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Ed Rendell backs Carlos Vega over Philly DA Larry Krasner in a late boost for the challenger

Rendell, who as district attorney hired Vega for his first job as a Philly prosecutor, endorsed his former underling’s campaign Tuesday.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell endorses Carlos Vega, a Democratic candidate for District Attorney, during a news conference Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell endorses Carlos Vega, a Democratic candidate for District Attorney, during a news conference Tuesday in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who as district attorney hired Carlos Vega for his first job as a Philadelphia prosecutor, on Tuesday endorsed his former underling’s campaign to unseat DA Larry Krasner in next week’s Democratic primary.

“I’ve been extremely reluctant to criticize any of my successors,” Rendell said during a news conference at his Center City office. Pointing to soaring violent crime, Rendell said: “You must as a city do something about it. If you don’t act, it will destroy the city.”

Rendell, who became mayor after two terms as district attorney, said a spate of shootings and killings last weekend was “the final straw.” He had remained neutral in the race between Vega and Krasner, the former civil rights attorney whose 2017 victory propelled him to the forefront of a new crop of progressive prosecutors.

The endorsement came as both candidates scramble to engage their supporters with one week to go in what is expected to be a low-turnout election that could be decided by the campaigns’ abilities to get their most ardent backers to the polls.

The Democratic City Committee did not endorse either candidate, an unusual move with an incumbent Democrat on the ballot that signaled the party establishment’s displeasure with Krasner. The void means both campaigns must do the work of recruiting the support of ward leaders and organizing get-out-the-vote drives. While Krasner is seen as the favorite to win, political watchers have credited Vega with making it a competitive race. The primary winner is almost certain to win the general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

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

Rendell praised some of Krasner’s reforms, including reducing the time people spend on probation and parole, not prosecuting “minor offenses,” and exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners. But he said Krasner has “no sense of mission” in what Rendell called the job’s top priority — keeping people safe.

“He’s not a bad man,” Rendell said. But “he hasn’t been able to get along with any other actors in the criminal justice system.”

Krasner campaign spokesperson Jessica Brand said in a statement that “voters in this election have a clear choice, and Ed Rendell’s support of Carlos Vega has made that choice even starker.”

“We are endorsed by Black leaders across the state — both representatives and senators — and across the city, people who like us, want to invest in prevention, and who want to stop crime from happening before it occurs,” she said. “They do not want a return to offices of old, which perpetuated the failed war on drugs while turning a blind eye to police and prosecutorial misconduct that destroyed community trust. We believe voters will choose a vision for the future and not an out-dated one that never worked.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s overturned murder cases call decades of homicide investigations into question

As the race draws to a close, Krasner maintains a financial advantage.

His campaign raised about $401,000 and spent $273,000 between March 30 and May 3, according to the most recent campaign-finance filings. He entered the final days with $481,000 in the bank.

The Vega campaign took in $268,000 during the same period and spent $455,000, finishing with a cash balance of $169,000. There were significant differences in how the campaigns raised and spent money. Krasner, for instance, did much better raising money from small-dollar donors, an indicator of grassroots support.

The incumbent raised $148,000 in donations of $50 or less, while Vega took in about $12,000 in small donations.

Vega’s campaign, meanwhile, spent more than $336,000 mailing campaign literature to voters. He hasn’t yet purchased any TV advertisements, an unconventional strategy for a first-time candidate many voters haven’t heard of.

While Krasner also isn’t airing TV ads, Rendell’s endorsement will bring Vega face time on the local news.

The anti-Krasner group Protect Our Police PAC has spent about $130,000 airing TV ads.

Rendell has remained a popular figure in the city, appearing as a cable TV analyst after Eagles games. In 2018, he announced he has Parkinson’s disease, but was responding well to aggressive treatment. His endorsement may boost turnout among voters who otherwise might have sat out the race but remember Rendell fondly. Rendell endorsed former federal prosecutor Joe Khan in the 2017 primary. Khan finished second behind Krasner.

» READ MORE: Philly cops are going all out to defeat DA Larry Krasner

While Krasner has railed against the tough-on-crime practices of his predecessors, Vega has spoken glowingly of Rendell, who like him is originally from New York City.

“He’s a former New Yorker, and I was in Boston College Law School, and he brought me in, and he says, ‘You’re going to do well here.’ And he was right,” Vega told the Society Hill Civic Association in March. “I’m glad I came because when I came here, I fell in love with the city, and Rendell was really one of the best bosses I had.”

Vega said Tuesday that he was humbled by Rendell’s support.

“He believed in me when I was a young man, he believes in me now, because we had the same mission, the same dream, to make the city safe, to make it a better place,” Vega said.

Rendell and Vega do split on at least one issue. Rendell is a proponent of supervised injection sites for opioid users, as is Krasner. Vega opposes them.

“I‘m never gonna agree, none of us are gonna agree, with a candidate on 100% of the issues,” Rendell said.

Also Tuesday, a handful of Krasner’s sharpest critics brought attention to the city’s grim homicide toll, laying out dozens of body bags and makeshift tombstones marked with the names of the deceased outside the Municipal Services Building.

“This is exactly what our streets are going to look like” if Krasner wins reelection, said Rosalind Pichardo, an anti-violence activist with the group Operation Save Our City. Pichardo’s brother, 22-year-old Alexander Martinez, was shot and killed in 2012. Pichardo said she fears she wouldn’t get justice if police catch the killer while Krasner is in office.

Krasner “does not care about the victims,” said Maureen Faulkner, widow of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, who was murdered in 1981.

» READ MORE: Crime victims are some of the most visible figures fighting against Philly DA Larry Krasner’s reelection

Crime victims and their families have emerged as some of Vega’s most vocal supporters, saying Krasner and his office mistreat victims and their families in a zeal to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. Krasner’s office has defended its handling of individual cases and its support for victims.

“We are heartbroken at the loss, suffering, and trauma of victims, co-victims, and survivors of violent crime,” Krasner said in a statement this month. “I understand that there are some who will not be happy with the outcome of their cases, and the office respects their right to express grief in whatever way they desire.”