By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — The closely watched Democratic primary for district attorney ended in a rout for incumbent Larry Krasner that was buoyed by Black voters throughout the city.
Krasner, a civil rights defense attorney turned progressive prosecutor, won the Democratic Party ticket in Tuesday’s primary with nearly 65 percent of the vote over challenger Carlos Vega, according to unofficial results from the Philadelphia City Commissioners with nearly all divisions reporting on Wednesday.
While Krasner only faced Vega in the election, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 — which backed Vega — loomed large in the race as a “third party on the ballot,” said Mustafa Rashed, CEO of Bellevue Strategies and a Democratic insider.
The FOP’s visible presence throughout the primary worked against Vega while boosting Krasner, especially in African American neighborhoods, Rashed said. The political clashes between the FOP and Krasner also prevented a more substantive policy discussion over the future of the office, he said.
“(The FOP) made more noise than (Vega’s) campaign did,” Rashed said. “This campaign seemed to be a choice between the FOP and Krasner as opposed to Krasner and Vega.”
The police union and its president, John McNesby, worked to defeat Krasner, including holding a political stunt outside Krasner’s Center City office and ran billboards along Interstate 95 against Krasner, among other things. The FOP also is seen as a long-time opponent to substantive police and criminal justice reforms.
Krasner’s win also was a sign that voters backed his progressive reforms, said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, member of the interfaith community group POWER and pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E.
“His reforms are working, at least in the minds of a lot of people,” Tyler said.
Krasner has put in place policies that significantly diverge from his predecessors, the latter of whom contributed to Philadelphia having one of the highest incarceration rates among large U.S. cities.
During his tenure, Krasner has refused to prosecute some low-level offenses, like prostitution; sought more lenient sentences; and strengthened the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which has led to the exoneration of 20 individuals.
Tyler added that Krasner’s restorative justice efforts, combined with his outreach to Black religious and community leaders, were resonating with voters.
“That is a heck of a way of going at criminal justice reform,” Tyler said.
“We don’t just want to lock people up; we want people to become better,” he added. “People do not want to go back to the days of a Lynn Abraham, Seth Williams, and an Ed Rendell where … you are guilty first and you have to prove that you are innocent.”
Vega also struggled to tell voters what he would do differently than Krasner, Rashed said.
In the days leading up to the election, Vega could not identify a single policy or reform of Krasner’s that he would scrap when asked by The Philadelphia Tribune. Rather, he said he intended to “enhance” some of Krasner’s policies.
Support for Krasner spanned Black voting districts in North, South, West and Southwest Philadelphia, according to the city commissioners’ online database.
Whereas the majority of support for Vega was limited to the primarily white neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia and River Wards section, according to the city commissioners’ online database. He also won voting wards in far South Philadelphia, a pocket of North Philadelphia, and the Kensington neighborhood.
Turnout for the primary was only 17%, according to the city commissioners’ unofficial results. The low turnout was typical for a primary during a non-presidential election year. In the 2017 primary that Krasner won, turnout was also 17 percent.
Low turnout elections typically favor an incumbent, Rashed said.
Vega did not benefit from the decision by the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee not to endorse a candidate in the district attorney race. The committee’s failure to back Krasner was a rare snub for an incumbent.
Vega, a former city prosecutor who was fired by Krasner, did not respond to a request for comment.
Jessica Brand, a Krasner campaign spokeswoman, said voters backed Krasner because he followed through with promises he made to voters four years ago, including reducing mass incarceration, holding police accountable, and moving away from policies that hurt Black and brown communities.
Brand added that Black voters cast their ballots for Krasner because Vega “represented a time where police and prosecutors implemented policies that caused tremendous harm to people of color in this city.
“(Vega) perpetuated those policies, he believed in them, and for 35 years in the (district attorney’s) office, he did nothing to change them,” Brand added. “Is no surprise that Black voters did not trust him to fight on behalf of their communities for the next four years.”
Krasner will face Republican Charles “Chuck” Peruto in the November election. Peruto ran unopposed in the GOP primary.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in the city, so Krasner is expected to go on to win another four-year term.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.