Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has been a hero to progressives pushing for criminal justice reform and a villain to fans of old-school, lock-‘em-up law enforcement.
A defense attorney for three decades, Krasner won office in 2017 vowing to change a system he described as racist and lacking in accountability. With his first Democratic primary as an incumbent 11 months away, those who want to see the polarizing prosecutor gone are trying to mobilize opposition against him.
But Krasner thinks his prospects for a second term are good. He cites the protests against systemic racism that have filled the city’s streets and the end of a symbolic lightning rod that stood in front of the Municipal Services Building.
“Frank Rizzo’s statue is gone,” Krasner said of the tribute to the former police commissioner and mayor, which was removed in early June. “That says a lot in a city where Rizzo’s influence even now continues but where his shadow has been disappearing more and more over time.”
City politics have shifted since 2017, thanks to a string of electoral victories by progressives who followed Krasner. Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks won a seat on City Council last year, and self-described democratic socialist Nikil Saval unseated State Sen. Larry Farnese in the June 2 Democratic primary.
There has been plenty of speculation in political circles about how a challenger might hit Krasner for increases in gun violence and other crimes while still embracing his reform ethos. Call it “reform and order.”
Conventional wisdom says Krasner would be most vulnerable to an African American woman with a strong resumé.
“Our strongest voter, based on my information, was about a 60-year-old African-American woman last time,” Krasner said. “I can tell you, in my very, very unofficial poll of walking down the street and being in churches and going places over the last 2½ years, I think we still have a lot of friends of all different backgrounds, including the group that was our strongest voter.”
State Rep. Joanne McClinton, a public defender for seven years who has served in Harrisburg for five, considered running in 2017 and said she has been approached about challenging Krasner. But she plans to stay in the state House.
“It would always be good to have a woman of color in a position like that that affects so many lives, particularly Black and brown lives,” McClinton said.
Keir Bradford-Gray, chief of the Defender Association, said she has also been approached to run in 2021 but plans to stay put. She also had been asked to consider running three years ago.
Kelley Hodge became the first Black female district attorney in the city when the Board of Judges installed her as interim district attorney following the 2017 resignation of Seth Williams, who went to federal prison on corruption charges. Hodge, now in private practice, said she appreciated being mentioned as a potential candidate but has no plans to run.
Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker, who supervises the court’s criminal division, is very concerned about shootings in the city, according to someone familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity. Tucker, who considered running in 2017, has also been contacted by people who want him to challenge Krasner. Tucker declined to comment.
One prominent Krasner foe, former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, is publicly mulling a challenge.
Vega sat for an interview last week in the shadow of the controversial — and now boxed up — statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, rattling off statistics about shootings in the city, when a woman walking by stopped to speak with him.
“Are you going to run for district attorney?” she asked.
Vega, who was fired by Krasner soon after he took office in 2018 and is now suing him charging age discrimination, said he had been urged to run by the families of victims in cases he prosecuted. He said former colleagues and current prosecutors also have encouraged him.
“I’m seriously considering it,” Vega said.
Vega spoke the day after Krasner charged one of the white men who had gathered for days with baseball bats and other weapons to guard the statue. Vega passes the plaza each day on a six-mile walk. He requested that the interview take place there.
“If Mr. Vega has an argument to make on his record, on his life’s work, on his philosophy, if he wants to make his announcement at Marconi Plaza, that’s entirely up to him,” Krasner said. “We’ll be happy to answer any argument he might make.”
There is no coordinated anti-Krasner campaign. It is more diffuse, with some sensing political opportunity while others are opposed to his policies. In that way, Krasner’s foes might defeat themselves by recruiting more than one challenger, who could split the vote against an incumbent with a dedicated base.
The Democratic City Committee remained neutral during the 2017 primary, allowing individual wards to support any of the seven candidates.
“The party is either going to embrace the increasingly vibrant, progressive vote or they’re going to ridicule them,” Krasner said. “That remains to be seen. I certainly would like to see the party embrace its progressive wing, because that’s the future of the party.”
Taking on Krasner may also mean dealing with George Soros.
Soros, a billionaire philanthropist interested in criminal justice reform, had already spent about $10 million to back progressive candidates for top prosecutor jobs in 2017 when he turned his attention to Philadelphia.
His team spoke to potential district attorney candidates, including Bradford-Grey, before backing Krasner.
Philadelphia Justice and Public Safety, an independent political group funded by Soros, sunk almost $1.7 million into pro-Krasner TV commercials, campaign literature, and voter outreach.
Will Soros return? Whitney Tymas, who serves as treasurer for Soros-backed political action committees in several states, said in an email that “our team is focused on the 2020 landscape.”
That includes the reelection effort by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago. A Soros-backed PAC spent $333,000 to help Foxx win the office in 2016, and invested $2 million this year to help her win a March primary against a wealthy challenger.
While Krasner has many supporters, his critics have blasted him since the day he took office.
John McNesby, head of the city’s police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, often squabbled with Williams when he was district attorney, going so far as to rent a billboard near I-95 calling for a new prosecutor. Now he jokes about being careful what you wish for.
“We’re going with anybody but Krasner,” McNesby said of his union. “I would try to get Seth Williams to step back up. Seth was a breath of fresh air compared to what we have now.”
Krasner’s rhetorical battles with McNesby, along with U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, only bolster his cred with progressives.
He fought with Shapiro over legislation that would have granted the state’s top prosecutor more jurisdiction in city cases. Krasner said his relationship with Shapiro is now “in a much better place.”
McSwain, appointed by President Donald Trump, has appeared on Fox News to knock Krasner as soft on crime.
“What he does is all political,” Krasner said. “And what he does is all about Donald Trump and about advancing his career in the future. His career as a U.S. attorney has about six months left.”
McSwain accused Krasner of failing to do his job. “Krasner’s cynical gimmick is always to accuse me of acting with political motives, when the only thing that I’m doing is trying to protect public safety in Philadelphia,” McSwain said.
Krasner seems to relish such jousting.
“We expressed a platform we believed in,” Krasner said. ‘We have pursued it vigorously. That is in many ways what makes our opponents crazy. Because we actually did what we said we would do.”