On Tuesday, Philadelphia Democrats picked criminal defense lawyer Larry Krasner as their nominee to run the city’s district attorney’s office. A progressive firebrand who has defended Black Lives Matter protesters and Occupy Wall Street activists pro bono, Krasner has gone to court more times to sue Philly cops for civil right abuses (75) than he has to prosecute a crime (0). He has described the office he intends to run as “systemically racist.” Given the makeup of the electorate in Philadelphia, it is a near-certainty he’ll be in charge of prosecutions in the city after November’s general election.
Since Donald Trump’s shocking victory in 2016, nearly every political contest has been viewed as a referendum on whether voters in Kansas or Georgia or wherever else are tired from all the winning yet. This Philadelphia primary was no different, with Krasner’s unusual background drawing national media attention. His win has now been heralded as a stinging rebuke of Trump, Jeff Sessions, and aggressive policing in general, and as proof that Democrats’ best path to electoral relevance lies in moving further to the left.
There are plenty of lessons for Democrats to glean from this race, but the fact that an extremely progressive candidate won it is one of the least interesting. While it’s rare that someone with no prosecutorial experience runs for district attorney, let alone wins, there’s nothing surprising about the most liberal candidate winning a Democratic primary in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 67 points. Sure, Philly is the same place that elected Lynne “America’s Deadliest DA” Abraham four times by sizable margins, but her last victory came a dozen years ago. When Abraham last ran in 2005, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 4-to-1 margin. Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1. In Philadelphia’s last two contested mayoral primaries, and now in the last two contested DA primaries, the most liberal candidate won.
Still, the race was considered wide open before Krasner won decisively, with 38 percent of the vote in a field of seven candidates vying to replace the outgoing, disgraced Seth Williams. Williams, who’d run as a reformer himself, announced he wouldn’t stand for re-election just days before the feds made an announcement of their own: a 23-charge indictment alleging various forms of bribery, extortion, and fraud, including a claim that he’d even stolen from his own mother.
In terms of policy, the national focus on Krasner’s victory buries the lead. All seven candidates—not just Krasner—ran as progressive champions of criminal justice reform. Not a single Democrat promised to be “tough on crime.” Instead, all spoke passionately about ending mass incarceration and holding police accountable. A week before the election, a liberal Daily News columnist remarked incredulously that the candidates had spent less time discussing how they would protect residents from crime than how they’d protect suspects’ rights. As University of Pennsylvania law professor and civil rights attorney David Rudovsky told the Atlantic, “It sounds like they’re all running for public defender.”
The fact that all the candidates fell over one another trying to prove they were the best equipped to reform the DA’s office is all the more remarkable given the relatively progressive state of criminal justice in Philadelphia today.
In absolute terms, Philly’s justice system is very deeply flawed. Its prisons are woefully overcrowded thanks to years of mass incarceration. The DA’s office abused civil asset forfeiture to seize property—cash, cars, even homes—from residents, many of whom never committed crimes, boosting its budget by about $6 million a year. Williams shamefully fought convictions overturned by DNA evidence. A federal court called the Philadelphia Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics racially biased and unconstitutional.
But there have been signs of progress. Former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked the Department of Justice to study the department’s distressingly high number of officer-involved shootings and then swiftly implemented the vast majority of the DOJ’s recommendations. Cops have shot far fewer people since, and Ramsey was named to President Barack Obama’s national task force on police shootings. Last year, the city launched a new initiative to reduce its prison population by 34 percent over three years; since then, the population has fallen by 12 percent. The number of illegal stops has gone down.
The ongoing reforms have paid some dividends in the form of trust. According to Pew, 60 percent of Philadelphians said they have confidence in Philadelphia police to treat blacks and whites equally. Among the city’s blacks and Hispanics, those figures are just 47 and 45 percent respectively. But that is still high compared to national numbers, which show that only 35 percent of blacks believe police treat people of all racial and ethnic groups equally.
Still, in my talks with voters leading up to the election, there was very little discussion of changes in Philadelphia. Nor did anyone really talk about criminal activity—the fact that the city’s homicide rate has been ticking upward again or that those murders have increasingly gone unsolved. Instead, conversations centered on national issues—Trump, Black Lives Matter, the war on drugs. It's as though Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim has been turned on its head: All politics is national.
So, against this backdrop, perhaps it was inevitable that the race tacked so hard to port on policy. Against a field of five seasoned prosecutors and one also-ran judge, Krasner stood out for two reasons: his atypical career path and his fiery antagonism toward police and prosecutors.
Where other candidates equivocated, Krasner was resolute. Most described Williams almost as a fallen angel, a man who began his tenure with important reforms but then grew increasingly reactionary as questions about his probity mounted. Krasner, by contrast, never described Williams’ administration as anything other than an unmitigated disaster.
Krasner wouldn’t merely stake out his position on an issue and leave it at that. In debates and speeches, the Stanford Law grad would explicate why he was right—and why anyone who disagreed with him was wrong—with both contempt and crystalline logic. Krasner’s self-righteousness induced disdain in a number of his future underlings in the DA’s office but inspired intense devotion from his supporters.
For progressive voters, the choice came down to trust. Runner-up Joe Khan, a former assistant district attorney and federal prosecutor, staked out a nearly identical policy platform. But Krasner argued convincingly that only a true outsider could reform the office. Even though Khan made his name prosecuting Democratic politicians, that argument resonated with Philly voters. While Khan sounded like he was trying to please the crowd, it felt like Krasner was speaking from the heart.
Money also obviously played a role in the race. George Soros backed Krasner via an independent PAC to the tune of $1.45 million, far outpacing the rest of the field. In low-turnout races—only 17 percent of voters showed up at the polls—mere name recognition can be the decisive factor. In Philadelphia, the candidate that spends the most airing ads on local TV often wins. (There is a corollary to this in presidential elections, articulated by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, that the candidate who attracts the most media coverage wins.) Krasner also put together an impressive ground game, aggressively canvassing the city’s most progressive neighborhoods.
Krasner’s win has also been celebrated, incorrectly, as a sign that national Democratic groups have learned to support local candidates. Consider the case of Rebecca Rhynhart, a political newcomer who decided to run for office after Trump won in November and unseated a 12-year incumbent in the Philadelphia city controller’s race. Rhynhart won in defiance of the city’s rusting Democratic machine, with no significant support from outside the region. More importantly, even as Soros’ PAC ran ads touting Krasner’s promise to end cash bail, no one seemed to bother supporting progressive judicial candidates—the men and women who, if elected, have the power to actually set bail.
Pennsylvania elects its judges in a process that resembles a cheap lottery more than a thoughtful plebiscite. In Philly, it’s fair to say judges are chosen by picking names from a can—specifically, an old Horn & Hardart coffee can used to determine ballot position. A recent statistical analysis showed that the position of a judicial candidate’s name on the ballot mattered more than bar association recommendations, newspaper endorsements, and the Democratic party’s endorsement. As they do every year, a handful of candidates rated “not recommended” by the Philadelphia Bar Association defeated a number of highly recommended candidates.
If dumping money into a local DA’s race amounted to sending a message to Jeff Sessions, then supporting Henry Sias could have been the local judicial equivalent of flipping off Neil Gorusch.
Sias co-founded Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which among other things represents low-income residents through the criminal record expungement process. The Yale Law alumnus, who earned a “recommended” rating from the bar association, would have been the nation’s first male trans judge if elected. But outside money didn’t pour in to support Sias. He lost with just 3.81 percent of the vote, finishing well behind a nonrecommended former state representative infamous for racking up massive per diem payments in his previous stint in office and having an unusually long and impressively annotated Wikipedia page.
If Krasner wins in November as expected, his next challenge will be tougher than the race itself. Many of the city’s cops and prosecutors despise him, which will make it harder for Krasner to live up to his supporters’ exceedingly high expectations. Ultimately, it's judges who decide whether to set cash bail, even if it isn’t sought by prosecutors.* If Krasner’s deep-pocketed backers had spread a bit of their money down ballot, maybe he would have had a little bit more help from the bench.
*Correction, May 20, 2017: This story originally misstated that judges in Pennsylvania can sentence someone to death even if that outcome isn’t sought by prosecutors. (Return.)