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Carlos Vega is making Philly DA Larry Krasner fight for his job as the election nears

A last-minute ad blitz by an outside group that four years ago helped propel Krasner to the forefront of a new crop of progressive prosecutors is the latest sign of a competitive race.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, left, and his challenger in the Democratic primary, Carlos Vega.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, left, and his challenger in the Democratic primary, Carlos Vega.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA; TIM TAI / File Photographs

Larry Krasner is a hero to some who support criminal justice reform and a villain to others who say his policies as Philadelphia’s district attorney are fueling a surge in homicides and gun crimes.

The question less than two weeks before the Democratic primary election is whether challenger Carlos Vega can stir enough support among Krasner’s critics to overcome his coalition of progressives and Black voters.

Can Vega beat Krasner? Many interviewed for this article said yes.

But will Vega beat Krasner? Most said the incumbent remains the favorite but weren’t confident enough to offer a prediction.

Krasner emerged from his 2017 victory as a national leader for reform advocates, with a book deal and documentary series about his campaign and first term. But political opponents have blamed him for the city’s rising violence, contributing to a palpable sense of his political vulnerability — despite the fact that the city’s increase in violent crime during the pandemic is in line with national trends.

A last-minute ad blitz by an outside group that four years ago helped propel Krasner to the forefront of a new crop of progressive prosecutors is the latest sign of a competitive election. The political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros booked $60,000 in radio ads to boost Krasner this week, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact. The group said it expects to spend less than $200,000, a far cry from the $1.7 million it shelled out through a connected PAC in 2017, but a sizable sum for what’s been a sleepy campaign on the airwaves.

The candidates will appear in their only face-to-face televised debate Wednesday evening on NBC.

Ryan Boyer, leader of the union umbrella group Laborers District Council, predicted “a much closer race” than Krasner supporters expect. Boyer, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate, noted that Krasner has maintained the support of many groups. But he questioned whether there’s still “the same vigor and energy for reform that was there four years ago.”

“It’s closer than Larry wants,” said another high-ranking labor official who is neutral in the race, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with the candidates. “He looks like someone who is uncomfortable with his polling, and more importantly unsure about what to do about it.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s violent year: Nearly 500 people were killed and more than 2,200 shot in 2020

Incumbents usually carry significant advantages, especially in off-year, low-turnout elections. But interviews with more than a dozen political operatives, activists, and current and former elected officials suggest that a lack of public polling, uncertainty over the role of outside spending, and the uniqueness of Krasner’s position as an incumbent running against the criminal justice status quo are all contributing to the sense of an unpredictable finish in the May 18 primary.

Then there’s the soaring violent crime in Philadelphia, where more people were killed in 2020 than in all but one year in the city’s history. Krasner’s critics, especially a pro-police group funding much of the campaign against him, pin the blame on him.

Krasner has steadfastly rejected the idea that his office is responsible, blaming the economic and societal devastation of the pandemic and accurately noting that violent crime has surged in cities across the nation. The increase in homicides began before Krasner took office.

Krasner is touting his efforts to reform a prosecutorial system he says often cheated in court and devastated Black and brown communities.

“What has been going on in criminal justice in Philly ... has been hurting all of us, and it has been hurting all of us for a very, very long time,” Krasner said at a campaign event last week, where he showcased his support among fellow progressive elected officials.

“When we hear about a 16-year-old who has killed four people, please don’t tell me that that is the district attorney’s fault,” City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said at the event. “Please don’t talk to us about gun violence unless you’re talking about investing in our communities.”

But even some Krasner supporters say he’s been hurt by a go-it-alone approach. He’s engaged in high-profile fights with the police union, the state attorney general, and the top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia.

“I want him to be a better retail politician, because ultimately he can’t operate on an island,” said City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a Krasner backer. “He needs to bring other people along if his changes are going to be effective in a post-Krasner world.”

That’s an argument Vega is all too happy to echo.

“As a leader, you have to take ownership of what’s going on,” Vega said last week while campaigning in North Philadelphia. “I believe in safety and reform. And what’s going on with the city over the past few years, he hasn’t delivered on reform and he has not delivered on safety.”

The race carries significant implications for Philadelphians and their criminal justice system, which Krasner vowed to upend in his groundbreaking 2017 campaign. His victory that year was a watershed for the city’s new progressive movement and heralded a new breed of prosecutors. His reelection campaign is a key test for how far the reform movement can go.

» READ MORE: Philly DA Larry Krasner enters election homestretch while gun violence surges

The campaign has Krasner and Vega playing familiar roles in its closing days.

Vega, an assistant district attorney for three decades whom Krasner fired in 2018, is prosecuting the political case, casting Krasner as inexperienced and indifferent to a suffering city. Krasner, a longtime civil rights and defense attorney who spent three decades suing the police and accusing prosecutors of jailing innocent people, is defending his work reforming the system.

Philadelphia voters have a history of tuning out races for district attorney — only about 20% cast ballots in the 2017 primary.

Krasner is looking to hold his coalition of progressives and Black voters from areas of the city with historically high turnout. Vega hopes to win with largely white, police-friendly voters in Northeast Philadelphia and the Delaware River wards, as well as Latino voters from neighborhoods that typically turn out in lower numbers.

Campaign advertising has been light for such a high-stakes race. Protect Our Police PAC, founded by retired cops to defeat Krasner, has spent about $130,000 on cable TV ads, according to AdImpact, the only TV spending so far. Krasner’s campaign has spent about $45,000 on radio ads. Vega’s campaign has yet to hit the airwaves.

The Democratic nominee is expected to coast to victory in November thanks to the party’s 7-1 voter registration advantage. The lone Republican candidate is high-profile defense attorney A. Charles “Chuck” Peruto Jr.

Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph’s University who studies local politics, said he’s been surprised by how little use Krasner has made of the power of incumbency.

“Incumbency is the greatest thing you can have,” Miller said, adding that voters expect a DA to show a sense of command. “He doesn’t exude that at all. He doesn’t try to woo voters. Voters want to be courted. He’s kind of cranky.”

The Democratic City Committee, in a rare snub for an incumbent, voted not to endorse in the race. Mayor Jim Kenney, asked last month if he backs Krasner, said, “People should make up their own minds.”

State Rep. Angel Cruz, a Democratic ward leader in North Philadelphia, said his and two other largely Latino wards nearby will show up for Vega.

“Larry Krasner had four years to prove us wrong and make it safer to live here in Philadelphia,” Cruz said. “That didn’t happen.”

Krasner’s predecessors said Vega has a shot. Lynne Abraham, the top prosecutor for two decades who was known as America’s “Deadliest DA,” said Vega will benefit from a backlash to Krasner’s reforms.

“All that progressive stuff is great in the clouds, but it’s no good on the streets,” she said. “It doesn’t work. You can’t have a city where shooters and robbers think there are no consequences.”

Former DA Seth Williams said Vega can win if he can “educate enough voters that he will make Philadelphia safer while also addressing the foundational problems of racism and classism in the criminal justice system.”

Krasner revels in the criticism. At a campaign stop in West Philadelphia last week, he highlighted his office’s special unit on police misconduct, its work to help people find jobs, and his insistence on not cutting corners in court.

“We make sure that we are prosecuting the right people as much as we possibly can,” he said. “And, no, we don’t cheat.”