Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner faced a rival candidate on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot in the nation’s sixth largest city, but the progressive prosecutor’s loudest opponent was Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5.
The union that represents 14,000 current and retired officers in the city put its money and manpower behind fired former prosecutor Carlos Vega in an effort to block Krasner’s reelection run. The FOP and its allies made the primary contest a referendum not just on Krasner but also on the criminal justice reform movement that the DA has championed over the past four years.
Instead of the backlash that the FOP hoped for, the election gave a 2-1 landslide win to Krasner and a major boost to the national movement to stop police violence, end mass incarceration, and upend systematic racism.
“We in this movement for criminal justice reform just won a big one,” Krasner told supporters Tuesday night. “Four years ago, we promised reform, and a focus on serious crime. People believed what were, at that point, ideas—promises. And they voted us into office with a mandate. We kept those promises. They saw what we did. And they put us back in office for what we’ve done.”
Krasner’s mandate is now far greater than it was after his initial election in 2017, when he won the Democratic primary in this overwhelmingly Democratic city with 38 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field. This year, in a one-on-one race with FOP-backed challenger Carlos Vega, the incumbent was winning roughly 65 percent.
The victory came at the close of a contest that saw the police union and its allies pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign that attempted to blame Krasner’s reforms for rising crime in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Attacking the DA as “Soft on crime. Soft on sentencing,” the FOP tried to generate the sort of backlash vote that in the past has threatened progressive officials.
But Krasner flipped the script by reminding voters that rising crime rates in Philadelphia reflected a national trend. He used data and a historical perspective to argue that it takes time to undo decades of failed policies. Voters got the message.
The voters also sent a signal to the FOP and to police unions across the country, which historically have been powerful forces in local politics—especially in elections for prosecutors, sheriffs, and judges.
“The Fraternal Order of Police and its handpicked candidate wanted to take us back to mass incarceration and an era where police were permitted to harass and brutalize residents without a hint of accountability,” explained Nicolas O’Rourke, the organizing director for the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, which supported the incumbent. “Voters rejected the FOP’s fear-based propaganda and sent a clear message: we cannot incarcerate our way to public safety.”
O’Rourke said Tuesday night, “Krasner’s victory represents a huge vote of confidence for the progressive criminal justice agenda and keeps us moving towards creating a system that is more fair and equitable for all.”
That’s a big deal, because Krasner is not alone. Since the veteran defense and civil rights attorney was elected as the top prosecutor in the nation’s sixth largest city, dozens of criminal justice reformers have been elected in cities and counties nationwide. Just as Krasner was targeted for defeat this year by entrenched interests in his city, so other reformers are under attack. In San Francisco, for instance, one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country, Chesa Boudin, faces a recall drive that seeks to overturn his 2019 election to the DA post once held by Vice President Kamala Harris. “Boudin’s opponents are using the same tactics that conservative media harnessed to thwart the movement for Black lives: fear mongering, misinformation, and doomsday predictions,” notes commentator and activist Cat Brooks.
Krasner is arguably the highest-profile progressive prosecutor in the country, thanks in part to the attention he’s gotten as the focus of the PBS documentary series Philly D.A., and he has been an enthusiastic supporter of Boudin and other justice reformers across the country. Just as a defeat in Philadelphia would have been a setback for the movement—especially at a time when commentators are searching desperately for evidence of backlash voting—Tuesday’s resounding endorsement of Krasner strengthens the movement with what Krinsky sees as “a sign that communities understand that failed tough on crime policies of the past don’t work.”
It also provides encouragement for the broader movement for systemic change, says Philadelphia City Council member-at-large Kendra Brooks.
“Last summer, tens of thousands of young Black people took to the streets to demand we disinvest from our police force and begin investing in Black communities. The uprising clearly articulated that the power of the people was greater than any one election or elected official—that if real change was going to happen, we would have to fight for liberation in every avenue of power,” explained Brooks, who was elected two years ago on the WFP line, as the results from Tuesday’s DA vote were announced. “From the streets to the courtrooms to the ballot box, we organized, we protested, and today we voted. The re-election of Larry Krasner is a testament to the movement’s strength.”