Tariq El-Shabazz: Can Seth Williams’ Right-Hand Man Distance Himself From Past Administration?
As Seth Williams leaves the District Attorney’s office amid federal charges, Tariq El-Shabazz, a former first assistant to Williams, wants Philadelphia voters to know his experience and work in the DA’s office are what set him apart from a packed field in the May 16th Primaries.
He understands people are concerned about several issues — ranging from his tax liens to a recent report of former clients complaining about his services — but warns that drastic change in the city’s prosecuting office could undo years of progress.
“A ship as big as a 650-person vessel can’t turn on a dime; it has to turn slowly,” El-Shabazz said. “So what are you gonna do? Blow it up and do what? You’re firing everybody? You can’t fire everybody. You can’t make massive improvements all at one time.”
In a roughly 80-minute-long interview last month, El-Shabazz spoke with Spirit News about the most pressing issues in this district attorney race, along with his past experience and what he believes his current perception is due to his taxes and connection to Seth Williams.
The 53-year-old Brooklyn native believes in “common sense” reform — he used the phrase 11 times during our discussion. He’s also a fan of using analogies to illustrate a point. “Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is a saying he used three times.
That being said, El-Shabazz believes he has the experience to actually create meaningful change in the DA’s office, given his more than 30 years of experience in law as a prosecutor and defense attorney. He also has been outspoken about race relations in the city and the United States, arguing change must occur from hard conversation between both sides of the political aisle.
“I put my clothes on the same way and I look the same way,” he said of his upbringing. “I can change my name to John Smith and I’m still a black man.”
One policy that falls under the race umbrella is stop and frisk. El-Shabazz adamantly opposes this type of policing, along with arresting low-level drug offenders and offering more non-cash bail in court cases. He’s also against excessive use of mandatory minimums and the privatization of the prison system.
He wants voters to know, however, that some aspects of the system work: probable cause, reasonable suspicion and other constitutional rights and personal liberties.
“What can’t get lost in all this reform talk is public safety,” El-Shabazz said. “There are some people you’re going to have to prosecute and lock up. Everybody’s not getting a pass. That’s the nature of it. That’s why you have to be balanced with discretion and understanding.”
Some of the challenges El-Shabazz faces have to do with his credibility. Concerning his tax debts, he said he owes about $74,000 out of an original $137,000, which accumulated over the past four to five years. He emphasized these are civil debts and that he has never been criminally charged regarding tax collection previously.
More troubling, perhaps, is his connection to District Attorney Seth Williams, who has been indicted with more than 20 counts involving corruption, bribery and other charges. El-Shabazz worked as First Assistant under Williams before he announced his candidacy for the position of District Attorney last fall.
“I agree that you bare your soul when you run for public office, no doubt about it,” he said about his taxes and connection to Williams. “The question can be asked and I answered those questions. It’s just there are questions, with all due respect, that definitely distract from what we’re talking about and what this race is.”
Ultimately, it’s unclear how much these issues will impact El-Shabazz until Philadelphians vote on May 16. He will, however, be battling six other Democrats to face Republican Beth Grossman in the general election this fall.
El-Shabazz added that he most aligns ideologically with Larry Krasner, the civil rights attorney, but stated Krasner goes “farther” on some issues than himself. He declined to clarify what he meant, directing Spirit News to ask Krasner about his platform.
Regardless of his opponents, restoring credibility to the office and creating trust within the community is imperative, El-Shabazz said.
“We spend too much time on the issues that we shouldn’t; we’re distracted,” he said. “I can do that through working with people and continuing to work on reform and it’s earning the trust and bringing the dignity and ethics back to that office, to the people in it and to the surrounding community.”