The Progressive Movement Just Scored a Huge Win in Philly’s DA Race

Larry Krasner’s victory was a referendum on Trump as well as on a whole host of issues that predate the president: immigrant rights, the war on drugs and mass incarceration.

Joseph Bullington

In the Democratic primary for district attorney—the de facto election in the solidly blue city—voters chose civil rights lawyer and reformist Larry Krasner by a nearly 18-point margin. (Larry Krasner for DA/ Facebook)

Weeks after Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions re-declared the war on drugs and threat­ened to cut fed­er­al sup­port to police depart­ments that do not coop­er­ate with the administration’s depor­ta­tion efforts, the city of Philadel­phia respond­ed with defi­ance. In the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for dis­trict attor­ney — the de fac­to elec­tion in the solid­ly blue city — vot­ers chose civ­il rights lawyer and reformist Lar­ry Kras­ner by a near­ly 18-point mar­gin. Kras­ner built his cam­paign around promis­es to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, pro­tect rights and lib­er­ties and resist Don­ald Trump.

'Larry Krasner demonstrated that there's a real hunger among voters for a transformation of the criminal justice system to one focused on justice not punishment.'

If Kras­ner defeats Repub­li­can Beth Gross­man in the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion, it would be his first time work­ing as a pros­e­cu­tor. He has instead spent his 30-year legal career defend­ing peo­ple from pros­e­cu­tion, first as a pub­lic defend­er then as a pri­vate civ­il rights and crim­i­nal defense attor­ney. He has rep­re­sent­ed Occu­py Philly and Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers. He has also sued the Philadel­phia Police Depart­ment at least 75 times.

The city’s rejec­tion of Trump’s poli­cies showed not just in the choice of Kras­ner but in the elec­tion itself: All of the top DA can­di­dates ran reformist cam­paigns based around fix­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and pro­tect­ing Philadelphia’s sanc­tu­ary city sta­tus. Pro­gres­sive groups and pro­gres­sive mon­ey, how­ev­er, aligned behind Kras­ner. His cam­paign drew endorse­ments and sup­port from, among oth­ers, the racial jus­tice group Col­or of Change, labor unions, and Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion that grew out of the Bernie Sanders pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Lib­er­al bil­lion­aire George Soros con­tributed $1.45 million.

Accord­ing to Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty (WFP) spokesman Joe Dinkin, Kras­ner stood out from oth­er can­di­dates because he has spent his career oppos­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion.” The WFP, a polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that works to elect pro­gres­sive can­di­dates across the coun­try, endorsed Krasner’s cam­paign ear­ly. Accord­ing to a state­ment released by the WFP after Krasner’s vic­to­ry Tues­day night, the group knocked on more than 70,000 doors in sup­port of Kras­ner and brought more than 15,000 vot­ers to the polls.

Lar­ry Kras­ner demon­strat­ed that there’s a real hunger among vot­ers for a trans­for­ma­tion of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to one focused on jus­tice not pun­ish­ment,” Dinkin said.

Many nation­al com­men­ta­tors cast the elec­tion as a ref­er­en­dum on Trump, but it is also more than that. The prob­lems Kras­ner cam­paigned to fix long pre­date the Trump pres­i­den­cy. The incar­cer­a­tion rate in Penn­syl­va­nia, for exam­ple, has mir­rored the nation­al incar­cer­a­tion rate that has surged since the 1970s to an esti­mat­ed 670 peo­ple per 100,000 — far high­er than any oth­er coun­try in the world. Accord­ing to the Vera Insti­tute of Jus­tice, more than one in every 1,000 Penn­syl­va­nia res­i­dents between the ages of 15 and 64 are incar­cer­at­ed in pris­ons and jails. Philadel­phia itself impris­ons peo­ple at a high­er rate than any of the oth­er 10 largest U.S. cities. And, as in the coun­try at large, peo­ple of col­or and par­tic­u­lar­ly African Amer­i­cans are locked up at much high­er rates than whites in Pennsylvania.

In her book with Zack Exley about the Sanders cam­paign, staffer Becky Bond, who also worked with the Kras­ner cam­paign, writes that Bernie missed a cru­cial ear­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty to put race at the cen­ter of the mes­sage to every­one. It was a fail­ure that con­tin­ued to dam­age his abil­i­ty to bring every­one togeth­er around a rad­i­cal agenda.”

Future left pop­ulist can­di­dates may look to the DA elec­tion in Philadel­phia to learn how and why to put the issues of mass incar­cer­a­tion and racial jus­tice at the fore­front of their cam­paigns — and win. 

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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