Youngest candidate for Philly DA says he has best experience

Listen
 Candidate for Philadelphia district attorney Jack O'Neill says he has the best experience for the job. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Candidate for Philadelphia district attorney Jack O'Neill says he has the best experience for the job. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jack O’Neill seemed to drop into the Philadelphia district attorneys race from nowhere. The 35-year-old attorney walked into City Hall and submitted nominating petitions hours before the filing deadline for the Democratic primary, and left the political world wondering who he was.

City Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady said that day he’d never heard of O’Neill, but that doesn’t bother the upstart candidate.

“I look quite young, and I was the last person to file for this election,” O’Neill said in a recent interview. “But I was an assistant district attorney for a decade. That means I have more experience in terms of years as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office than anyone else who’s running. I also was there most recently.”

That’s O’Neill’s pitch, and it’s technically true of the Democratic field of candidates.

Candidate Joe Khan is also a career prosecutor who has more years trying cases than O’Neill, but Khan’s most recent experience is in the U.S. attorney’s office, trying cases in federal court.

Why does it matter?

While others have ideas, O’Neill said, he knows how the current DA’s office functions and is best positioned to fix what doesn’t work and keep what does.

I asked for an example, and he said everyone in the race talks about using “diversion” programs to steer cases involving nonviolent crime and drug use toward treatment and community service rather than prison.

O’Neill said he has intimate knowledge of existing diversion efforts in the DA’s office that are effective but underfunded. He said he would most likely be able to get more support for them.

“The only effective way to advocate for that is to know about the program first and know about how it works,” O’Neill said. “And that is what distinguishes me from everyone else in this race. I know that program.”

O’Neill grew up in Chestnut Hill, attended Masterman and Chestnut Hill Academy, then Rutgers and Florida State  Law School. He always thought of going into law enforcement.

“I thought of being a cop,” he said. “I also seriously looked into joining the military. My skill set seemed to be best for being an assistant district attorney.”

O’Neill spent 10 years in the DA’s office prosecuting sexual assaults and then homicides before leaving in February. He handled some major cases, including the Kensington strangler, and said he developed management skills handling those complex cases.

“I was coordinating with community groups, special victims detectives, police officers, support groups, probation, sheriffs, doctors, DNA experts,” O’Neill said, “and they all had to come together at the right moment.”

Can he win?

O’Neill knows he’s way behind in fundraising, but said he’s raising money and making pitches to the union officials, ward leaders and others whose support will matter.

“I think that just about every group that is a major player in Philadelphia is sitting back and waiting to see who they think the best candidate is,” O’Neill said. “And I think I’m the best.”

One influential player, the Fraternal Order of Police, has already endorsed a candidate, former city managing director Rich Negrin.

But some major players remain uncommitted, including the Building Trades Council, which is interviewing candidates next week.

I’d heard a rumor that the city’s most influential union, Local 98 of the electrical workers, had helped O’Neill gather the 1,700-plus signatures on his nominating petitions.

When I asked O’Neill about that, he didn’t deny he had some help from the union, but didn’t exactly own it either.

“I reached out to them and several other people in labor and asked for their help,” he said. “But the majority of petitions I got were friends and family going out. I gave up sleep for a couple days and went everywhere I could, and that’s how we got those petitions.”

Local 98 spokesman Frank Keel, who said the union hasn’t endorsed any candidate, said he wasn’t aware of its leaders helping with nominating petitions.

Getting support from Local 98 and its leader, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty can be a tricky matter.

The union can spend plenty of money and get hundreds of troops out to support a candidate, but the union hall and Dougherty’s home were searched by FBI agents in August as part of an investigation whose nature is unclear and which has resulted in no charges to date.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.