El-Shabazz brings a different look to Philly DA’s race

 Philadelphia district attorney candidate Tariq El-Shabazz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia district attorney candidate Tariq El-Shabazz. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In a field of seven Democrats for Philadelphia district attorney, Tariq El-Shabazz stands out in a number of ways.

He’s the only African-American, the only candidate with a blazing red beard (a reflection of his Muslim faith), and the only candidate who, until a few weeks ago, was the top deputy to now-indicted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

El-Shabazz said in his campaign announcement that he’s “the perfect candidate for district attorney.”

He cites his experience as a defense attorney, prosecutor, and first deputy DA, his work on the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, a policy-planning group involving many actors in the justice system, and his life experience.

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Humble beginnings

El-Shabazz was raised mostly by his mom at a housing project in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

He was caught shoplifting when he 11, and remembers being sent to a “Scared Straight” program, visiting inmates at a prison in Rahway, New Jersey.

“I saw lifers … I was intimidated,” he remembered. “I think that experience refocused me.”

In a debate recently, I heard El-Shabazz say he’s been hit in the head with a police flashlight. I asked him what happened, and it turns out to be a tale of effective policing.

He recalled a cop in the project he grew up in known as “Officer Johns,” who was kind and fair to the kids who lived there. But it could be tough if you were on the wrong side of the rules — like the time El-Shabazz was caught hanging with friends in the lobby where he wasn’t supposed to be.

“So he’d catch you, know he’d bop you a little bit. I actually felt the flashlight on the back of my head,” El-Shabazz said. “And he’d take you up to your house and tell your mother, ‘he was hanging in the lobby. I told him to leave. He didn’t leave, and I caught him and I roughed him up a little bit.’ My mother didn’t have any problem. In fact, I think she would rough me up a little bit as well.”

El-Shabazz did well in school, found he had a gift for talking, and managed to go Hofstra University and the University of Baltimore Law School.

He spent five years as a Philadelphia prosecutor and many years as defense attorney before agreeing to join Williams as first deputy DA eight months ago.

Change needed

El-Shabazz is now running in a field of candidates who say the office is a mess, in need of radical change.

“I am not one of those who say you blow it up. If you blow it up, what do you replace it with?” El-Shabazz said. “But I am one that says that there has to be common-sense reform by one with the experience to reform.”

Like other candidates, El-Shabazz wants to end the cash bail system; divert more nonviolent and drug offenders to treatment and community service programs; and dramatically reshape the asset-forfeiture program, in which the office seizes property from suspects in criminal investigations.

El-Shabazz is often in the position of defending the current DA’s office, at least in part. There are programs that work and should be expanded and improved, he said, and others that should be shut down.

One thing the office needs, he said, is more diversity.

Even though the city has had an African-American district attorney for nearly eight years, El-Shabazz said, “the hiring practices weren’t good. [Some of] the people involved on the hiring committee were looking for people like them, as opposed to people who would be good for the office.”

Tax man

One problem concerns his tax liens, including one from the IRS for a reported $137,000. El-Shabazz said the problems are with his business income, which he always reported.

“When I get audited, and my taxes get looked at, and the IRS says ‘No, we’re not going to take those deductions — you owe this money,'” El-Shabazz said. “We begin to have a dispute, the IRS and I, and I’m a hell of an attorney, but I haven’t beat the IRS yet, and so penalties and interest begin to accrue.”

He said he has a payment agreement and has already reduced the IRS debt to $74,000.

He said in any case the debt (there is some to the state and city as well) are civil liabilities that have nothing to do with his fitness to serve as DA.

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