Philly DA Larry Krasner beats primary challenger Carlos Vega by wide margin in closely watched race

Krasner’s primary win puts a second four-year term easily in reach after he campaigned on his record of criminal justice reform.

District Attorney Larry Krasner embraces City Councilmember Helen Gym as he arrives to make his victory speech on Tuesday.
District Attorney Larry Krasner embraces City Councilmember Helen Gym as he arrives to make his victory speech on Tuesday.TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
  • May 18, 2021 (Inquirer.com)

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner easily defeated Democratic primary challenger Carlos Vega on Tuesday, taking a giant step toward winning a second term after campaigning on his record of criminal justice reform.

The Associated Press projected Krasner as the winner over Vega late Tuesday night. As of Wednesday morning, with 72% of the projected votes counted, Krasner held a wide advantage, 65% to 35%.In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, Krasner is now very likely to win November’s general election. Hewon the 2017 general election with 75% of the vote.

“Four years ago we promised reform and a focus on serious crime,” Krasner told supporters at a Center City hotel Tuesday night. “We kept those promises. And this time they put us back in office for what we have done. Not ideas, not promises, but realities.”

Krasner, 60, was a defense and civil rights lawyer for three decades, with a long record of suing the Philadelphia police before he was elected as a reformer in 2017. That victory helped propel him to the forefront of a new crop of progressive prosecutors across the country, a reform movement that was tested this election in Philadelphia by rising violent crime.

In his victory speech, Krasner said he had a mandate “from the people most affected by serious crime,” voters he suggested had rejected critics who blame the DA for shootings plaguing the city.

“That mandate has rejected, definitively, a politics of fear that is built on falsehoods,” he said, calling for more funding for crime prevention. “We have to invest in all those things because we were robbed of them a long time ago. And what we are facing now is the consequences.”

» READ MORE: We talked to voters across Philly as they cast ballots for district attorney

Vega, 64, was a prosecutor for 35 years until Krasner fired him during his first week as DA in 2018. Vega still has a federal age discrimination suit pending against Krasner and last week also sued Krasner’s campaign for slander.

Despite financial support from the local police union and other Krasner opponents that kept him competitive in fund-raising, and a soaring homicide rate that could have made the incumbent more politically vulnerable, Vega was unable to make it a close race. He struggled to mount a case for his candidacy beyond not being Krasner and often-vague promises of continued reforms paired with a greater emphasis on public safety. “I’m not going to reverse any policies,” Vega told The Inquirer at one point.

Late Tuesday night, the Vega campaign asked an Inquirer reporter to leave its results watch party, which the campaign had attempted to prevent media from covering despite a longtime tradition of journalists observing candidates’ election night events. Vega declined a parting interview. He conceded on Twitter shortly before midnight.

“It looks like tonight we did not get the result we wanted, but even in defeat we have grace & we smile,” he wrote. “THANK YOU to our supporters, and most especially the victims of crime who bravely stood up when the establishment, the celebrities and the media decided they wouldn’t listen.”

» READ MORE: From before the primary: Crime victims are some of the most visible figures fighting against Krasner’s reelection

Defense attorney Chuck Peruto, the only Republican in the race, significantly trails Krasner in fund-raising and has drawn scrutiny for controversial statements in candidate forums and on his campaign website. Peruto, a former Democrat who voted for Krasner four years ago, had vowed to drop out of the race if Vega won the Democratic primary.

Voters were also awaiting results in local and statewide judicial races and for a series of Pennsylvania ballot questions.

Krasner cast the election as a choice between returning to a past of discrimination in the criminal justice system or continuing to remake prosecution in the city — with an emphasis on fair treatment for defendants, reducing mass incarceration, exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners, and holding police accountable for wrongdoing.

“This is a showdown between the past and the future,” Krasner said earlier Tuesday while campaigning outside a West Philadelphia polling place.

Vega centered his campaign on concerns about violent crime — an increase happening in large cities across the country, including ones with more traditional prosecutors. He promised a balance of continued reforms and increased public safety.

» READ MORE: Philly elected Larry Krasner district attorney to reform the system. Here’s what he did.

Krasner was able to maintain and reenergize the coalition that helped him win four years ago, including progressive groups like Reclaim Philadelphia and vote-rich, predominantly Black wards in Northwest and West Philadelphia, where high-profile elected officials publicly supported him.

That coalition helped Krasner overcome a lack of support from the city’s Democratic Party, which voted not to endorse either candidate — a rare snub with an incumbent Democrat on the ballot.

Mayor Jim Kenney also declined to take a position. Krasner’s one television ad lumped actions under Kenney’s administration in with examples of the city’s “broken justice system,” opening with a scene of officers teargassing demonstrators on I-676 last year. Kenney acknowledged that he approved the use of tear gas in what became a national embarrassment for the city.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, the Democratic leader in Harrisburg and a former public defender from West Philadelphia, said voters were deciding whether to return to an era of prosecutors “doing anything they need to do to win,” or to continue with the accountability Krasner brought to the office.

Vega visits the East Passyunk Community Center on on Tuesday.
Vega visits the East Passyunk Community Center on on Tuesday.JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Vega’s strongest financial and public support came from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the local police union, which has been fiercely critical of Krasner’s reforms and blamed him for rising violent crime. Krasner cast the union as another opponent on the ballot, saying Vega would follow the FOP’s agenda.

A group of retired officers founded Protect Our Police PAC, which spent almost $134,000 to air television ads featuring the families of people killed in the city criticizing how Krasner handled those cases. The FOP gave the group $113,000. The Vega campaign itself never purchased TV ads, and instead spent heavily on mailing fliers to voters.

Rather than conventional get-out-the-vote rallies with crowds of supporters, Vega made his closing argument to groups with a mix of skeptical voters and others who were open to his message. His events in the final days were small neighborhood gatherings, including a meet-and-greet hosted by a community activist and an antiviolence rally.

His campaign also hoped for a boost from a last-minute endorsement by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and longtime district attorney who hired Vega for his first job as a city prosecutor.

» READ MORE: Philly’s overturned murder cases call decades of homicide investigations into question

Krasner campaigned with people who had been exonerated by his Conviction Integrity Unit and denounced Vega as part of a win-at-all-costs approach that sent innocent people to prison.

A political action committee funded by billionaire George Soros, who backed Krasner in the 2017 primary, spent $90,000 on radio ads supporting his reelection. Vega spent just $30,000 on last-minute radio ads. Krasner’s hit the airwaves late, but he ended the campaign as the biggest spender in the race, dropping almost $160,000 on TV and radio ads, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact.

It combined for far less advertising spending than in the 2017 primary, when a Soros-funded group spent $1.7 million just on its own.

One case, from before Krasner took office, haunted Vega in the campaign — that of Anthony Wright, who was acquitted in a 2016 retrial of his 1991 conviction for rape and murder. Vega and another prosecutor went forward with the retrial despite DNA evidence that showed another man committed the crime. Wright won a $10 million settlement from the city in 2018.

Vega tried to minimize his role in the case, saying he was brought in to help.

“We can’t go back to that,” Wright said while campaigning with Krasner on Saturday.

Krasner outside City Hall on May 4 with a group of men exonerated of wrongful murder convictions. From left to right behind him are Theophalis Bilal Wilson, Terrance Lewis, Jimmy Dennis, Anthony Wright, and Tony Wright Jr.
Krasner outside City Hall on May 4 with a group of men exonerated of wrongful murder convictions. From left to right behind him are Theophalis Bilal Wilson, Terrance Lewis, Jimmy Dennis, Anthony Wright, and Tony Wright Jr.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Karen Smith, 48, voted for Krasner in Strawberry Mansion because Krasner had “cleaned house” at the DA’s Office.

“Being an African American person, when it comes to justice, we’re not given a fair shake sometimes,” Smith said. “I feel like Larry Krasner has done a great job making sure that everybody is held accountable.”

John Teague, a community leader in Manayunk, survived an attack in the neighborhood a few years ago and said the experience makes him wary of Krasner, whom he sees as soft on crime. He spent the last few months campaigning for Vega with signs taped to his red convertible.

“You can have criminal justice reform without tossing the baby out with the bathwater,” Teague said.

In the days leading up to the election, Vega made a series of stops at community events in primarily Black neighborhoods like Mill Creek and Germantown. At a Germantown daycare owned by Wanda Walker, who lives in Montgomery County but is a community activist in the neighborhood, Vega said he would make the DA’s Office more effective at prosecuting crime by recruiting experienced prosecutors — rather than the ones Krasner plucked from top law schools to replace Vega and the 30 other prosecutors he fired after taking office.

“The defense attorneys are killing these DAs like they don’t know what they’re doing. I was trained,” Vega said. “I always said when I lecture to DAs, ‘We don’t work 9-to-5.’ Because if you work 9-to-5, it’s Mickey Mouse results. Crime is 24/7. I have found witnesses at midnight, 2 in the morning, whatever. That’s because I have heart.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Walker said that Vega made good points but that his candidacy would struggle in Black neighborhoods to overcome his association with the police union.

-Staff writers Anna Orso and Julia Terruso, and staff photographer David Maialetti contributed to this article.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *