Philly DA primary carries racial implications

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Seth WilliamsA former assistant prosecutor is trying again to become the first black district attorney in a city where the aggressive tactics of the longtime incumbent have caused racial tensions.

Seth Williams, 42, is considered the front-runner in Tuesday’s five-way Democratic primary. The winner will be the heavy favorite in the November general election, since nearly 80 percent of Philadelphia voters are Democrats.

In 2005, Williams got about 45 percent of the vote when he challenged his former boss, DA Lynne Abraham. Abraham, who has been DA since 1991 and been dubbed “America’s deadliest DA” for her support of the death penalty, is not running again.

The DA’s office has struggled to curb gun violence, much of it involving young, black males, and black community groups have expressed anger with Abraham over her aggressive tactics. She has also struggled to encourage reluctant witnesses and confront pay-to-play corruption.

The primary comes at a difficult time for the office, with Philadelphia facing an estimated $1.5 billion, five-year budget deficit.

Williams served as the city’s inspector general from 2005 until last year.

He is facing off against four other seasoned attorneys, all of whom have experience in the DA’s office.

Dan McCaffery, 44, is the brother of state Supreme Court Judge Seamus McCaffery and the son of Irish immigrants. McCaffery, who has strong union backing, served in the DA’s office from 1991 to 1996 and has worked in private practice for more than a decade.

Daniel McElhatton, 59, was a Philadelphia city councilman for one term from 1992 to 1996. He also served as an assistant district attorney before Abraham took office; he was endorsed this week by Mayor Michael Nutter, a former City Council colleague.

Two other candidates are considered dark horses.

Brian Grady, 40, served as an assistant under Abraham. Twelve years ago, as a prosecutor, he earned attention when he punched a defense attorney in the face during an argument in a judge’s chambers.

Michael Turner, 52, who is also black, served as an assistant in the office before Abraham. The son of a retired Philadelphia police officer, he has refused to accept money from political action committees or solicit endorsements.

The winner will face little known Republican Michael Untermeyer in November. He is unopposed in the primary.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.