Left-wing prosecutors hit fierce resistance: An uptick in murders across the country is testing their resolve — and their electability
Larry Krasner’s election in 2017 was a triumph for progressives nationwide: The man who had sued cops 75 times, represented Black Lives Matter, promised to end cash bail — and was widely seen as the most liberal district attorney candidate in the country — won.
Four years later, Philadelphia’s top prosecutor — and one of the leading figures of the country’s criminal justice reform movement — is under siege.
Homicides are skyrocketing in the city, and local officials are grumbling.
A former assistant district attorney backed by the local police union is challenging Krasner in the May primary. And in recent weeks, the Philadelphia Democratic Party broke with years of tradition and declined to endorse the incumbent.
The primary battle is a test of whether the left can maintain its successful campaign electing progressive district attorneys amid an uptick in murders in cities around the country.
If Krasner wins, it could signal the arrival of a new era, one in which the public doesn’t recoil from liberal criminal justice policy — even when crime statistics go up. If he fails, it would be a jolt for politically beleaguered police unions, and a sudden halt to what has been a steady shift leftward in urban DA races.
“His reelection means everything,” said Shaun King, a civil rights advocate and former surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “We always knew that Larry, a lifelong civil rights attorney, would come in and change the system from the inside out, and that doing so would make him a major target.”
Krasner isn’t the only big-city progressive prosecutor meeting fierce resistance. In California, both San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón are facing recall efforts.
Opponents of the left-wing DAs have accused them of letting criminals loose on the streets and turning a blind eye to victims — all criticisms lobbed at Krasner, too.
Krasner has framed his reelection campaign as a choice between the future and the past, “a past that echoes with names like [Frank] Rizzo,” Philly’s former tough-on-crime, racially polarizing mayor, as he put it at a recent candidates forum. He says that he delivered on his campaign promises by lowering the jail population, exonerating the innocent and reducing the amount of time people are on probation and parole.
He has taken a tack against his Democratic challenger — ex-homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, who was among the group of employees he fired when he became DA — that once might have been unthinkable. Krasner is using the local police union as a foil, and reminding voters that Vega is endorsed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, whose national union endorsed former President Donald Trump.
As for the spike in homicides — they are up 29 percent compared with this time in 2020, which was the most violent year in three decades — Krasner blames larger societal forces.
“What has happened, and essentially every criminologist agrees on this, is that the pandemic, closing of society and closing of so many different aspects of what protects and surrounds especially young men have disappeared,” Krasner said in an interview. “So in every single city, you have the elimination of high schoolers being in classrooms at least for periods of time, summer camp, summer job programs, open swimming pools, open recreation centers, organized sports in school, organized sports out of school and after-school programs.”
In a demonstration of how much the Democratic Party has moved left on criminal justice issues, Vega is not actually campaigning as a tough-on-crime politician. He talks about diversionary programs and prohibiting cash bail for low-level offenders, and his website promises to deliver “real progressive reform.” His pitch in his launch video is that “we don’t have to choose between safety and reform,” and he places the wave of murders squarely on Krasner’s shoulders.