When progressive leaders in Philadelphia talk about District Attorney Larry Krasner, they often invoke the word perfect — but not in the way Krasner might hope as he fights for reelection next week.
“I had hoped that he would walk the talk, and he has,” said State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), praising Krasner’s criminal justice reform efforts while acknowledging where they have fallen short. “Does that make him perfect? No, but you’re never going to find a perfect candidate.”
Lorraine “DeeDee” Haw, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, put it another way while speaking at a Krasner rally outside City Hall late last month: “Larry Krasner might not be perfect, but who of us is? None of us.”
Defending an incumbent with a complicated record is an unfamiliar position for the progressives who have shaken up Philadelphia politics over the last five years. The 2017 primary was a seminal moment for the coalition, which lifted Krasner, who had no experience as a prosecutor, to his improbable victory. Now the May 18 primary between Krasner and former prosecutor Carlos Vega is shaping up as the clearest test yet of whether the city’s progressive movement can evolve from being a thorn in the Democratic establishment’s side to a full-fledged political force.
A week before the primary, the question is whether a movement built on enthusiasm for challenging the status quo can generate the same excitement for an incumbent running to maintain the status quo.
“You’re always concerned about maintaining interest in non-sexy races,” said Rabb, who has defeated establishment-backed candidates to win his Northwest Philadelphia seat. “It was sexy four years ago because it was a new thing. Now he’s our guy. It’s not as sexy.”
The battle lines were drawn when the Democratic City Committee in March decided not to endorse either candidate despite Krasner being an incumbent Democrat, a rare move that made clear the party’s old guard isn’t ready to fully embrace the more liberal newcomers.
Voter turnout is expected to be low and outside spending is significantly lighter than it was in 2017. So the race could come down to a contest of organizational strength between the ward leaders and committee people of the traditional Democratic machine vs. the door-knockers and phone-bankers of progressive groups like the Working Families Party and Reclaim Philadelphia.
“This is definitely the most direct head-to-head match that we’ve had with those particular aspects of Philadelphia politics,” said City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, a Krasner supporter. “But you also have a lot of the folks in between that don’t even classify themselves as progressive but do want to see a different criminal justice system.”
During his first term, Krasner cemented a national profile in the criminal justice reform movement for his efforts to reduce jail populations, exonerate the wrongfully convicted, and hold police accountable. Republicans and more centrist Democrats have blamed the city’s surging gun violence on Krasner, saying he’s emboldened criminals. The spike in shootings in Philadelphia during the pandemic is roughly in line with other big cities.
Krasner also acknowledges he hasn’t engaged in enough of the personal touch retail politics more experienced elected officials are accustomed to, saying during a PBS documentary series about his term: “There is a good, long-term strategy to trying to get everyone you deal with to like you, but it’s at the cost of doing things right away that really matter.”
But even his pace hasn’t been fast enough for some on the left. The Philadelphia Bail Fund, for instance, which uses donations to bail out defendants, released a report in July saying Krasner fell short of a campaign promise to end cash bail and too often sought to send defendants to jail before trial. Other activists were disappointed when he left open the possibility of seeking capital punishment. (Krasner hasn’t sought the death penalty in any case.)
“I’m not happy with everything he has done,” said Ilya Knizhnik, who has volunteered with Reclaim and Neighborhood Networks and is a committee person in one of the most liberal wards in the city, in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia.
While he believes Krasner will win, Knizhnik is concerned about diminished enthusiasm, both due to disappointment with aspects of Krasner’s first term and the absence of the left’s chief bogeyman — former President Donald Trump.
“There is a general sense that people are more relaxed now,” Knizhnik said. “Progressives aren’t happy with [President Joe] Biden, but they’re satisfied at least.”
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who like Krasner hasn’t been supported by the Democratic Party in her reelection efforts, said it’s understandable that he’s had a rocky term given his ambitious agenda.
“While people say they’re for criminal justice reform, actually making the changes is not going to be easy,” she said. “You can’t do that without pissing off a lot of people along the way.”
But she said progressive groups, often dominated by more affluent white activists, don’t help themselves when they nitpick.
“Their privilege allows them to pick who’s pure, who’s good,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, who endorsed Krasner in 2017 and is supporting him again. “If Larry wins, they’re going to take it as a victory. But if Larry wins, it’s because African Americans who historically have been marginalized want to stay the course.”
Organizers say progressives collaborated in unprecedented ways in 2020 amid racial justice protests and the presidential election. They hope that continues this year.
“This election is really important for the movement of the left in Philadelphia,” said Kevin Kuriakose, an organizer with the social justice group 215 People’s Alliance. “The movement is at its best when we’re at tables together and in communication and working together on shared goals.”
The police union’s support for Vega and the Democratic establishment’s snubbing of Krasner has energized the left, organizers said. Paco Fabian, spokesperson for the national group Our Revolution, said the party didn’t “have the spine to support someone like Larry, but we do.” The organization is blasting emails to thousands of voters and phone-banking on Krasner’s behalf.
Tim Brown, director of organizing at Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, said Vega’s rhetoric on gun violence has motivated pro-Krasner volunteers. Brown said members of the group who endorsed Krasner know violent crime spiked in cities across the country during the pandemic and don’t blame him.
“People are angry that the FOP and Vega are pushing this false narrative,” he said, referring to the Fraternal Order of Police. “They fired up Larry’s base.”
Maegan Llerena, state director of the Latino justice organization Make the Road Action in PA, said members are knocking on doors for Krasner because they believe he’s “stayed true to his message.”
“We’re not settling for people that are mediocre,” she said. “We want people who can not only say the right things but do it.”