Philadelphia’s Democratic Party boss suggested that a local judicial candidate end her campaign in exchange for his support for a future judgeship appointment, according to a memo drafted by the candidate and obtained by The Intercept.
Party leadership is challenging Court of Common Pleas judicial candidate Caroline Turner’s petition to make it onto the ballot. As that challenge is being litigated, an attorney involved in the party’s challenge arranged a meeting between former Rep. Bob Brady, who is chair of the Democratic City Committee, and Turner this week, according to Turner’s memo.
Turner is running on a progressive platform without party backing in a field that includes eight candidates supported by the party. Brady has previously used his power as the city’s Democratic leader to try to sideline an insurgent movement in Philadelphia. In 2019, for example, the party threatened to expel party committee members who backed third-party candidates, and Brady reportedly said that a council member’s endorsement of an insurgent candidate was “stupid.”
Efforts to dissuade candidates from running have been going on for decades, and in recent years have given candidates credibility with voters who have soured on business as usual. Across the country, candidates have looked for ways to demonstrate their independence from party bosses. Critics of Turner suggested she was blowing a conversation out of proportion for political gain.
In her memo, Turner wrote of her meeting with Brady, “He said if I withdrew there were 6 vacancies coming up and that he would work to get me appointed.”
Turner confirmed to The Intercept that she met with Brady this week but declined to discuss their conversation. “I will not withdraw my candidacy, and I will not stop this fight,” Turner said. “My candidacy is being attacked by those in power who benefit from a broken criminal justice system and are determined to maintain the status quo.”
Louis Agre, a lawyer for the city party said that Turner requested the meeting. “She said she wanted to show respect,” he said. Agre, who also represents Philadelphia’s 21st Ward on the city committee, said that Brady said he never asked her, or anyone else, to drop out of the race, nor did he offer support for a judgeship appointment. “He never asked her to get out of the race, he never threatened her,” Agre said.
Democratic state Rep. and former 9th Ward Leader Chris Rabb said he was aware of other cases where the party had asked candidates to drop out of races. “I have spoken to a few candidates who’ve been approached directly and indirectly from folks associated with the Democratic City Committee who have been pressured to drop out,” Rabb told The Intercept.
Turner had been moving into the May 18 election with an advantage: She randomly drew the No. 1 slot on the ballot this cycle. Candidates in local judicial races typically have low name recognition with voters, so people tend to vote for the first names that appear on the ballot. Attorneys Lopez Thompson and Terri Booker got the second and third slots. The eight candidates endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, including three sitting judges, got spots further down the ticket. (Rabb, the state representative, plans to introduce a bill that would randomize candidates’ positions on the ballot.)
Party leadership is challenging the petitions of some of the candidates they did not endorse, including Turner, arguing that some signatures were not valid. Agre said the party’s challenge had nothing to do with Turner’s position on the ballot. “We review petitions, and we thought that this one was problematic,” Agre said.
Thompson withdrew his campaign this week. Asked if he had discussions with Brady or anyone in his circle about dropping out, Thompson declined to comment. “I withdrew my candidacy for other reasons,” he told The Intercept.
After Thompson withdrew his candidacy for the Court of Common Pleas, Booker took the second spot on the ballot, and Wendi Barish is now listed third.
In the May primary election, voters will weigh in on eight open seats at the Court of Common Pleas. Also on the ballot are seats on the Supreme, Superior, Commonwealth, and Municipal courts; district attorney; city controller; judge of election; and inspector of election. There are currently two vacancies on the Court of Common Pleas, though several sitting judges are running for higher office, which means seats could open up later.
The party’s challenges to Turner’s petitions were dismissed earlier this month on procedural grounds, and the objectors appealed to the state Supreme Court to try to get the case reopened. The court could rule on the matter in the coming weeks.
Standard court procedure requires parties in petition challenges to meet to air issues before trial. According to Turner’s memo, a lawyer representing the party in its challenge, Henry Sias, set up a phone call with Turner and the attorney representing her in the petition challenges on Sunday to discuss an offer from Brady.
Sias “discussed an offer that Bob Brady was going to make to me: if I withdraw, he will support me in an appointment to judge — there are 6 appointments coming up this summer,” Turner wrote. Sias did not respond to requests for comment. Agre said Sias does not speak for the Democratic City Committee.
The next day, Turner met with Brady in person, where he outlined his offer. “He asked me if I was familiar with the appointment procedure — I said somewhat — then he said that the Governor appoints and the Senate confirms but that he would back me in that,” Turner wrote.
According to the memo, Brady told Turner that she “might have problems with a mail in ballot,” implying that the candidates he had endorsed were more well-known and would have an easier time getting votes. Voters can request a mail ballot for the election until May 11. Brady also reportedly warned Turner that she would not get the endorsement from Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward. On Thursday, three days after the meeting, the 2nd Ward endorsed her as part of a slate of candidates that includes District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“He said it was my choice and wanted a response. I said I would like to stay on the ballot. He then told me that he would not talk negatively about me but he would come at me,” Turner wrote.
Turner is running on a platform to bring restorative justice to the court system, which handles trial, family, and orphans’ divisions in Philadelphia County.
Progressive organizers in the city have been working to educate voters about judicial elections and to mobilize communities that local Democrats have not invested in. For Brady to try to undo the outreach that Turner’s campaign has done in those communities is unacceptable but not surprising, said organizer Bill Cobb, former deputy director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice and a senior adviser with Turner’s campaign.
“Do you know that this is the first time that people are ever, ever hearing from somebody who’s running for judge?” Cobb said. “I mean, 50, 60, 70-year-old Black and brown people in these neighborhoods and communities, and no one has ever come to them and said, ‘I’m running for judge in the city of Philadelphia.’”