Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his Democratic primary challenger, Carlos Vega, traded barbs and offered competing visions of criminal justice Wednesday night during their only televised debate.
One clear takeaway: The candidates loathe each other and spent considerable time casting aspersions.
Krasner repeatedly called Vega a liar — at various points decrying a “lasagna of lies” and accusing Vega of using “a Trumpian tactic.” Vega questioned Krasner’s competence. “We want a prosecutor, not a social worker here,” he said.
And there was more jawing after the cameras went dark.
Here’s what stood out less than two weeks before the May 18 primary.
Krasner says he’s the future and Vega is the past
Krasner repeatedly cited Vega’s work in the retrial of Anthony Wright on rape and murder charges after DNA evidence showed another man committed the crime. Krasner cast the District Attorney’s Office before his tenure as a place where prosecutors cheated to win cases.
Krasner also touted his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which has exonerated 20 people convicted under previous DAs.
“This is a man who was in the office for 35 years, when it was a cover-up organization,” Krasner said of Vega, a former assistant district attorney Krasner fired when he took office in 2018.
Vega defended his work on the case, saying that he was brought in after prosecutors decided to retry Wright and that no disciplinary action was ever filed against him. Vega repeatedly said the city doesn’t have to choose between reform and safety.
“We have a murder rate and a violence rate that rivals the 1990s,” Vega said. “Larry has failed to provide real reform.”
Vega says Krasner doesn’t play nice with others
Vega stressed a community-based approach to public safety, saying he would work with the Police Department, churches, community organizations, and schools.
“We see with Mr. Krasner, he has fragmented relationships with other law enforcement agencies,” Vega said, citing disputes with the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “You see as recently as a few years ago, the federal government had to step in to do their own initiative to address the gun violence because there are no consequences and Mr. Krasner was not invited because he did not work well — or does not want to work at all — with those other agencies.”
Krasner said he had put assistant district attorneys “out in the field in the police divisions” to work with officers.
“Since then, we have come up with a task force between the Police Department and the DA’s Office where we look at the gun violence cases of that week to make sure that they’re strong,” he said.
Krasner blames cops and the pandemic
While Krasner repeatedly cited what he said was a nearly 85% conviction rate in gun crimes, Vega questioned those numbers, suggesting that plea bargains with light sentences drive them higher. Police were on pace to make 3,000 arrests this year for carrying a gun illegally, a record, but the people charged are less likely to be convicted, an Inquirer investigation found in March.
“We also have to recognize that part of the reason for this multiyear decline in conviction rates for gun-possession cases is the quality of the cases has changed,” Krasner said. “We went from a system of stop-and-frisk, some of it illegal, to a system of massive stops of cars in certain neighborhoods, mostly Black and brown neighborhoods.”
Krasner also noted that city courts have been largely shuttered by the pandemic.
Vega promised to be a more aggressive prosecutor in gun crimes.
“When he talks about the police not doing their jobs, it was the same judges and same police before he took office in 2018,” Vega said. “The only thing that changed was Mr. Krasner, and his leadership or lack of leadership.”
More heated words after the debate
The cameras were off and the candidates were removing their microphones in the NBC10 studio when Alex Silverman, program manager for KYW-Newsradio, tweeted a heated exchange between Krasner and Vega.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” Vega said to Krasner, according to Silverman, whose station also broadcast the debate. “I’ve been in your head a long time.”
Krasner shrugged that off with a “Sure, Carlos,” prompting Vega to ask, “You have security downstairs?”
Krasner asked if he needed it. Vega asked if Krasner wanted to give him a ride home before asking if they should shake hands or “hug it out.”
Krasner walked way.