The house music was thumping at Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philly and the place was bathed in the rich, red light from nine flat-screen televisions behind the bar flashing Chuck Peruto’s face and campaign logo.
About 40 supporters milled about at the $100-per-ticket fund-raiser as the Republican nominee for Philadelphia district attorney took the floor last week to deliver a very Peruto-esque show.
In his pitch to deny District Attorney Larry Krasner a second term, Peruto expressed exasperation about how gun and violent crime cases are handled. He complained about Krasner’s battles with the Philadelphia Police Department and focus on undoing wrongful convictions by previous prosecutors. And he was repeatedly profane about it all.
“The root word of progressive is progress,” Peruto said, pausing a beat before adding, “I’ve never heard more bull— in my life. This is regress. This is a failed experiment.”
A. Charles Peruto Jr., 66, has been watching criminal trials since he was in first grade, tagging along with his father, a high-profile defense attorney known for representing gangsters, politicians, union officials, and others in cases that captured headlines and generated sordid news stories.
Peruto took night classes at Delaware Law School so he could work for his father and watch cases unfold before judges and juries.
“It was about 25 times better than law school ever was,” he said. “To me, it was all about the courtroom.”
He continued working for his father for seven years after passing the bar in 1979 and then started his own law practice. As he followed in his father’s footsteps, one of his first cases, representing serial killer Gary Heidnik, seized the city’s attention.
Heidnik was convicted and at his direction, Peruto successfully fought for his wish to be executed.
“The last thing Gary Heidnik said to me was, ‘You finally won,’ ” Peruto said, laughing at the memory.
Peruto, a former Democrat who supported Krasner’s first bid for district attorney four years ago, announced his candidacy in February, decrying Krasner as soft on gun crime and murder. Peruto has consistently assigned blame for the growing number of murder cases in the city to violence associated with the drug trade.
While new to politics, Peruto is a well-known and flamboyant character in Philadelphia’s legal community, a camera-ready sharp dresser with an eye for criminal cases that draw attention.
On the campaign trail, Peruto has displayed a shoot-from-the-hip style that has left some people stunned and speechless.
His campaign website initially included a section titled “The Girl in my Bathtub,” an explanation of the accidental death of his paralegal and paramour who died in his home in 2013 while he was out of town. A grand jury investigation found no foul play, and the incident later became a Lifetime movie.
Peruto used a provocative campaign video to declare public safety more important than civil rights, while making sweeping statements about race and crime. “I understand Black people just about as well as a Black person,” he said in the video. He later acknowledged that “sounded wrong” but stood by the sentiment.
In a virtual forum for the Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Peruto called teenagers who commit gun crimes “the most dangerous offenders” in the city. “And we need to remove them from society,” he continued. “And I realize, I totally realize, that I’m going to lose a lot of votes this way. So be it.”
Peruto stood by those remarks as well but noted that some of his appearances had prompted booing from offended Black voters.
Peruto’s suggestions about what he’d do if elected DA have also been unconventional.
He’s suggested that the district attorney — not the mayor — should oversee the Philadelphia Police Department. He’s pushed for merit selection for judges, complaining that some elected to the bench are unqualified. And he has said six to 10 city judges of his selection should be assigned to focus only on cases involving guns and violence.
The district attorney has no authority to make any of those things happen.
It has been 30 years since a Republican held office as Philadelphia district attorney. Ronald D. Castille resigned that post in 1991 during his second term to make an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for mayor.
Castille, who went on to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said he has offered Peruto advice and believes he has the experience to run the District Attorney’s Office. But he also recognizes the difficulty for Republicans running for citywide office.
“I said you know about the job and what you want to do,” Castille said of his conversation with Peruto. “You’re just going to have to be very forceful in getting all the support you can.”
General elections for district attorney, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1, are not competitive. Krasner, a career defense attorney, defeated Republican Beth Grossman with 75% of the vote in 2017 despite her 21 years of experience as a prosecutor.
Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee rebuffed Krasner’s bid for an endorsement before the May primary. Party chair Bob Brady predicts the city’s ward leaders will now fall behind Krasner and work to turn out voters for him on Nov. 2.
“Primaries are family squabbles,” Brady said. “Family squabbles are over. We come together as a family.”
Brady, who grew up in Overbrook with Peruto, said his old neighborhood pal is putting in the work despite the long odds.
“I love him to death,” Brady said. “Unfortunately he’s a Republican. We don’t support Republicans.”
Peruto acknowledges the long odds he faces. And campaign-finance reports bear that out.
Running with the Republican Party’s endorsement, Peruto has raised just $75,800 since entering the race in February, and he had just over $23,000 in the bank on Sept. 17.
State Rep. Martina White, chair of the local Republican Party, acknowledged its “underdog” status, but praised Peruto for making his case in many neighborhoods. She noted that Peruto is focused on violent crime while also embracing reform efforts for nonviolent offenders and people dealing with addiction.
“He’s the candidate with common sense and real experience,” White said. “I think Chuck would make our city a lot safer.”
Krasner, who started 2021 with $188,000 in his campaign account, raised an additional $1.15 million this year and had about $58,000 in the bank as of Sept. 17.
Krasner scored a decisive win in the Democratic primary, defeating former prosecutor Carlos Vega with a 2-1 ratio of the vote.
Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph’s University who studies local politics, said Krasner’s primary received far more attention than the general election has, driven by antipathy to his approach to prosecutions. That made the margin a surprise to some.
“They knew he would win,” Miller said. “But there was more of a groundswell about his politics and policies.”
Outside money was a factor in the primary but not so far for the general election. A political action committee founded by retired police officers raised $923,000 to oppose Krasner. Real Justice PAC, a San Francisco-based criminal justice reform group, helped fund Krasner’s campaign staffing.
Peruto said before the primary he would have dropped out of the race if Vega had defeated Krasner. He has also distanced himself from Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported Vega.
Peruto says he supports Krasner’s view that the city must “reform the culture of the Police Department” but calls it a mistake for prosecutors to reject criminal cases based on distrust of an arresting officer. He said a judge and jury should make the call.
Peruto calls Krasner’s decision to reject the death penalty in prosecutions a mistake, while also saying former District Attorney Lynne Abraham relied too often on that option. He said he would seek the death penalty in rare cases for the most heinous crimes.
Krasner, who declared that his second term had already started on the night of his primary win, has barely campaigned and has refused to debate Peruto, saying that would be “a waste of time.”
In response, Peruto took to the streets in a Ford F250 pickup truck, hauling a trailer with a large campaign billboard. From the passenger seat, Peruto used a sound system to demand a debate and to ask what Krasner is hiding from. He circled City Hall 15 times one day last week, passing Krasner’s office until he was hoarse from talking.
Peruto knows Krasner has little to gain from a debate. That prompted a backhanded compliment when he addressed his supporters at Chickie’s & Pete’s.
“There are so many issues I want to debate [him] on,” Peruto said, dismissing Krasner as “a clown.” “And he is very smart and I give kudos to Larry Krasner because he’s very smart to hide under his bed.”