HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party primary field for attorney general is filling up as the former head of Philadelphia’s public defense lawyers kicked off her campaign Wednesday for the state’s top law enforcement office.
If elected, Keir Bradford-Grey, 48, would become the first Black attorney general in Pennsylvania. She also would become the first attorney general whose legal experience was primarily as a public defender.
Before Bradford-Grey led the Defender Association of Philadelphia for five years, she was Montgomery County’s chief public defender — recruited in 2012 by Gov. Josh Shapiro, who at the time was about to become chair of the county’s three-member board.
During those years as a chief public defender, Bradford-Grey expanded her offices’ profiles to get involved in criminal justice reform, creating programs to try to help keep defendants out of jail and pushing for policy changes, such as fighting the use of cash bail for pre-trial detention.
“People write off what it means to be a public defender,” Bradford-Grey said in an interview. “They don’t know the experience and skill you develop in becoming a problem-solver and a solution-driver and understanding root causes very well.”
While Bradford-Grey headed the defender association, the organization created “participatory defense hubs,” or organized groups of trained volunteers who meet weekly with people facing charges. The goal was to help them understand the criminal justice system, make good decisions and find services available to them.
The defender association went to court to challenge the police practice of detaining people arrested while on probation without a judge’s approval. It researched the Philadelphia police practice of “stop and frisk,” finding that it predominantly targeted Black people and found something illegal in less than one-fifth of 1% of the cases.
In 2019, she helped personally represent a Black bicycle deliveryman in a racially charged case in which he was accused of fatal stabbing a white real estate developer in Philadelphia. The deliveryman, Michael White, was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Sean Schellenger.
Two other Democrats — former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and former federal prosecutor Joe Kahn — have already announced their candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Meanwhile, Philadelphia state Rep. Jared Solomon has said he is seriously considering running.
No Republican candidate has announced, although York County District Attorney Dave Sunday is considering running, a campaign consultant said.
A Boston native, Bradford-Grey got her law degree at Ohio Northern University before going to work as a public defender in Philadelphia. When she ran the defender association, it almost rivaled the size of the attorney general’s office, with more than 500 employees and a budget of more than $50 million. Bradford-Grey stepped down from the defender association in 2021 to join a private law firm.
The attorney general’s office has a budget of about $120 million annually and plays a critical role in arresting drug traffickers, fighting gun trafficking, defending state laws in court and protecting consumers from predatory practices.
The office helped lead state attorneys general in settlement talks with pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers over the opioid crisis. It also played a central role in defending the integrity of Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential election against repeated attempts to overturn it in state and federal courts by former President Donald Trump’s campaign and Republican allies.
Shapiro stepped down as attorney general in January when he was sworn in as governor. He appointed his top deputy, Michelle Henry, to finish the last two years of his term as attorney general.
Henry, a former Bucks County prosecutor, has said she does not plan to run for the office in 2024.