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How Philly DA Larry Krasner won — and won big

Areas like West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, and Center City backed Krasner in huge numbers, margins far too big to overcome neighborhoods that supported Carlos Vega.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner embraces City Councilmember Helen Gym as he arrives to make his victory speech Tuesday after winning the Democratic primary against Carlos Vega.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner embraces City Councilmember Helen Gym as he arrives to make his victory speech Tuesday after winning the Democratic primary against Carlos Vega.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Larry Krasner took stock of his political prospects almost a year ago — and liked his odds for winning a second term as Philadelphia’s district attorney.

“Frank Rizzo’s statue is gone,” Krasner said last June, referring to the effigy of the controversial late police commissioner turned mayor, which was removed from outside a city building amid racial justice protests. “That says a lot in a city where Rizzo’s influence even now continues, but where his shadow has been disappearing more and more over time.”

That fade continued Tuesday as Krasner bested by an almost 2-1 ratio his Democratic primary rival, Carlos Vega, who failed to win over voters with promises of continued criminal justice reform mixed with a return to more old-school prosecution. Vega said that would cut into the surge of homicides and gun crimes plaguing Philadelphia.

Voters either didn’t buy Vega’s argument that Krasner’s reforms were to blame for a spike in violent crime that’s largely in line with other cities across the country, or didn’t buy that Vega could fix it — or both.

“People saw a clear choice and they made it,” Krasner said Tuesday as he left his victory party just before midnight, telling supporters he had to get back to preparing for City Council testimony on his office’s budget. “If this was a soccer match, many people would have gone home early.”

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

Krasner’s confidence wasn’t rooted in the traditional Democratic politics that has ruled Philadelphia for decades. The local party declined to endorse a candidate in the primary, and some Democrats tried to recruit a challenger last year. There was widespread agreement that Krasner would be vulnerable running against a Black woman with strong courtroom experience.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, a former public defender who now represents West Philadelphia and serves as the Democratic leader in the state House, was among those whom Krasner skeptics lobbied to run. She passed on challenging him, and instead campaigned with the DA in her district Tuesday morning.

She cited Krasner’s victory four years ago in a seven-candidate primary as a “decisive choice” about how crime and prosecution should be handled in the city. That 2017 win helped propel him to the forefront of a new crop of progressive prosecutors across the country. This year’s contest between Krasner, a defense and civil rights attorney for three decades, and Vega, a city prosecutor for 35 years, offered voters “a much simpler choice,” McClinton said.

“Do we want to move into the future or do we want to go back?” she said. “We’re in a crisis, as is every major city in the country. We need somebody like this district attorney to stay for four more years to hold the folks accountable that need to be held accountable and to make sure people are not overincarcerated.”

McClinton noted Wednesday that none of Krasner’s 2017 opponents came back for another try.

“I thought there would be multiple challengers,” she said. “It was a hell of a fight, even though the outcome didn’t demonstrate such.”

In the end, most of the city’s Black political leaders coalesced around Krasner, and he received high levels of support from Black neighborhoods across North, Northwest, West, and Southwest Philadelphia.

Krasner could be his own political worst enemy at times, impatient for others to join his cause and insensitive to including everyone involved in projects in public presentation of the work. He bristled at criticism, refused to take any responsibility for the state of crime in the city, and acknowledged he didn’t spend much time on the politics of personal relationships.

Keir Bradford-Grey, the former chief of the city’s Defender Association, was also approached about challenging Krasner.

“People trust a person of color can understand nuances that Larry may not have proven to understand,” said Bradford-Grey, who is Black. “I’m sure if I got in there, people would think I didn’t understand some things.”

Bradford-Grey said Krasner was caught between people who thought he put too much emphasis on reform and others who wanted him to go further. That debate, she added, sometimes failed to include other stakeholders like judges, bail commissioners, and police.

“There are so many moving parts, even if you have all the great ideas and policies, you can only do what you can do from your role,” she said. “You can’t force police and courts to move with you.”

» READ MORE: Ed Gainey’s upset win in the Pittsburgh mayor’s race is the latest sign of a rising left in Pennsylvania

The city’s parochial politics were on full display in the primary, with areas like West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, and Center City backing Krasner in huge numbers, margins far too big to overcome more Vega-friendly neighborhoods in Northeast Philadelphia, the Delaware River wards, and South Philadelphia.

The city broke into two camps where each candidate ran strong. Krasner just won many more neighborhoods, and they tended to back him by wider margins than the areas that supported Vega.

Vega won only 17 of the city’s 66 wards — some of which included Philadelphia’s lowest-turnout areas in and around Kensington, according to unofficial results Wednesday, with most votes counted.

Krasner won the 49 other wards handily, with about three-fourths of their votes. And those neighborhoods ran the gamut from high turnout to low.

Several of the liberal neighborhoods that are among the city’s perpetual high-turnout powerhouses anchored Krasner’s support. That core of support in Northwest Philadelphia, Center City, and some swaths of South Philadelphia was bolstered by areas with moderate and lower turnout, such as in West, Southwest, and North Philadelphia, especially west of Broad Street.

That means Krasner didn’t just win by bringing out the same voters who supported him in 2017.

A comparison with results from four years ago suggests he was able to significantly expand his coalition, bringing in many of the types of voters who supported his opponents last time but, in a one-on-one matchup this year, backed him over Vega.

That’s particularly clear in many West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia areas where voters spread their ballots last time across the candidates, supporting Krasner at lower rates than other neighborhoods. This time, those areas were among Krasner’s strongest sections of the city. Portions of Black neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia also saw strong increases in support for Krasner.

Chuck Peruto, the Democrat-turned-Republican nominee for DA, again criticized Krasner on Wednesday for offering what he called lenient plea deals in gun-crime cases.

“Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and demonstrate, the two party system isn’t dead,” Peruto said on Facebook. “I didn’t get in this to lose it, and promise to be a different kind of candidate.”

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1, Krasner is very likely to win the November general election.

Krasner was clearly looking past all that as he declared victory late Tuesday.

“The second term, which is 4½, starts now,” he said. “I mean, yeah, sometime after Labor Day we’ll say a few things before November.”