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Carlos Vega’s campaign to be Philly DA started in his mom’s bodega

Vega has had a lot of jobs. His current job — running for Philadelphia district attorney — is trying to fire the guy who fired him from his last job.

Carlos Vega during a campaign event in Port Richmond last month.
Carlos Vega during a campaign event in Port Richmond last month.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Carlos Vega is always talking about the jobs he’s worked.

His resumé starts in second grade, stocking beer in coolers and cans on shelves after school in the bodega his mother ran on New York’s Upper West Side during a dangerous time in the neighborhood.

His current job is trying to get the guy who fired him from his last job fired. As a Democratic candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, Vega is challenging incumbent Larry Krasner, who axed him in 2018 after 35 years as a city prosecutor, mostly in the Homicide Unit.

Vega, 64, seems surprised by how much work, and support, he’s found on the campaign trail. This from a guy who often describes how he worked night shifts loading UPS trucks while also a prosecutor to supplement his income as a single father.

“What I didn’t expect was how busy I am,” Vega said in late April while handing out boxes of free food on a busy street in Feltonville just before climbing into his car for a podcast interview. “I’m very surprised at how many people — it’s a grassroots movement — are helping me and coming forward.”

David Rodriguez, a Democratic committeeman in the North Philadelphia neighborhood, invited Vega to the food giveaway, where a small group of volunteers loaded boxes of milk, yogurt, cheese, fruit, vegetables, chicken legs, and hot dogs into cars.

“I wanted to be part of this campaign because I don’t like what’s going on in the city right now with homicides and gun violence,” Rodriguez said. “It’s time for this city to go in a new direction.”

» READ MORE: Philly elected Larry Krasner district attorney to reform the system. Here’s what he did.

Critics say Krasner, who quickly fired Vega and 30 other career prosecutors after taking office in 2018, has focused too much on criminal justice reform and not enough on policies to fight soaring gun violence.

Vega says Krasner, who worked as a civil rights and defense attorney for three decades before his election but never as a prosecutor, is too inexperienced and combative with other law enforcement agencies. Vega has been pitching a mix of continued reform with a return to a more traditional law-and-order approach to prosecution — including a better working relationship with police.

While Krasner, 60, remains the favorite in the May 18 primary, political watchers say Vega has made it a competitive race.

It all goes back to the bodega

His mother’s bodega is a foundational story, a succinct narrative Vega repeats in almost every appearance. It’s a tale of hard work and dangerous conditions. Vega said the store was the site of armed robberies and burglaries.

“I grew up in that store,” he said.

His parents divorced while he was in high school and his mother, no longer able to run the bodega, opened a newsstand in a Bronx subway station.

“We would leave the house at 4 in the morning to open the newsstand,” Vega said. “I would have to wait outside for when they delivered the Times and the Daily News.”

He had to keep watch: Thieves trailed the trucks and would grab the bundled newspapers if he didn’t grab them first.

The newsstand shifts continued during college at Fordham, with Vega also working afternoons at a Fred Braun shoe store. Vega brings a strong shoe game — burgundy wingtips often complementing his palette of blue suits, purple ties, and lavender shirts — and is always impeccably dressed.

“My mother is a very elegant lady and always made sure that we would dress properly,” Vega said of his mother, Norma, now 93 and still living in New York.

Vega was recruited from Boston College School of Law to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where Ed Rendell, the future mayor and Pennsylvania governor, was the top prosecutor. Rendell endorsed Vega this week, saying Krasner has put too much emphasis on reform and not enough on safety.

“Krasner is right,” Rendell said. “Our system was unfair and unjust and not equitable. And that has to be adjusted, and he’s made some progress. I think Carlos will continue that practice.”

Vega developed a reputation for putting on well-organized cases as a prosecutor.

Seth Williams, who started as a prosecutor in 1992, recalled colleagues telling him he “could learn a lot” from Vega by watching him in court.

“I was impressed by his presentation, his professionalism, as well as how much time he spent speaking with the families of murder victims,” said Williams, who was elected DA in 2009.

Williams said Vega was floated for promotions in other units, but the Homicide Unit leader said he “was too valuable in the courtroom.” Williams and his predecessor, former DA Lynne Abraham, don’t agree on much. But they both said Vega took the tough cases.

“It was widely understood that Carlos specialized in the most difficult cases, those most people never heard of, the ones that need a lot of work, tireless effort, and compassion to get civilian witnesses to come and share what they know in light of all the possible consequences,” Williams said.

More than 150 former assistant district attorneys, including some fired by Krasner, supported Vega in a letter last month.

Vega has also found support from another Krasner opponent, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the local police union. The FOP takes exception to Krasner’s willingness to prosecute police officers. Krasner, who previously sued the Police Department as a private attorney, feuded with the union in his 2017 campaign, too.

Vega has walked a careful line on police. The FOP has given $25,200 to Vega’s campaign and $113,000 to Protect Our Police PAC, an anti-Krasner outside group founded last year by retired cops that until this week was the biggest spender in the race.

Vega talks about prosecuting officers when he was an assistant district attorney, suggesting he did a better job of it than Krasner has.

And Vega denounced Protect Our Police when it issued a fund-raising plea that blamed George Floyd for his own death. Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last year sparked sweeping protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

Asked about the FOP endorsement during a forum last week, Vega said, “I don’t care what the FOP expects” from him if he is elected.

The candidates have history

Vega bested Krasner as a prosecutor in a 2016 murder trial when Krasner was a defense attorney. Vega secured murder convictions for two men who killed three people during a 2011 West Philadelphia bodega robbery, and Krasner represented one of the defendants.

There is often turnover in staffing — some voluntary, some not — when a new DA takes office. Vega sued Krasner and the city in 2019, contending he was the victim of age discrimination in his firing. He was 61 when Krasner fired him.

Vega’s suit, which is pending in federal court, cites a “long, successful and distinguished” career as a prosecutor “assigned to the elite homicide unit,” where he did “exemplary work on behalf of the public.”

The suit also revealed that Vega entered the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP, two weeks after Krasner was elected in November 2017. Vega was due to retire this November.

DROP allows city employees to set a retirement date up to four years in the future, with their pension payments deposited into an interest-bearing account while they remain on the city payroll. A lump-sum payout is made when they retire. Vega’s lawsuit cites the financial damage from his firing as $609,682, including lost wages, the DROP proceeds, and lost health-care benefits. As a prosecutor, he was paid $143,000. The suit says Vega is currently unemployed.

The job he’s campaigning for pays $185,665 annually.

» READ MORE: Larry Krasner has progressives in a new position: Defending a controversial incumbent

Vega last week threatened another lawsuit, this time against Krasner’s campaign and Shaun King, a criminal justice reform activist, claiming they had defamed him with criticism about his career.

Central to that criticism, and the subject of some of the most frequent attacks against Vega, is the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, who had been convicted of rape and murder in 1991. DNA evidence available before the retrial showed another man committed the crime.

Prosecutors pressed forward with the retrial anyway, and Vega was assigned to assist the lead prosecutor. A jury quickly found Wright not guilty. The city paid him an almost $10 million settlement in 2018.

In the only televised debate of the campaign, Vega deflected responsibility for the trial. It is the only case — or subject — where Vega minimizes his work or impact. His defense: He was assigned to the case, had no role in deciding to retry Wright, and only questioned witnesses.

“The appellate unit and supervisors made decisions with respect to go to trial or not,” he said. “The decision was made by the DA to move forward.”