Updated March 16, 10:30 a.m.
On Wednesday, Philadelphia’s police union and other local law enforcement advocacy groups delivered a glowing endorsement of Democratic district attorney candidate Richard Negrín – the most high-profile yet given in the hotly contested race.
The FOP endorsement carries as much significance for what the organization can do to officials it doesn’t support as for those it does: In January, prior to incumbent DA Seth Williams’ announcement that he would not seek re-election, FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby purchased a billboard along I-95 that read: “Help Wanted, New Philadelphia District Attorney.”
“With Rich Negrín, the search is over,” McNesby said in a statement Wednesday.
Two of Negrín’s opponents in the May Democratic primary – Republican candidate Beth Grossman is running unopposed – responded with strong words for both McNesby and Negrín.
“The FOP endorsed Donald Trump, so of course they endorsed Rich Negrín. As they say on Sesame Street, two of these things belong together,” said Lawrence Krasner, a civil rights attorney who touts himself as the most progressive DA candidate among the seven contenders. “[Negrín] has two characteristics that belong to John McNesby, though not necessarily to the FOP membership. One, he’s authoritarian … two, he’s no reformer in a city that badly needs reform.”
Krasner’s criticism stems in part from Negrín’s handling of the 2011 Occupy Philly protests. Negrín, then the managing director under former Mayor Michael Nutter, caught backlash over the arrests of peaceful protestors, some of whom Krasner eventually defended. Negrín maintains that “anti-protester” allegations against him were spread by “extreme” activists.
Joe Khan, a former assistant district attorney who is now looking to return to the office as its leader, made mention of the FOP’s ties to President Trump as well. His campaign also criticized Negrín’s work under the Nutter administration.
“It is unfortunate that the police union's leadership, rather than embracing much-needed reforms supported by many rank-and-file officers, would instead support Rich Negrín and a return to the stop-and-frisk policies that Negrín aggressively supported in the previous administration,” said Brandon Cox, Khan’s campaign manager.
Mark Nevins, a spokesman for Negrín's campaign, clapped back at Khan and Krasner over their remarks.
"Anyone running for district attorney who fails to grasp that the job requires bringing people together to work collaboratively to solve longstanding challenges simply is not qualified for the job," Nevins wrote in an email. "We can't build a safer, stronger city without the input of community leaders and law enforcement. Rich gets that and that's why there was such a diverse group of law enforcement groups supporting him today."
Tariq El-Shabazz, former First Deputy District Attorney under Williams, offered a less critical response.
"While it's not exactly clear what the criteria was for the FOP's endorsement, or what promises Mr. Negrin made to the FOP to earn their endorsement, I certainly respect their decision. However, it is important to remember that this decision only represents a tiny fraction of the Philadelphia police force," El-Shabazz said.
Negrín, who also worked as a general counsel in the private sector for law firms Morgan Lewis and Obermayer, has expressed support for stop-and-frisk policing in the past, while also calling to reduce racial bias in the criminal justice system. He is an advocate for stricter gun control policies.
In addition to the FOP’s endorsement, Negrín also received nods from Philadelphia’s Guardian Civic League, which represents the city’s African American police officers, as well as the Spanish American Law Enforcement Association, an advocacy group for Latino officers.
In a statement, Negrín said that a strong coalition between the district attorney’s office, the police and the community at large would be a boon for public safety.
“They’re the folks on the front lines who serve and protect our residents,” he said. “Working with them and community leaders from all over the city, I know we can do amazing things.”
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which represents 14,000 active and retired law enforcement officials, has been notoriously resistant to certain police reform proposals, including President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force and former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s attempts at greater transparency in officer-involved shootings.
McNesby himself has faced criticism for his staunch defense of officer misconduct, which, in recent years, has included high-profile allegations of police brutality, extortion, perjury and other offenses. McNesby has also been a vocal critic of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Perhaps more influential than the FOP endorsement is Negrín’s ballot placement.
On Wednesday, DA candidates also drew straws — or, as is Philly tradition, drew numbered bingo balls out of an old Horn & Hardart’s coffee can — to determine their placement on the May 16 ballot.
Negrín will take the first and most coveted slot. Khan drew second place. Michael Untermeyer, a former city and state prosecutor, drew third.
El-Shabazz will appear fourth, followed by Krasner, former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, and in last place, John O’Neill, a former assistant district attorney who jumped into the race at the eleventh hour.
Requests for comment from other candidates were not returned by press time.