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Left-wing prosecutors hit fierce resistance


The primary battle is a test of whether the left can maintain its successful campaign electing progressive district attorneys amid an uptick in murders in cities around the country. If Krasner wins, it could signal the arrival of a new era, one in which the public doesn’t recoil from liberal criminal justice policy — even when crime statistics go up. If he fails, it would be a jolt for politically beleaguered police unions, and a sudden halt to what has been a steady shift leftward in urban DA races.

“His reelection means everything,” said Shaun King, a civil rights advocate and former surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “We always knew that Larry, a lifelong civil rights attorney, would come in and change the system from the inside out, and that doing so would make him a major target.”

Krasner isn’t the only big-city progressive prosecutor meeting fierce resistance. In California, both San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón are facing recall efforts. Opponents of the left-wing DAs have accused them of letting criminals loose on the streets and turning a blind eye to victims — all criticisms lobbed at Krasner, too.

Krasner has framed his reelection campaign as a choice between the future and the past, “a past that echoes with names like [Frank] Rizzo,” Philly’s former tough-on-crime, racially polarizing mayor, as he put it at a recent candidates forum. He says that he delivered on his campaign promises by lowering the jail population, exonerating the innocent and reducing the amount of time people are on probation and parole.

He has taken a tack against his Democratic challenger — ex-homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, who was among the group of employees he fired when he became DA — that once might have been unthinkable. Krasner is using the local police union as a foil, and reminding voters that Vega is endorsed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose national union endorsed former President Donald Trump.

As for the spike in homicides — they are up 29 percent compared with this time in 2020, which was the most violent year in three decades — Krasner blames larger societal forces.

“What has happened, and essentially every criminologist agrees on this, is that the pandemic, closing of society and closing of so many different aspects of what protects and surrounds especially young men have disappeared,” Krasner said in an interview. “So in every single city, you have the elimination of high schoolers being in classrooms at least for periods of time, summer camp, summer job programs, open swimming pools, open recreation centers, organized sports in school, organized sports out of school and after-school programs.”

In a demonstration of how much the Democratic Party has moved left on criminal justice issues, Vega is not actually campaigning as a tough-on-crime politician. He talks about diversionary programs and prohibiting cash bail for low-level offenders, and his website promises to deliver “real progressive reform.” His pitch in his launch video is that “we don’t have to choose between safety and reform,” and he places the wave of murders squarely on Krasner’s shoulders.

“I think the large amount of people want common-sense reform,” he told POLITICO. “They want that middle ground where we’re aware that communities of color are suffering the most with respect to violence, but also communities of color are suffering the most with respect to lack of opportunity.”

Murders rose last year in cities around the country, both big and small, suggesting that local explanations alone cannot explain the phenomenon. Asked whether it’s fair to blame Krasner amid a national trend, Vega said that “the issue is what is happening to our community, our city — he cannot and I cannot address all the ills happening across the nation.”

But Krasner’s approach of declining to accept any blame whatsoever has rubbed some voters and party officials the wrong way.

The politically influential Democratic ward leaders who declined to endorse Krasner were frustrated that “there’s an epidemic of gun violence here, everybody’s been touched by this, and Krasner takes no responsibility,” said a person familiar with their meeting with the district attorney.

At times, the election has gotten personal. Vega, who is Latino, called Krasner’s likening him to Trump “really rich … when this is coming from a person who’s white, elite, from an Ivy League school.” Krasner said Vega never championed reform while in the DA’s office, and that he “is doing what all kinds of people do during election cycles — which is they will say anything, they read the polls first.”

Krasner’s campaign said he brought in more than $420,000 during the first three months of the year, while Vega’s team said he reaped almost $340,000. In 2020, Vega kept pace with Krasner’s fundraising.

When Krasner first ran for office, a super PAC mostly funded by liberal billionaire George Soros spent nearly $1.7 million backing him. Some political insiders in Philadelphia said that whether Soros decides to get involved again could have a big impact on the race.

Others think Krasner is unlikely to be ousted because he is the incumbent, and primaries often attract more progressive voters than general elections. In this deep-blue city, the district attorney is effectively determined in the primary. There have been no public polls released in the race.

Krasner has expressed confidence in his prospects in the May 18 primary, pointing to the reelection of other liberal prosecutors around the country such as Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. He doesn’t fear a 1990s revival of the tough-on-crime ethos due to the recent gun violence.


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