primary by an opponent with little money or support.

“She was a nobody from nowhere,” Ashton said of Aramis Ayala.

In the closing four weeks of the primary election, a political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros showed up and showered the race with $1.4 million in television commercials, some praising Ayala, most attacking Ashton.

Ayala prevailed, took office, and last month declared that she no longer would pursue the death penalty.

Soros last week turned his attention to the Democratic primary election for Philadelphia District Attorney.

Philadelphia Justice & Public Safety, a PAC that registered Tuesday and is expected to be funded by Soros, plopped down $280,000 for a week’s worth of television to support one of the seven candidates, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner.

The PAC, which invested another $33,000 for four days of radio ads on five stations with African American audiences in the city, is expected to keep running ads until the May 16 primary.

Krasner, who uses as a campaign pitch the fact that he has never worked as a prosecutor, is a longtime opponent of the death penalty.

His campaign issued a statement March 17 praising as “courageous and reasonable” Ayalas announcement that week that she no longer would pursue death penalty sentencing in her central Florida district.

“I think that’s a requirement for Soros’ support,” Ashton said. “I’m a white Democrat. When all this came down, I thought I was selected because I’m a white guy. I’m beginning to suspect it was because I supported the death penalty.”

In 2015, Soros supported a district attorney candidate in Louisiana who won election and then sought the death penalty in a case in which a police officer was killed.

A Soros spokesman told the Associated Press in November that the billionaire had spent $9.6 million to back candidates for district attorney and sheriff in 10 states in 2016 because of his interest in law enforcement issues, including abolishing the death penalty.

Philadelphia Justice & Public Safety, run by Whitney Tymas, who ran the PAC that targeted Ashton, has declined to say much about itself, except that it “is supporting Larry Krasner for district attorney because of his commitment to public safety and criminal justice reform.”

In the end, the Soros money may do what most of the Democrats have been trying to accomplish for months: nationalize a local race to draw voter attention in an “off-year” election with light turnout.  

President Trump has been the target of choice for all seven Democratic candidates.

Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor who was the first candidate to enter the race, also became the first candidate to try to capitalize on Soros’ involvement.  

In an email to supporters, Khan asked for money to pay for his own television commercials.

“We can’t afford to let shadowy outside interests buy this election,” Khan’s email warned.

The other candidates also have taken swipes at Trump.

Tariq El-Shabazz, who until February was top assistant to District Attorney Seth Williams, has suggested that the U.S. Department of Justice, under the Trump administration, cannot be trusted to prosecute hate crimes.

Former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni has criticized Trump’s controversial travel ban for people who live in certain majority-Muslim nations as “an affront to everything we hold dear in America.”

Former city Managing Director Rich Negrin this month tweeted about Trump taking 17 trips to the golf course since his inauguration, citing the number of people killed in mass shooting incidents during the same period.

Michael Untermeyer, a former city and state prosecutor, has knocked Trump for trying to “weaken or eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” and “chipping away at the crucial Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation designed to hold big banks in check.”

Jack O’Neill, a former assistant district attorney, said during a candidate forum Thursday night that he supports Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s “sanctuary city” policy of refusing federal requests to detain behind bars people in this country illegally without a warrant.

“The White House right now is racist, its xenophobic, and it tries to gain power through hate,” O’Neill said.

Nationalizing the race isn’t just a ploy to engage voters. It also can help boost fundraising. Khan, who leads the Democratic pack in the number of individual donors to his campaign, has issued fundraising calls asking for money to “send a message to Donald Trump.”

Campaign cash is crucial in off-year elections, to buy time on television and radio for commercials and pay for literature delivered by mail or volunteers. It also helps ensure an Election Day field operation, with volunteers and paid staffers working to turn out voters.

No candidate could swing an endorsement from a majority of the ward leaders who make up the Democratic City Committee, making this an “open” primary.

The committee prints sample ballots to hand to voters as they approach polling places. In an open primary, the committee prints sample ballots ward-by-ward, listing the names of candidates each ward is supporting.

Three of the city’s 66 wards are split in half because they are so large, which means the Democratic City Committee could print up 69 versions of the sample ballots.

A source familiar with the sample ballots said 28 wards are leaving the space for district attorney candidates blank, while five wards are still undecided, meaning nearly half of the wards may not show support for any candidate.

Negrin and O’Neill will be listed on sample ballots in nine wards, while Untermeyer will be listed in eight wards, El-Shabazz in four, Khan three, Krasner two, and Deni one.

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