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Republicans running for Pa. governor talk a lot about Philly crime. But who are they talking to?

Soaring gun violence has provided a new opening for the law-and-order campaigning Republicans have used for decades. “It’s a dog whistle that is used to ignite white fear,” one academic says.

Left to right, Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor Jake Corman, Bill McSwain, and Dave White.
Left to right, Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor Jake Corman, Bill McSwain, and Dave White.Read moreAP File Photos

One leading Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor wants to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Another wants to abolish the right of Philly voters to elect their own top prosecutor, turning it into a position appointed by the governor instead. A third is pushing for a special prosecutor “to address the wave of violent crime that has overtaken” the city.

As they jostle for position in a crowded GOP primary, the leading candidates — all of them white, none of them from plurality-Black Philadelphia — seem to agree on one thing: Krasner and his fellow Democrats have failed on crime. And they increasingly paint Krasner as an extension of state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the only established Democrat running for governor.

“The modern-day progressives in this city and in this state, people like [Gov.] Tom Wolf, Josh Shapiro, [Mayor] Jim Kenney, and Larry Krasner — they’re all spitting in your face,” former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain said during a campaign visit to Philadelphia earlier this month, touting the idea of making the DA a job he could appoint as governor. “Enough is enough. Just like you I’m sick and tired of it.”

Republicans are running a statewide version of the political playbook used against Krasner’s reelection campaign last year. It didn’t work: Krasner easily won a second term.

Their tough-on-crime rhetoric omits critical context: Gun violence has surged in many cities over the last two years, both in places with reform-minded, progressive prosecutors like Krasner, and those with more traditional ones. A national study of 2020 homicides found that Philadelphia had the 23rd highest increase of 34 cities examined.

Soaring gun violence across the country in 2020 coincided with the societal disruption of the pandemic, and has continued into 2022.

That’s provided a new opening for the law-and-order campaigning Republicans have used for decades. They’re betting a message that didn’t resonate in Philadelphia will find better reception statewide. And with none able to count on significant votes out of the heavily Democratic city, the tactic is likely more about speaking about Philadelphia to the rest of the state.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a West Philadelphia Democrat, said race is one factor motivating the GOP proposals, which he called “a complicated dog whistle” — effectively using crime afflicting Black and brown communities in the city to appeal to mostly white voters outside of it.

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Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a Brown University professor who taught criminal justice at Temple, said she heard echoes of former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about crime.

“It’s a dog whistle that is used to ignite white fear,” Van Cleve said.

“It’s hard to dismiss the race and racist component,” said added. “If you’re ... campaigning in a large state that is predominately white and you live in the suburbs and you want to rally the base, people see Philadelphia as a place where these problems fester.”

The Republican campaigns, asked if there are racial elements to their strategies, repeated their attacks on Democrats.

Less than three months before the May 17 primary, the candidates are increasingly clashing with each other over who can best stem the violence.

Democrats and academics are quick to note that the GOP focus on Philadelphia draws attention only to a city with significant Black and brown populations, and where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one. Shapiro, of Montgomery County, has dismissed the Republican proposals as “political stunts.”

“It is patronizing,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a West Philadelphia Democrat. “It is offensive. It attempts to say the citizens of Philadelphia do not have the wherewithal to elect our own leaders.”

He rattled off statistics showing crime increases in “overwhelmingly white” counties across the state that go unmentioned by Republicans, and said their proposals would make Philadelphians “second-class citizens” in their own state.

David Abrams, a Penn law professor who tracks crime statistics, said crime is driven by many factors, similarly to economic issues.

“I would be kind of crazy to say local economic issues don’t have anything to do with decisions made in Washington or national business conditions,” Abrams said.

» READ MORE: A rising tide of stolen guns helps fuel Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic

State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman made the first policy move on Philadelphia crime, asking the state House last month to consider impeaching Krasner. Corman’s primary opponents dismissed that as political theater, and Republicans who control the legislature showed little interest.

Corman denied using crime to bolster his campaign.

“This issue is bigger than the governor’s race in my opinion,” he said in an interview. “This is the health and safety of the people of Philadelphia.”

Dave White, a Delaware County businessman, followed with a proposal for legislation creating a special prosecutor for crime in Philadelphia. He also took a swipe at McSwain, who was the top federal prosecutor in the city as violent crime increased. White said McSwain’s “only contribution to taking on crime appears to be plastering his face on taxpayer-funded billboards.”

McSwain made his big reveal earlier this month: pitching a change to the state constitution to eliminate Philadelphia’s DA as an elected office. All of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties currently elect their DAs, and McSwain’s proposal would change that only for Philadelphia.

“It is stunning that this candidate, who has done nothing to improve the lives of Philadelphians, thinks that he is entitled to take away their vote and instead pick representatives for them,” Krasner said in a statement. “That’s called fascism.”

The Rev. Carl Day, a North Philadelphia pastor, criticized the candidates for campaigning with the local police union but not coming to churches like his to discuss crime with residents.

“That doesn’t sent a warm message to the community at all,” he said.

A spokesperson for White said he “has spoken extensively with concerned residents” in Philadelphia about crime.

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Terrez McCleary, an anti-crime activist who co-founded Mothers Bonded By Grief, praised Krasner’s work to exonerate people wrongly prosecuted by his predecessors, but sees him as too lenient on repeat offenders. She rejected the idea of an appointed DA.

“I do not think our rights should be taken from us,” she said. “The crime is everywhere. It’s not just Philadelphia.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans in the state House want to give the state attorney general what’s known as “concurrent jurisdiction” over gun crime in Philadelphia. That began as a pilot program signed into law in 2019 by Wolf, a Democrat, but soon set off hostilities between Shapiro and Krasner.

Republican candidates use that to criticize Shapiro for not being aggressive enough on crime, though they aren’t advocating for the law to be renewed.

Shapiro said in a statement that he is “laser-focused on serious, data-driven approaches to save lives and make our communities more safe — and my attention will remain there, not on political stunts that have no basis in the realities of law enforcement work.”

The state has been here before. Tom Ridge, a Republican congressman at the time, campaigned for governor in 1994 with a “war on crime” message that promised “a tough, comprehensive crime bill.” Ridge, in his first news conference as governor the next year, called for a special legislative session to advance that plan.

More than 30 bills were approved in that 10-month session, including legislation to speed executions in death penalty cases, a “three-strikes” law requiring at least 25-year sentences for repeat violent offenders, and a study that led to the construction of more prisons. Critics called the result long on punishment, short on prevention.

Williams noted that many of the provisions of that plan are now motivating pushes for criminal justice reform in Harrisburg. He said Republicans who “pander” on the issue to win a primary will face problems in the general election.

“I guess it makes good politics in a Republican primary to say, ‘They’re bad, we’re good,’ ” Williams said. “I don’t believe if you win a primary that way you can win a general.”