First, a quick flashback: A little more than four years ago, Philadelphia DA Seth Williams looked set to win a third term as the city’s District Attorney. The first African-American district attorney in Philadelphia history as well as the first African-American DA in Pennsylvania, Williams had won his office with commanding majorities of 75% in 2009 and almost 81% in 2013. (The latter despite frequent charges of cronyism.) A charismatic figure enjoying wide popularity, Williams looked like he might actually go unchallenged in the Democratic primary and then steamroller yet another Republican challenger.

But on February 10th of that year, Williams stunned many in the city and beyond by announcing that he would not stand for another term. The reason for this decision soon became painfully clear. On March 21, Williams was indicted for bribery and extortion. Three weeks later, he was disbarred by a court and would subsequently plead guilty to one charge, earning him a five-year sentence in federal prison.

Suddenly, the Democrats’ primary election for DA became a real horse race, with seven candidates jumping in to replace Williams. Progressive crusader Larry Krasner won that primary with around 38% of the vote, impressive considering that he was going up against six other quite viable candidates there. 

Many were surprised by the outcome, as Krasner had never worked in the DA’s office. That’s never as in not for a minute. He had gained fame as a defense attorney with a bent towards progressive causes such as civil rights cases and the plights of political activists. He had sued the Philadelphia police department 75 times, not a typical item on the C.V. of a DA candidate.  His opponents in the primary included several city prosecutors and one former city manager.

As the general election neared, some Republicans and lovers of the underdog were even thinking that Krasner’s lack of prosecutorial experience and ultra-progressive views on combatting crime might allow his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, to pull off an upset win in deep-blue Philadelphia. After all, Krasner himself had joked, “I’ve spent a career becoming completely unelectable”. When the votes rolled in on election night, it was clear that Krasner had become very electable indeed. He handed Grossman a bruising defeat, winning by 74% to 26%.

As DA, Krasner has worked hard to keep his campaign promises: sharp reductions in the cash bail system, a refusal to seek the death penalty in any case, cutting future mass incarceration in half, and securing 20 exonerations of innocent people. He’s also opted to hold back on prosecutions of low-level offenses including simple drug possession, low-figure shoplifting, and prostitution.

Another striking aspect of his agenda has seenKrasner’s office charge 51 police officers with a range of crimes. More, Krasner has never shirked from voicing sharp criticism of certain police practices and policies. This has not made him a darling with the police force, especially its main union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

Adherence to such principled positions have earned Krasner many solid supporters as well as many dedicated detractors. Which brings us to this year’s Democratic primary race for the office, to be held next week. This time, Larry Krasner faces a single primary opponent – but much more drama than in 2017. This primary election seems like it could have been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter with no aversion to retreading some old plotlines about political vendettas.

The background to the drama: soon after taking office, Krasner fired almost 40 of the veteran prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office. One of those fired was Carlos Vega, who is now Krasner’s sole challenger in this year’s primary. Vega says that Krasner called him a racist when he was let go, a label Vega brands as “preposterous”. A Latino who grew up in the South Bronx and has spent much of his career fighting for victims of crime who are themselves from minority groups, Vega does not fit the “racist” profile very well.

Vega had worked in the Philadelphia DA’s office for 35 years before getting the sack, and that dismissal still stings. He recalls many former colleagues, men and women, crying when they were fired. Vega feels the firings were quite unjustified. Those who support Krasner’s purge say that he needed to clean house in order to implement the major reforms he sought.

It was clear from the beginning of this contest that neither man features on the other’s favorite persons list. The recent splash of bad blood between the two lends the race an edge that has drawn national attention to this very local election.

Krasner is not running away from his record in this race. In fact, he’s running on that record, touting what he sees as a series of impressive successes in making the justice system in the city fairer and primarily focused on serious crimes. He has passed over prosecuting many drug users and is hesitant to prosecute sex workers (formerly known as prostitutes) and their clients since he feels they represent no danger to public safety. He also has tried to keep juvenile offenders out of the adult court system.

Vega stresses his over three decades of experience as a prosecutor and the various cases he has handled. (Though Vega was primarily a homicide prosecutor.) He contrasts that experience with Krasner’s dearth of experience actually fighting a case from the prosecution side, even over the last four years where Krasner headed the city’s prosecution team.

Krasner likes to point out that the FOP has donated $120,000 to Vega’s campaign. He argues that this indicates the leadership of the FOP (not the good cops, Krasner stresses) does not want accountability and would much prefer a DA ready to serve their interests. Vega counters that it simply shows the police want a DA who will work with them, not against them. Krasner insists that he’s always ready and willing to work with the police when they’re both in pursuit of justice.

The battleground issues of the campaign were in clear focus during last week’s debate, aired by KYW. As moderator Jacqueline London said at the wrap-up, the debate was “spirited”. Indeed.

In his opening statement, Carlos Vega reiterated one of his key themes: that Philadelphia does not have to choose between safety and reform. “We need both,” he asserted. Then, turning to Krasner, he said, “Mr. Krasner, you have blood on your hands” before reeling off a list of murder victims since Krasner took over, two of those victims just six and seven years old. He attributed all of these murders to what he saw as DA Krasner’s “incompetence”.

The tone of the debate did not grow more polite from there. The mutual animosity of the two opponents was in no way veiled. As the give-and-take proceeded, DA Krasner said he was afraid his pen was going to run out of ink as he tried to scribble down all the lies Vega was telling about him and his record. He also alleged that Vega was serving the audience a “lasagna of lies”. Though he didn’t have the time to fully explain that metaphor, it seemed to imply the challenger was spreading one chewy layer of falsehoods upon another, supposedly with a filling of cheesy claims, all topped with saucy remarks.

Though Vega himself never used the word “lies” in his counter attacks, he clearly suggested that many of Krasner’s claims bore very little resemblance to the truth.

Throughout the debate, the two waged a protracted battle of numbers. For instance, Krasner claimed that his office has a nearly 85% conviction rate on shootings, both fatal and non-fatal. Vega then argued that the conviction rate for gun-related crimes since the beginning of this year is actually only 32%, citing a series of numbers bolstering his figure. 

 

Krasner sees a weak spot for Vega in the prosecution of Anthony Wright in his retrial, where Wright was found innocent of the charge. (The retrial was ordered when DNA evidence indicated Wright’s innocence.) In the debate, Krasner specifically cited this case in contrast to his own team’s record, where they have produced 20 exonerations of innocents wrongly charged.

Krasner also claimed that during the years that Vega served as an assistant DA, “the truth didn’t matter.” He says that during that period, convictions were the sole goal, and if innocent people were convicted, that was simply seen as a victory for the prosecution team.

In response, Vega stresses that he served as second chair in that retrial and his main work on the case was to present evidence. He then noted that disciplinary action (by the Innocence Project) was initiated against the DA who decided for the retrial, but no disciplinary action was brought against Vega for his ancillary role. He also cited a case where he exonerated an innocent man charged with murder and then set out to find the actual killer, who was later convicted and sentenced.

Krasner and Vega agreed that the DA’s office and the city in general need to work more diligently on prevention of crime rather than prosecution and conviction of the guilty after the crime. But on the issue of juvenile crime, they part ways – DA Krasner emphasizes the importance of keeping juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system while Vega supports a policy where juveniles who commit serious crimes are tried for those crimes in adult courts.

However, Vega also mentioned a plan whereby a DA office run by him would initiate an “Adopt-A-School” program in which his 300 assistants would be responsible for meeting with students, parents and faculty to both serve as role models and deal with situations that could lead later to criminal activities.

One of the repeated themes in the debate was the stance the two men take to fighting crime in Philadelphia. Answering one question about whether he puts the rights of defendants before the rights of victims, Krasner replied that this charge is used by his critics for political purposes and that he certainly cares for the victims and that the highest priority of his office is to prevent future crimes and future victims.

Vega argues that Krasner has focused too much on reform and concern for defendants, which has led to the sharp increase in crimes, serious and not so serious, that the city has seen over the last two years. At one point, Vega said “We want a prosecutor, not a social worker here.” Though this remark was made during an exchange on how to deal with unregistered immigrants who commit crimes, it was an underlying theme of much of Vega’s criticism of Larry Krasner’s tenure as DA.

Vega was also able to call on not only his long experience as a prosecutor, but also of his family when the question of whether to prosecute shoplifters. Vega finds it wrong to decide that those who grab a “five-finger discount” at some store will not be prosecuted if the theft amounts to less than $500. He noted that his own family ran a bodega in New York City, and many “small” acts of shoplifting could devastate the family business.

The debate and a subsequent District Attorney Forum where the two Democrats were joined by their presumptive Republican opponent, Charles Peruto Jr, showcased both candidates as principled men who want to do the best for the city, though they see clearly different paths to reaching that goal. It will be seen next week, which path the registered Democrat voters believe is the best path to a safer and more just Philadelphia.

Editor’s Note: A couple of days ago, Carlos Vega was endorsed by his former boss, Mayor Ed Rendell (former DA of Philadelphia who originally hired Vega for his first job as a prosecutor.) Rendell is quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer, ““I’ve been extremely reluctant to criticize any of my successors,” Rendell said during a news conference at his Center City office. Pointing to soaring violent crime, Rendell said: “You must as a city do something about it. If you don’t act, it will destroy the city.”

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