Philadelphia voters came out Tuesday to render their verdict on the city’s top prosecutor and his efforts to upend the criminal justice system — and decisively stuck with what they’ve got.
The Democratic primary for district attorney, largely a referendum on incumbent DA Larry Krasner and the progressive reforms he implemented in his first term, was an expectedly low-turnout election compared with last year’s presidential race. Voters ended up choosing Krasner over former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega and the more traditional approach he promised to return to the office by a wide margin.
“One thing that happens in Philadelphia, we say we want change and then we give them 10 days,” Sunni Green Tolbert, a retired college administrator, said after voting for Krasner in Mount Airy. “Krasner has done some solid stuff to date. People need to have some patience.”
“The police aren’t always 100% in the right, but you can’t let the system fall by the wayside,” Morano said. “With Krasner, he’s too light on the criminals and too strict with the victims — it’s like he’s got it backwards.”
The warm, sunny Tuesday marked a return to a more normal-feeling election day, as voters streamed in and out of polling places with face masks — but without much of the pandemic-driven fear and uncertainty that surrounded voting in November or during last year’s primary.
While their numbers were smaller — a far cry from the droves who stood in line for the presidential election — many had personal reasons for showing up.
Desjeneé Davis, 31, who graduates from Drexel University’s law school on Wednesday, has worked as a paralegal in the city’s public defender’s office, as well as at a local law firm. She backed Krasner because her experience showed her the nuances of how systems like bail and probation actually work — or don’t.
“I understand the effects, like someone losing their normal because they got locked up for a minor offense,” said Davis, who lives in the Mayfair section. “I understand their frustration in trying to do better in their lives when the system is not set up for them to do better.”
At Hardy Williams Mastery Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia, Rasheed White, 30, also voted for Krasner, calling him “fair and involved with the inner city.” White’s close friend was in prison for 12 years, and when he returned and opened a gym, Krasner visited in support, White said.
White said he felt as if Krasner’s office is more careful with evidence and not overcharging people with crimes.
Personal ties cut both ways. One woman in Northeast Philadelphia, who declined to give her name, switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat to vote against Krasner because her son is a police officer.
“We’re a police family,” she said. “Krasner doesn’t have our backs.”
Krasner was expected to perform well with progressives and Black voters from areas with historically high turnout. Vega hoped to win with largely white, more police-friendly voters in Northeast Philadelphia and the Delaware River wards, bolstered by some Latino voters from neighborhoods with lower turnout.
Backers of both candidates brought up the city’s rising violence. Vega’s supporters blamed Krasner, despite Philadelphia’s pandemic crime surge being largely in line with national trends. Krasner’s supporters mentioned it as something they hoped he would focus on if reelected.
“As long as I have to live in this city, I would like to see it safer,” said Madeline Deery, a Vega supporter in Wissahickon.
Deery was one of 50,000 people who signed on to a social media “Fire Krasner” campaign a few years ago, which led to her becoming a Vega supporter. On Tuesday, she stood outside a polling place wearing a Vega hat and handing out campaign literature.
She said she lost confidence in Krasner after serving on a jury for a recent gun possession case.
“They presented such a terrible case,” Deery said. “[Krasner’s] not doing his job.”
William Schrul cast his ballot for Vega after watching “things kind of deteriorate, as far as crime and gun violence,” particularly in Kensington.
“I’m all for fair policing, I think that’s really what you need,” Schrul said after voting in Old City. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of crime that’s going unnoticed and ... police officers saying that they’re supposed to overlook certain things that are happening.”
Vega’s support from the Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union that also helped fund anti-Krasner TV ads, was a double-edged sword with voters. Several said the FOP’s support was reason alone to oppose Vega.
It “put the nail in Vega’s coffin because that signals he wants to continue cultural corruption,” said Mikal Twiggs, 63, voting in Southwest Philadelphia.
Charles Robinson, 73, a retired police officer, also voted for Krasner, uncomfortable with Vega’s connection to his former union. He disliked that Vega’s campaign took money from the FOP, especially after the union got into hot water for allowing members of the Proud Boys — a self-described “Western chauvinist” organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group— into FOP headquarters last year.
“They were up there drinking with the Proud Boys,” Robinson said. “That’s a terrible thing. [Vega] can’t get over that. And he shouldn’t have took that money. ... How’s he supposed to be an independent prosecutor?”
Krasner is far from perfect for Robinson, though. He’d like to see the DA improve relationships with community members and focus on residents.
“His concept of justice has to change a little bit,” Robinson said. “He has to go about giving justice to people out in the street instead of justice to people in jail already incarcerated.”
While turnout was low, it was a primary that brought out Karen Smith, who had never voted in a municipal election until Tuesday. Typically, the 48-year-old accountant who lives in Strawberry Mansion sticks to presidential races.
She came out to vote for Krasner because, she said, “if you want change, you’ve got to go out and make it.”
Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith, Anna Orso, Andrew Seidman, Chris Brennan, and Chris Palmer contributed to this article.