Super PACs in the Philadelphia DA’s race?

     Philadelphia district attorney candidates debate at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy last month. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Philadelphia district attorney candidates debate at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy last month. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    The Democratic primary for district attorney of Philadelphia is six weeks from Tuesday, and there are seven candidates in the field with no clear favorite. A big-spending super PAC could make a big difference to a candidate struggling to break out of the pack.

    In the mayor’s race two years ago, two-thirds of all the spending came from super PACs, independent committee that can accept big contributions and spend as much as they want, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidate they support.

    There’s far less prospect of super PACs in this race, and veteran analyst Larry Ceisler said there’s a reason for that.

    “It is very difficult to raise money for a DA’s race to begin with,” Ceisler said.

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    A mayor affects all kinds of policy and thus attracts a lot of special interests and money. The DA prosecutes cases.

    How it could happen

    A super PAC funded by liberal billionaire George Soros has been investing in DA’s races around the country, supporting candidates interested in decreasing prison populations.

    He’s said to be looking at the Philadelphia DA’s race. Most of the Democratic field leans that way, so it’s not clear whether his committee will want to pick one from the pack, but there’s a buzz in the political world that he likes civil rights attorney Larry Krasner.

    Then there are the unions, in particular the building trades. There’s no obvious reason for them to want to pick the next DA, but Ceisler said they always want to be relevant.

    “In Philadelphia, unions are almost like their own political party,” Ceisler said. “You know they’re one of a few driving forces in the Democratic Party, and they want to be relevant in the political discourse.”

    Many of the trades, especially Local 98 of the electricians union, have plenty of money to spend, but there’s no sign at the moment of them uniting around a candidate.

    New sheriff

    If super PACs do weigh in on the DA’s race with big spending, they’ll find there are more rules to follow here than in most cities and states — and certainly more than in federal elections.

    The city Ethics Board has imposed new regulations designed to shed more light on super PAC operations and prevent coordination between super PACs and candidates.

    In federal elections, campaigns regularly post attractive video of their candidates on You Tube, knowing friendly super PACs will download it and use it in commercials, executing an end run around the ban on coordination.

    City Ethics board director Shane Creamer said a super PAC is prohibited from doing that in a Philadelphia election.

    “If you want to use video, you’re going to have to make your own video, and you can’t get it from the candidate either directly or indirectly or with the consent of the candidate through any kind of third-party source [like You Tube],” Creamer said.

    And the board has imposed new reporting requirements. Instead of operating in the shadows for much of the race, they’ll have to file complete financial reports six weeks, four weeks, two weeks and one week before the election.

    The primary is May 16.

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