Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s insurgent candidate for district attorney, has built his campaign around three pledges: to end mass incarceration, to stand up for people’s rights and liberties, and to resist the Trump administration.
In Philadelphia, as in much of 2017 America, those are ambitious plans: The city has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast and arrests twice as many people on average as other big cities. Philadelphia also has a sordid history of police abuse and a level of official corruption that’s almost legendary — the current DA, Seth Williams, is facing 23 federal charges ranging from bribery to extortion, and is not seeking re-election.
But Krasner, who has never worked as a prosecutor, has a 30-year record showing that he’s always been committed to those promises. As a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, he has represented many of those most affected by the city’s troubled justice system. He has defended Philadelphia’s poor and generations of the city’s dissenters — from ACT UP activists in the 1990s to Occupiers, Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter protesters in more recent years. He has sued the Philadelphia Police Department at least 75 times.
“I was just having a damn good time,” Krasner said during an interview at his law firm-turned-campaign headquarters. “I mean, there was something in it for me. I was contributing to major social change and it was making me feel, I don’t know … significant, whole. Right?”
Becoming a prosecutor won’t change that, he insists, never mind that his job will be sending people to prison. “I always did this because I think trials should always be fair, and innocent people should not be convicted, and individuals’ civil rights should be preserved,” he said. “I don’t see a big distinction between doing that as a prosecutor and doing it as a defense attorney.”
But if working to end mass incarceration and standing up for people’s rights have long been items on Krasner’s resume, it’s his opposition to President Donald Trump that might just sweep him into elected office. And it was Trump’s election that finally got him to give in to those who had been pushing him to run for office.
For someone who has spent 30 years battling a corrupt and unfair system, Krasner has an upbeat way of looking at it all, the Trump presidency included. Trump will be out soon, he speculated two days after the president fired James Comey, and anyway, the feds “don’t have enough boots on the ground” in Philadelphia. “If local district attorneys simply stand up and say, ‘You go ahead, we’re not going to be a part of your plan. We’re not funded for it, we’re not required to do it,’ he will have great difficulty carrying out almost all of what he’s trying to do,” Krasner said.
How Philadelphia will handle justice is in the hands of its next DA, then, but getting there won’t be so easy.
With seven candidates crowding up Tuesday’s Democratic primary, and one more candidate running as a Republican, it’s anyone’s guess how Krasner will do. District attorney races nationwide hardly bring lines to the polls, and Philadelphia, where electoral participation doesn’t match a vibrant community engagement, is no exception. When the current DA was elected, only 12 percent of those eligible to vote turned out at the polls. Even fewer showed up when he ran unopposed for a second term.
The city’s largest police union, which moves votes and endorsed Trump in the presidential election, got behind the Democrat most distant from Krasner’s overthrow-the-system promises.
But this is the Trump era, and many are now watching Krasner’s run in Philadelphia as a test of whether people’s horror with the larger state of electoral politics will lead them to show up or give up, a test of whether people’s anger can turn into votes, particularly in local elections.
At a time when the new administration is promising to roll back police reform, return to harsh sentencing for low-level offenders, and further criminalize immigration, the race for Philadelphia’s top prosecutor job and a number of other DA races across the country are also testing people’s commitment to a criminal justice reform that was finally, if imperfectly, underway. Krasner’s run has electrified Philadelphia’s progressives and brought to the city the expertise and resources of national racial justice advocates as well as Bernie Sanders alumni. It’s also a first test of whether the street and political movements that have sprung up in recent years can sustain losses, overcome differences, and keep going.
A lot of people have stacked their hopes in such an insurgency at the polls. Others, like billionaire George Soros, are investing more than hope. Soros has been injecting money into DA and sheriff races across the country and gave $1.45 million to a PAC supporting Krasner’s run in Philadelphia, raising some eyebrows among the candidate’s progressive base. “We can’t play by a different set of rules than our opponents because that’s how we have allowed the system to get rigged against us,” said Becky Bond, a former adviser to the Sanders campaign whose group is now working on Krasner’s campaign. “So while we work to change the rules and get big money out of politics, we can’t cede elections to people that can bring in big money.”
In Philadelphia, Krasner has earned the endorsement and enthusiasm of a broad and diverse coalition sharing his same progressive values, like his firm opposition to the death penalty, which he promises never to pursue, and his rejection of broken practices like stop-and-frisk, cash bail, and asset forfeiture, which disproportionately affect Philadelphia’s black and poor residents.
So far, he has won the support of activists, pastors, union members, the singer John Legend, and the punk rock band Sheer Mag. The latter had Krasner on stage to sing a cover version of The Clash’s “Clampdown.” “Rage Against the Machine did it, Bruce Springsteen did it, and now Larry Krasner does it,” he joked. A coalition of other groups that cannot endorse candidates because of their tax-exempt status also got involved in the race, naming no names but calling on Philadelphians to elect a DA who is “for the people.”
Among these groups is the ACLU, which since November has made resistance to the Trump administration its rallying cry. Now the group is taking its fight for criminal justice reform up a notch by shifting its focus to prosecutors, the system’s most powerful and unchecked actors. In Pennsylvania, the ACLU’s local affiliate is also testing new waters by getting involved for the first time in a DA race, with a campaign aimed at educating voters on the issues at stake on Tuesday. That initiative is a pilot, but the ACLU is already planning similar efforts in nine upcoming races across the country.
“We realized that if we were going to get serious about ending mass incarceration, then we had to start affecting who gets elected,” said Nick Pressley, who runs the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s “Vote Smart Justice” campaign. “The DA is literally the most powerful person in the criminal justice system.”
Pressley spoke to The Intercept from a downtown office the group rented out ahead of the primary, before equipping a couple dozen canvassers, most with direct experience with the city’s criminal justice failures, with tablets listing ACLU members’ home addresses and literature calling on them to vote “smart.”
“There’s no oversight over the DA, there’s no transparency in the office,” Pressley said, citing prosecutors’ power to offer plea bargains, which can decide as many as 97 percent of cases, or to set cash bail, which in Philadelphia is the single greatest driver of incarceration. “Sixty-seven percent of people in Philadelphia jails are awaiting trial,” he added. “And many are in there because they can’t afford bail.”
Donna Carter knows something about that.
When her son was accused of attempted murder, his bail was set at $10,000, even though he maintained his innocence and the victim insisted that he was not the one who had tried to kill him. Still, prosecutors pressed forward, even offering her son a three to seven-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. He refused and spent the next eight months in jail. His mother thought it wiser to put the bail money toward a lawyer.
Carter, who is unemployed but now makes $15 an hour as a canvasser for the ACLU’s campaign, will sometimes tell that story to the people whose doors she knocks on. “That was my first time really realizing how much power the system had that they didn’t seem to use very wisely,” she said. “That’s why I want to see them not use the cash bail system.”
Carter also talks to voters about the city’s punitive asset forfeiture practices. Her mother’s home was seized because a nephew sold marijuana there while she was at work. Her mother eventually got her home back but many others never do: Philadelphia seized over $64 million in assets between 2002 and 2012, mostly from its poorest citizens. Carter says the people she speaks to are shocked to learn that you don’t need to commit a crime to have your property seized, and that there’s no compensation when you do. “You may think this doesn’t affect you ‘cause you don’t do crimes, but if you have someone in your family who inadvertently pulls you into their crime, it can affect you.”
A few days ahead of the primary, Carter made the rounds of the South Philadelphia neighborhood she grew up in, now quickly gentrifying, knocking on doors. She pointed to newly renovated row houses that looked much nicer than they used to, and remarked on the many progressive signs, some directly addressing the president, that residents had put on their windows in support of black lives, Muslims, and true American values.
Those who opened their doors offered a glimpse into both the enthusiasm of a narrow sector of the city that has rallied around Krasner, and the perhaps broader ambivalence about a race that remains obscure to most. “There’s probably not going to be a lot of people that vote,” said Brian Leboff, a 29 year-old IT consultant who seemed caught off guard when Carter asked him if he planned to. “People probably don’t even know there’s going to be a DA election.”
“I am going to vote for Krasner,” said Wendy Wells, a 65-year-old retiree and monthly ACLU contributor, who said that she started donating to the group “the day after the election,” and that she appreciates Krasner’s opposition to the death penalty and support of LGBTQ rights. “Although he has no prosecutorial experience, I think maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
While the ACLU’s canvassers did not tell people whom to vote for, many other groups did, and in recent weeks, they organized panels, canvasses, phone banks, house parties, and a string of other initiatives in support of Krasner.
“This election is kind of the perfect storm, and a number of community organizations are figuring out how to best get involved,” said Bryan Mercer, a member of 215 People’s Alliance, one of a dozen local organizations that have officially endorsed Krasner and are actively working to get him elected. “Part of the response is that, if change can’t happen at the federal level, then we have got to be organized in our communities and push the local officers that we do have a say in to be the best that the can.”
“People understand that and they’re putting in the work,” he added.
At a recent campaign event, a sample of the diverse range of groups and individuals that coalesced around Krasner packed into a café staffed by formerly incarcerated people. The crowd spilled into the street, where the owner hung signs saying “Justice Makes Us Safer.” Krasner’s supporters were white, black, young, and old. There was a sex workers rights advocate, and an elderly man wearing political pins and a handmade “Fuck Trump” pendant.
Asa Khalif, one of the city’s most recognized Black Lives Matter activists, has been a regular on the campaign since Krasner, who once defended him in court, announced his candidacy. Local office candidates often asked for his support, Khalif said, but he never gave it, shunning elections as a compromised effort, as many within the movement continue to do.
“Black Lives Matter — we don’t endorse candidates, but Larry is a friend,” he said. But it wasn’t just friendship that convinced an activist whose political battle is fought on the street and who calls cops and prosecutors pigs. “It is a strategy, it is game of thrones if you will. We have to play this game, and also be able to change the rules, but you can’t change the rules if you’re not in the game.”
“Protest is going to get us to the table, once we’re at the table we need to have an agenda, we cannot just keep screaming no justice no peace, we need to be in the mix,” Khalif continued. “We need allies in government that are going be true to their word. We have a lot of people who promise a lot of things; we need someone that we can pick up the phone and they will answer when we make that call.”
Philadelphia activists are not the only ones strategizing around this race. In fact, what’s happening in the city is both a product of a grassroots-led turnout in response to local problems and part of a carefully planned national strategy that aims to put progressive candidates into office and build political power around issues like mass incarceration and police violence.
Already before Trump’s election, the national group Color of Change was among the first that seized on the momentum of the racial justice movement by starting a PAC and launching the “voting while black” campaign, calling on black voters to turn up for elections that matter most to their communities. In 2016, the group rallied voters around specific candidates in six high-profile prosecutor races, mostly aiming to unseat problematic ones. They actively campaigned for the elections of Aramis Ayala, Florida’s first black female state attorney, and Kim Foxx, who ousted incumbent Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez. Alvarez’s handling of the Chicago police killing of Laquan McDonald had sparked the massive, grassroots “Bye Anita” campaign, and brought about new public interest in prosecutor races.
“When folks know about the race and know that they have a choice to make that has clear consequences for their communities, they’re very willing to engage,” said Arisha Hatch, who leads Color of Change’s voter engagement effort. “It’s a matter of not taking black voters for granted.”
“It’s really important, especially in a political time when people feel very disenchanted about the willingness of the federal government to protect them, that we begin to talk about these local races,” she added.
Color of Change PAC is one of the national groups throwing their weight and resources behind Krasner’s candidacy in Philadelphia. Another one is Real Justice PAC, formed by alumni of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in an effort to apply that campaign’s organizing strategies and technologies to boost mass participation in local elections.
“In the past, you’d have progressive activists who see elections as compromised, who’d rather stay outside of the process and critique it than go inside and take power, and part of the reason why is that a lot of the forces that have helped people get elected pushed candidates to compromise,” said Bond, the former Sanders advisor and Real Justice PAC’s president. “What we’re seeing now is progressive advocates get involved in elections to take power behind candidates that are uncompromising.”
Bond credits Sanders supporters — a movement made up of many newcomers to politics who took a virtually unknown candidate to 46 percent of the Democratic Party’s delegates — for unseating the establishment’s narrative that certain candidates are “unelectable.” She also credits Trump’s election with much the same outcome, and with inspiring insurgent candidates like Krasner to run, and people to vote for them.
“We saw a candidate that we thought was totally unelectable, Donald Trump, now be the president of the U.S.,” said Bond. “We don’t have to suck it up and support the candidate that the establishment tells us is viable, we can make candidates viable.”
There were lessons learned during the Sanders campaign, including a realization, by some at least, that criminal justice is “not an issue that’s only talked about with some voters, but one of the central issues of our time,” Bond said. Last year, both Democratic presidential candidates failed to realize that, and one of the greatest criticisms levied against the Sanders campaign has been about its insistence on a colorblindness that alienated many black voters.
“Racial justice was not part of a broad message to all voters,” said Bond. “This is where we’re seeing an important course correction in Philadelphia; you are seeing activists come together and say actually, racial justice and criminal justice reform need to be at the heart of any agenda for change.”
Whether he wins or not, Krasner’s supporters say that his candidacy has already succeeded in pushing the entire field to the left, though it remains to be seen whether the next DA can live up to those promises. Most importantly, this race has shined a spotlight on problems like the city’s cash bail and asset forfeiture practices — issues that have long affected black and poor Philadelphians but that are now on the radar of a much broader range of the city’s residents.
That kind of interest dominated the DA race. “I was surprised to hear everyone talking about the importance of rehabilitation, of diversion programs, of really trying to lessen the number of people going through jails,” said Mercer, of 215 People’s Alliance. “Not a single one of those candidates was talking about being tough on crime.”
That’s because criminal justice reform has in recent years become a bipartisan talking point, and anyone running for DA has better chances promising reform than pledging to be tough on crime. Still, there’s a wide spectrum of positions on what that reform should look like — with Krasner’s proposal much closer to an overhaul.
“You’re seeing a lot of people who are in this race who are now adopting positions that they maybe didn’t have at the beginning of the race and that they certainly haven’t been advocating throughout their careers,” said Bret Grote, legal director of Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that is not endorsing any candidate. While skeptical of those adopting the language of reform without the credentials to back it up, Grote credits Krasner with putting specific policies on the table, like his pledge to review past convictions or to make sure all discovery is turned over to defendants’ lawyers — quite a departure from the way prosecutors normally operate.
“If you had told me a year ago that a leading candidate for the Philly DA race would be somebody who’s never been a prosecutor and who is showing up at a church with 150 people to talk about life without parole sentences, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Grote.
“If Krasner pulls it off in the primary next Tuesday, this could have reverberations across the country,” Grote added. “There’s potential for insurgency candidates, like attorneys who have spent their careers battling the system, seeing a model of what it could be like to put someone in there.”
Update: May 17, 2017
Larry Krasner won the Democratic nomination to Philadelphia’s DA office with 38 percent of the votes. He will face Republican candidate Beth Grossman in the general election next fall, but in a deeply Democratic city, the odds are in his favor. You can read The Intercept’s interview with Krasner here.