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The Philly DA race is personal in neighborhoods most affected by crime and incarceration

In the neighborhoods where residents most frequently come face-to-face with the decisions a prosecutor makes, the election is about much more than politics.

Lisa Dees in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia on April 28.
Lisa Dees in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia on April 28.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Lisa Dees supports Larry Krasner because she credits him with her newfound sense of freedom.

Two blocks away in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood, Sazam Berrios blames the district attorney for the fear he feels at home and at work.

Much of the campaign to be Philadelphia’s top prosecutor has seen nuanced issues of criminal justice policy boiled down to simplistic choices: Reform vs. safety. Victims vs. criminals. Police vs. prosecutors. The old guard vs. the new. When Dees and Berrios vote in next week’s Democratic primary between Krasner and challenger Carlos Vega, they’ll be driven by their perceptions of how crime and the criminal justice system have affected their lives.

Dees, a 47-year-old single mom in the city’s Fairhill section, was on probation for 15 years for food stamp fraud. She said she never received the excess $3,500 the government claimed. The supervision ended unexpectedly in 2018 and the weight that lifted was immense: No more monthly visits, no more struggling to explain as she applied for jobs. She thanks Krasner’s push to cut the number of people on probation for her early release.

“It’s not only me,” she said waiting for the bus on a Wednesday late last month. “They had people on there for food stamp fraud for 30 to 40 years. He cleared that.”

Berrios had the door to his fish-tank store locked despite being open for business. He faults Krasner for the spike in drug activity on his block, the increase in shootings, and the extra precautions he takes just to live and work in his home of 28 years. So on Tuesday, he’s voting for Vega, a former longtime homicide prosecutor.

“We need a change,” he said.

In the Philadelphia neighborhoods where residents most frequently come face-to-face with the decisions a DA makes — charging, prosecuting, and recommending sentences for people accused of crimes — voters are deciding between Krasner’s approach to upending a system he says fails Black and brown communities, and Vega’s promise to prioritize safety alongside reform through better collaboration with police.

Interviews with more than a dozen residents, activists, community leaders, and elected officials suggest both pitches have some appeal. But most residents want both safety and a more just system, said City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes neighborhoods with some of Philadelphia’s highest poverty rates.

“And when you talk through ‘OK what does that look like?’ they will always contradict themselves,” Quiñones-Sánchez said of her conversations with constituents. “Like, ‘We have to hold people accountable — but not my nephew, but not my neighbor.’ ... I say to them, ‘See, that’s why it’s not easy.’”

The Democratic nominee is almost certain to win the November general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

» READ MORE: The voters who will choose Philly’s next DA aren’t the people with the most at stake

Vega and the Fraternal Order of Police, the union working to oust Krasner, blame soaring gun violence on the DA. While there’s little evidence proving a direct link and the city’s crime surge is in line with national trends, the message has found an audience in hard-hit neighborhoods.

Krasner condemns the “law-and-order” DAs of the past and warns of a return to the old status quo if Vega is elected. That also resonates in a city where one in five residents has been arrested and charged.

And neighborhoods like Fairhill, Strawberry Mansion, and Kingsessing — where residents are more affected by crime and the criminal justice system — typically have the lowest turnout in the city.

They won’t drive who wins but are more likely to live with the consequences.

“Most people that are coming out to vote in these elections, they probably never had the luxury of actually seeing the inside of a courtroom, cop car, or anything like that,” said Kurt Evans, a chef and activist who has been helping Krasner volunteers from his Strawberry Mansion pizza restaurant.

‘I seen an entire community fold under the system’

Evans’ restaurant has become a weekend hub for Krasner volunteers, and at one point, a campaign stop for the DA to try his hand at making pies.

The restaurant’s employees — many of whom were formerly incarcerated — see the election as a choice between “whether we keep moving forward to reform a deeply broken system, or whether we go back to the Lynne Abraham tough-on-crime era,” Evans said, referring to the former top prosecutor once known as America’s “Deadliest DA” for how often she sought the death penalty. Krasner has spent his first term exonerating people, many of whom were wrongfully imprisoned during her tenure.

Many people who said they plan to vote for Krasner have personal connections to the criminal justice system and brought up his Conviction Integrity Unit, which has overturned 20 wrongful convictions since he took office.

“It sounds crazy, but I seen an entire community fold under the system,” said Jameel Gray, on break from his job at a Hunting Park supermarket. Gray is friends with Theophalis “Bilaal” Wilson, who spent 28 years in prison for a triple murder he didn’t commit before being exonerated and released last year.

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

Calvin Brown, 75, of Kingsessing, hopes the unit might one day take up his son’s case. Calvin Brown Jr., 39, was sentenced to life in prison for a 2012 murder he says he didn’t commit. The elder Brown said his family is fighting to have the case reviewed, though there’s no indication Krasner’s office, which filed a motion to dismiss their latest appeal this year, is taking up the case.

But for Brown, knowing Krasner has dedicated more resources to overturning wrongful convictions makes him more appealing.

“I feel like Krasner might be his best chance,” Brown said of his son.

Ant Brown (no relation), a 26-year-old activist and entrepreneur from Southwest Philadelphia, tells neighbors that the city’s crises can’t be fixed by the DA alone.

“Our problem is deeper than someone holding a gun,” Brown said. “This is a marathon to bring in change.”

Being “hard on crime” without addressing the community’s intergenerational trauma, poverty, underfunded education systems, and lack of job opportunities won’t prevent crime, Brown said.

“We could put someone in there who’s not going to convict anyone,” he said. “We could put someone in there who’s gonna lock everybody up. But gun violence is still gonna rise in Philadelphia.”

‘He’s not making the right calls’

Krasner’s critics point to the gun violence and an opioid crisis that has long plagued the city as reasons to back Vega. Other big cities have seen similar crime spikes during the pandemic, which shuttered courts and reduced social services, potentially contributing to violence. But it’s still a connection some residents are making — and voting on.

“I understand there’s a pandemic, but … to me, he’s not making the right calls,” said Emilio Vazquez, a pro-Vega Democratic ward leader in Hunting Park.

Vazquez said he sees police trying to fight crime but doesn’t think perpetrators are being punished harshly enough to deter them in the future.

Philadelphia district attorneys have long clashed with police, but Vazquez worries about the particularly volatile relationship between the police union and Krasner, who has campaigned on prosecuting cops.

“Krasner doesn’t want to take responsibility,” Vazquez said.

» READ MORE: Philly DA Larry Krasner has a race on his hands against Carlos Vega: ‘It’s closer than Larry wants’

Vega has the support of several Latino ward leaders in North Philadelphia and has largely pitched himself as a Krasner alternative. Vazquez was one of several who described his position as being more against Krasner than for Vega.

Several voters said they want to hear less blame-shifting and more about what Krasner would do to stem gun violence, even if they know he isn’t solely to blame. They noted a lack of engagement from his office compared with past DAs.

Gregory Benjamin, 64, a lifelong Kingsessing resident and Democratic ward leader, said his ward will endorse Krasner again — but not enthusiastically. When Krasner ran in 2017, community members walked him through the neighborhood and hosted events. But after he won, Benjamin said, it felt as if Krasner’s interest in their community disappeared.

Benjamin, who’s also a minister at the Church of Christian Compassion, said he saw Krasner at an event in February and wondered, “Wow, was that because it’s election time now?”

Still, he said that the ward supports Krasner’s holding police accountable and that the police union’s support for Vega “sends up red flags.”

Others aren’t sure what to do.

Judith Robinson, a committeewoman and activist in Strawberry Mansion, said it’s hard to separate the campaign from all the shooting victims — including several children in recent years. She backed Krasner in 2017 but is undecided now.

Robinson heard Krasner interviewed on the radio recently, “crowing about his policies and how it’s just like the [prosecutors] in Baltimore and Chicago … talking about how similar they were.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, everywhere where they’re catching hell in Black communities,’” Robinson said. “So you all are tooting this progressive policy, but how much of an experiment does this have to be before it ratchets down to something where you’re solving more crime?”