Victory in Philadelphia Buoys Supporters of Progressive District Attorney
Larry Krasner, part of a new breed of prosecutors, easily defeated Carlos Vega in Tuesday’s primary in spite of a rise in homicides.,
PHILADELPHIA — The overwhelming Democratic primary victory on Tuesday of Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney whose opponent tried to paint him as soft on crime, represented a major step forward for the growing progressive prosecutorial movement of which Mr. Krasner is a leader, advocates of criminal justice reform said.
With some ballots still to be counted, Mr. Krasner was winning by nearly 50,000 votes out of about 160,000 votes cast, indicating that even with violent crime rising sharply, voters were willing to stick with a candidate who had stopped prosecuting several categories of low-level crime and had pledged to further change the system that he argued locks up too many people for too many minor offenses.
“We hear all this talk about how somehow progressive prosecution can’t survive,” Mr. Krasner said in his victory remarks on Tuesday night. “That’s not what I see. What I see is that traditional prosecution can’t survive.”
As in his first campaign, in which he ran against six other candidates, Mr. Krasner won significant support from Black voters in the northern and western parts of the city. Those neighborhoods have been the most affected by gun violence, and were places where his opponent, Carlos Vega, a former homicide prosecutor fired by Mr. Krasner when he took office in 2018, had hoped to make inroads.
Ben Waxman, a political consultant in Philadelphia and former communications director for Mr. Krasner, said that along with the Black vote, Mr. Krasner had also maintained his support from white progressives.
“It was really a combination of those two things coming together that gave them the totals, with Black voters really being in the driver’s seat,” Mr. Waxman said.
Kim Frazier, 58, a Black home care worker who lives in West Philadelphia, said she was impressed by Mr. Krasner’s commitment to freeing people who were falsely convicted. She was not persuaded by Mr. Vega’s attempt to blame him for a rise in violent crime. “He’s doing the best he can,” she said. “He can’t be everywhere at the same time.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Krasner, 60, said elected officials were only a small part of a larger cultural movement for criminal justice reform and reducing incarceration.
“We must recognize that there’s an arc of progress here,” he said. “This election itself is one more very positive sign that what’s happening here is a broad social movement with popular support that’s not going to be reversed based on some cheap politics of fearmongering.”
Mr. Krasner’s decisive victory could help spur on prosecutorial candidates with a similar agenda. They can now argue, with some evidence, that views of criminal justice, at least in diverse urban areas, are unlikely to return to where they were 10 years ago and that the elections and re-elections of prosecutors like Kim Foxx in Chicago and Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore are not aberrations.
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Krasner argued that a 40 percent increase in homicides in Philadelphia last year had nothing to do with his policies, pointing to cities with more traditional prosecutors that had experienced similar trends during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Krasner does not prosecute some low-level offenses, such as drug possession and prostitution, and has sought more lenient sentences than his predecessors.
Mr. Vega, 64, acknowledged his loss in a tweet shortly before midnight on Tuesday, saying, “It looks like tonight we did not get the result we wanted, but even in defeat we have grace & we smile.” He thanked his supporters and expressed his own support for the victims of crimes.
Enthusiasm for what was once a low-turnout race remained high. With thousands of mail-in ballots still to be counted, the city reported on Wednesday that more than 160,000 people had voted for district attorney, about 5,000 more than in Mr. Krasner’s first election.
Mr. Krasner’s clinching of the nomination was not the only victory for Philadelphia progressives on Tuesday. Eight judicial candidates who were supported by Reclaim Philadelphia, a local progressive group that knocked on doors for Mr. Krasner and others, appeared likely to win elections.
Mr. Vega argued throughout his campaign that the leniency of Mr. Krasner’s policies had led to the increase in crime, but criminologists said there would be no way to prove those assertions.
David S. Abrams, a professor of law and economics at the University of Pennsylvania who has tracked crime statistics across the country over the past year, said any theory would have to take into account both the rise in homicides and shootings and the overall decline in crime, at least through 2020.
Mr. Vega received ample support from the police, whose powerful union poured tens of thousands of dollars into his campaign and jabbed at Mr. Krasner as soft on crime at every opportunity.
In addition to upholding his campaign pledge not to prosecute low-level crimes, Mr. Krasner ran on his record of lowering the number of people in the city’s jail by more than 30 percent.
That approach won him approval from voters but also a significant amount of criticism, particularly from former prosecutors and even some of his own former employees. Thomas Mandracchia, who worked for Mr. Krasner for about two years, said the district attorney’s insistence on firing so many experienced lawyers had contributed to an office plagued by disorganization.
In November’s general election, Mr. Krasner will face Charles Peruto Jr., a Republican defense lawyer who has campaigned on a strong message of public safety, saying that it is more important than civil rights. Mr. Peruto has called Mr. Krasner’s tenure “a disgrace” and said he would drop out of the race if Mr. Vega won the primary.
Sam Johnson, 34, a filmmaker who campaigned for Mr. Krasner, was typical of white progressives who stood by the incumbent.
“The crimes that he was prosecuting are the things that people want prosecuted,” said Mr. Johnson, who is white and lives in the South Philadelphia section of Point Breeze. “He was prosecuting violent crime but he wasn’t following through on a lot of the petty arrests.”
Still, he was surprised that Mr. Krasner won so decisively.
“To have the Democratic Party not endorse him and have so many organizations including the Fraternal Order of Police endorse another candidate — we were worried,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a lot closer.”