After voting for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Jesse Vincent walked out of his Mount Airy polling place and said he showed up “for one reason.”
“To make sure the FOP-supported candidate and his desire to please the establishment and the police did not prevail today,” Vincent said Tuesday. He was referring to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city’s police union and the most vocal opponent of Krasner and the local criminal justice reform movement he leads.
Not long ago, the FOP’s endorsement was sought by almost every candidate running for office in Philadelphia. That quickly changed after last year’s protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, as racial justice activists highlighted the role of police unions in blocking reforms and Democrats started seeing the FOP as more of a political liability than an asset.
Krasner’s resounding victory Tuesday over challenger Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor whose candidacy the union spent heavily to boost, was an emphatic marker of the rapid decline of the FOP’s political brand. The election had the feeling of a last stand for the 14,000-member union, which funded a group that was the top outside spender in a race that attracted national attention and was seen as a bellwether in the national debate over criminal justice and police accountability.
“It ultimately came down to a binary choice between Krasner and the FOP,” said Mustafa Rashed, a City Hall lobbyist. “They were on the ballot, which is unfortunate for Vega, because I don’t think he had a chance to talk to people about who he is and what he’s going to do.”
The union’s president, John McNesby, served as a useful antagonist for Krasner’s campaign, which often aimed its barbs at the mustachioed cop out of central casting rather than the career prosecutor who grew up stocking shelves in his parents’ bodega.
After speaking out against Krasner often during the campaign, McNesby declined an interview request Wednesday. In a statement, he said that “public safety remains the number one issue for Philadelphia police officers.”
“Even though Vega came up short in this election, we’re proud of his issue-based campaign,” McNesby said. “Like Vega, we support fighting for victims and balancing continued criminal justice reform and public safety. Homicides and violent crime are up nearly 40% and we only hope that the District Attorney’s Office begins to work with law enforcement partners and others to address our crime epidemic.”
» READ MORE: How Philly DA Larry Krasner won — and won big
Another sign of the FOP’s decline is the clout of McNesby himself. In the past, he’s been seen as a potential candidate for Northeast Philadelphia-based seats in City Council and the state legislature. But FOP spokesperson Michael Neilon said any talk of McNesby running for office is over.
“Over the years, did people approach John about running for office and check his temperature? Absolutely,” Neilon said. “He is not running for any political office.”
While the FOP didn’t succeed in persuading voters across the city to oust Krasner, its influence remained strong in far Northeast Philadelphia, where many police officers live and where the union’s headquarters sits on the border of Bucks County. Vega’s strongest ward was the 66th, in the northeastern corner of the city, where he took more than 80% of the vote, according to preliminary results.
A group of retired Philadelphia officers last year founded Protect Our Police PAC to oppose Krasner’s bid for a second term, as well as progressive prosecutors in other cities. The group spent almost $134,000 airing TV ads critical of Krasner. The FOP gave the group $113,000 and donated $25,200 directly to Vega’s campaign, the maximum allowed.
Vega denounced the group in April after it sent a fund-raising email that blamed Floyd for his own murder. Protect Our Police quickly retracted the claim, but the political damage was done.
The toxicity of the FOP brand shaped the race before it even started, when anti-Krasner forces struggled to recruit candidates to take him on. The ideal challenger was widely seen as a Black woman with courtroom experience and political bona fides. One recruiting target, State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Phila.), a former public defender and the Democratic leader in the state House, ended up campaigning for Krasner.
McClinton said the voters she spoke to Tuesday saw a difference between the union’s leaders and the police officers they encounter in their neighborhoods. And she questioned Vega’s choice to align with the union after last year’s protests.
“If you were thinking about running for DA last year and you see that sort of outcry, you’re running on reform,” McClinton said Wednesday. “People are not happy with the leadership of the FOP. And it’s interesting that that gets conflated with not being happy with the police.”
Krasner’s opponents eventually rallied behind Vega, an experienced prosecutor — but a political neophyte. Vega tried to thread a rhetorical needle by saying he agreed with many of Krasner’s reforms but wanted to reprioritize public safety. The nuance he tried to convey was often drowned out by the antics of the FOP and the political group it funded.
On Monday, at one of his last campaign stops, Vega was asked whether he thought the FOP backing helped his candidacy.
“I don’t know if it hurts me or helps me,” Vega told reporters. “I know Mr. Krasner has tried to make much of it when he’s refusing to talk about the real issues. I’ve been doing this as a grassroots movement with my people.”
Even some Vega supporters said his FOP backing was a concern.
Melissa Sedgwick, of the Torresdale section of Northeast Philadelphia, said she voted for Vega largely because she felt he would treat both criminals and victims fairly. But some of his campaign messaging gave her pause. She was troubled by what she saw as unequivocal support for police, and said the FOP’s support for him didn’t help sway her decision.
“I don’t want a district attorney who works for the police,” Sedgwick said. “He should work for everyone.”
-Staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Carlos Vega’s parents as immigrants.