When District Attorney Larry Krasner said Monday that Philadelphia was not experiencing “a crisis of crime” despite a record number of homicides, he was responding to a reporter’s question and speaking, it seemed, to a local audience.
Fox News interviewed a relative of a murder victim in Philadelphia. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain tweeted that Krasner is “at war with reality” over a crime spike “caused by him.” And former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, another GOP hopeful in next year’s governor’s race, said crime is high in Philadelphia due to “the most liberal DA in the country” and other Democrats.
As the GOP seeks to take control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections — and with Pennsylvania home to high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate — Republicans have already signaled their hope to make public safety a top issue in 2022, using progressive politicians like Krasner as examples of the dangers of Democratic leadership.
That message belies the reality that the nationwide spike in homicides during the coronavirus pandemic took place in cities run by Democrats and Republicans, as well as in ones with progressive and traditional prosecutors.
For some closer to the ground, it also fits in the long tradition of “dog whistle” politics, with Republicans using the travails of Philadelphia, which is 42% Black, to stoke racial antipathy.
“They’re trying to use this narrative of the big, Black, scary city to frighten people and to elect these ‘law and order’ types who will definitely bring forward a much different type of policies than I think people in cities want to see,” said City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia-based district has seen a surge in homicides during the pandemic.
To be sure, many Democrats found Krasner’s comments problematic as well. Former Mayor Michael A. Nutter chastised Krasner, writing in an opinion piece for The Inquirer that he wondered “what kind of messed up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and brown.”
Krasner said later in the week that he was trying to make a nuanced point — that crime is down overall in Philadelphia, despite the surge in homicides and shootings. That point, however, is unlikely to echo as loudly in the months to come.
One of his regular foils, McSwain, the top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia during former President Donald Trump’s administration, has shown he intends to continue to point to Krasner as he seeks to contrast himself with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the likely Democratic nominee for governor.
Speaking last weekend at a Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association seminar in New York, McSwain described an episode in which the state General Assembly in 2019 gave Shapiro’s office “concurrent jurisdiction” with Krasner’s over certain gun cases. McSwain said state legislators were “concerned about Larry Krasner not doing his job,” but Shapiro failed to step up to the plate once the quietly adopted law faced public backlash.
“He had an opportunity to help me as U.S. attorney and to help the city of Philadelphia deal with gun crime,” McSwain said. “As soon as the left part of his party bared their fangs and said, ‘Don’t encroach on Krasner’s turf,’ he immediately backed off. To me, that’s an example of protecting yourself, protecting your political career, instead of protecting the people of Pennsylvania.”
Shapiro, however, may prove to be a difficult Democrat to cast as soft on crime. A moderate who has received support from police unions, he has publicly clashed with Krasner. And he has said he wants the legislature to provide that concurrent jurisdiction authority in every county, not just Philadelphia.
Will Simons, a spokesperson for Shapiro, pointed to the attorney general’s record overseeing the office during its arrests of thousands of drug dealers, gun traffickers, and child predators.
“While Republicans in Harrisburg and running for governor play political games and pass dangerous bills opposed by police chiefs and district attorneys, Josh Shapiro will be working with local police and law enforcement across the commonwealth to make us more safe,” Simons said. “That’s a contrast we’ll make clear in our campaign.”
It’s also unclear whether leaning into a law-and-order playbook will be a winning formula for Republicans in 2022. It’s possible, for instance, that the homicide rate eases.
President Joe Biden won last year’s election despite Trump’s attempts to tie him to soft-on-crime policies, and Krasner easily won reelection this year over opponents who tried to blame him and his policies for the rise in violent crime. His victory, even in a heavily Democratic city, was seen nationally as a bellwether for the durability of the criminal justice reform movement.
Still, messaging about safety concerns may prove more effective for voters far away from the danger, potentially driving up voter enthusiasm in rural Republican strongholds and winning swing voters in suburban battlegrounds.
Conservatives have long used subtle clues to wield negative racial stereotypes against big cities and Democrats, but Republicans going forward may be less likely to rely on subtlety thanks to recent changes in voters’ attitudes, according to Nicholas Valentino, a University of Michigan political scientist who has studied political messaging around racially sensitive issues.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Valentino’s research documented how voters across the political spectrum were likely to unfavorably view explicitly racialized messaging, despite many voters being persuaded by implicitly racialized stereotypes such as “inner-city crime” and “urban decay.” But between 2012 and 2015, his research, which involves nationwide surveys of voters’ reactions to various political advertisements, showed a significant shift among conservative voters, who had become less likely to punish candidates for explicitly racialized statements.
“There doesn’t seem to be a penalty where there used to be one for being racially explicit,” Valentino said. “The boundaries of propriety for what is allowable speech when it comes to race and racial stereotypes have changed over the last 20 years.”
A poll last month by Gallup found 51% of Americans believe crime in their area worsened over the last year, up from 38% a year earlier.
The increase was driven largely by changing perceptions among Republicans, two-thirds of whom say local crime is worse than it was in 2020 — the highest level in at least two decades, Gallup found. That’s up from 38% of Republicans who held that view last year before Biden’s election.
The trend is muted outside of conservative spheres. Concern among independents also rose, to 47%, up 9 percentage points, while Democrats’ views were mostly unchanged from last year.
Those dynamics could be key in places like Bucks County, a perennial swing county in a perennial battleground state.
John Cordisco, chairman of the Bucks County Democrats, said he thinks the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, not gun violence or the statements or records of prosecutors like Krasner, will be the top issues on voters’ minds in the Bucks-based 1st Congressional District, where Republican Brian Fitzpatrick is seeking reelection.
Cordisco said Republicans have long tried to scare voters about encroaching crime from Philadelphia. Should crime emerge as an issue, Cordisco said, his party’s candidates will have better solutions.
“What Trump has done and Fox has done successfully is that they create the fear,” he said. “From a Bucks County standpoint, this issue will be, ‘Hey, let’s be positive and constructive and say we want more gun control and we need to support our local police.’”
Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.