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If Krasner wins race for DA, fans and critics expect disruption

Larry Krasner could bring big changes to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office if he wins the Nov. 7 general election. Some people hope that is true. Some people fear it is true.

DA candidate Larry Krasner meets with the PMN Editorial Board at 801 Market Street, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017.
DA candidate Larry Krasner meets with the PMN Editorial Board at 801 Market Street, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Some hope and some fear that Larry Krasner will be an agent of disruption if he wins the Nov. 7 general election for district attorney in Philadelphia.

Activists demanding criminal justice reform expect him to make prosecutions more fair.

And some in law enforcement predict that Krasner will show more concern for the accused than for victims of crime.

Krasner, the Democratic nominee, says he probably will prove both camps wrong.

"Not everything you try to do is easily within reach," Krasner said. "I think you're going to see disappointment from people who have extreme views about what will happen, because that is life."

Still, a DA has immense power. The top prosecutor chooses what crimes to prosecute and where to focus resources — financial crimes or drugs, for instance — and those decisions have a ripple effect on policing.

Krasner, a defense attorney for three decades known for taking on civil rights cases, said he spent the summer traveling around the country to speak with progressive prosecutors about their experiences upon taking office.

The lesson he brought back: Activists, excited after years of opposition from prosecutors, can easily be disappointed when a new district attorney does not satisfy all of their demands.

While Krasner's campaign has been supported by activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups concerned about police misconduct, he has faced opposition from former assistant district attorneys who consider him unfit for the office — as well as the city's police union.

Rumors of departures and future firings have rumbled through the District Attorney's Office, across the street from City Hall, since before the May 16 Democratic primary.  Krasner had emerged weeks earlier as the race's front-runner, in large part due to a $1.4 million investment by New York billionaire George Soros in an independent political action committee supporting his candidacy.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1, Krasner is the presumed front-runner in what is typically a low-turnout election for district attorney.

That prompted some former assistant district attorneys to circulate a letter before the primary suggesting Krasner was unfit for the office due to his work as a defense attorney and the support of Soros.

And, since his primary victory, talk has only increased that a Krasner-led purge of undesirable staffers is on the way.

A recent review of staff departures from 2015 to this year, however, shows no uptick in resignations in the office, which includes about 300 prosecutors and 300 support staff.

Beth Grossman, the Republican nominee, says she intends to review every personnel file in the office to determine if each staffer is in the right job. Grossman, who served 21 years in the office, also said she thinks there are too many prosecutors in management positions.

Krasner points out that new district attorneys have always shuffled staff and sent some on their way. For now, if he wins, Krasner said he has no hit list of employees who have to go.

"There is no magic number," he said. "There is no magic list."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who started his political career as Philadelphia district attorney, said he required every employee in the office to submit a resignation and reapply for a job when he took over.

Rendell had seen the administration turnover from the other side.  He was chief of the Homicide Unit when F. Emmett Fitzpatrick took over. Rendell said Fitzpatrick offered to let him stay if he accepted a demotion. Rendell headed to the exits and entered politics.

The next district attorney will have to decide what to do with the staff, the structure of the office, and the policies it enforces, Rendell said.

He predicts Krasner will make "significant structural changes" while Grossman will not.

Krasner is a "wild card" candidate, Rendell said, because he has not worked in the office. But there are limits, since the work of prosecuting cases must go on.

"If people are coming in and expecting Larry Krasner to fire everyone who worked for [former District Attorney] Seth Williams, they are sadly mistaken and will be disappointed," Rendell said. "I don't think he's going to shake up personnel as much as everyone expects."

Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said the office she once led is fine as an institution but needs readjustment in staffing and direction. She said she doubts Krasner is up to that task, given his lack of prosecutorial experience and opposition to seeking the death penalty.

"The progressives who are supporting him don't want him to run the office," she said. "I'm not being cute about it. I'm supporting Beth Grossman, not Larry Krasner."

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille also started his political career as Philadelphia's district attorney. He has offered advice to Krasner and Grossman on how to run the office but is remaining neutral in the race.

Castille, like Rendell and Abraham, had experience as an assistant district attorney before taking office.

"I knew who the political hires were," he said. "I knew the people who had to go, who were not functional. Larry doesn't have that. What I told him is, he has to get a first assistant who really knows what is going on over there."

That post and chief of county detectives will be the most important early appointments the next district attorney will make, Castille said.

Williams, a Democrat, dropped his bid for a third term in office in February, was indicted on federal corruption charges in March, and pleaded guilty to bribery during his trial in June. On Tuesday he was sentenced to five years in prison, the harshest punishment allowable by law.

Turning around the office morale after the Williams saga should be a primary concern for the winner of the general election, Castille said.

"The office is sort of an immutable object," Castille said. "It's a train coming down the track. You're not going to stop it or turn it around quickly. But what they both have to do, whoever gets elected, is bring back the reputation of the office."