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.
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.