As Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s reformist district attorney, faces his first reelection challenge, the city’s law enforcement groups have coalesced around a former homicide prosecutor whom Krasner fired when he entered office in 2018.
Carlos Vega, one of the 31 staffers Krasner fired during his first week on the job as part of his effort to reform the culture of the office, announced his challenge to Krasner two months ago. He has garnered support from police groups, including the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Philadelphia police officers. The Protect Our Police PAC — a group started by ex-cops in Philadelphia to fight against “Soros-backed candidates” and elect “pro-police” candidates, with Krasner as their primary target — has also considered backing Vega, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Vega’s challenge is the culmination of three years of significant opposition to Krasner’s approach to criminal justice reform from police and their allies, who have blamed him for incidents of gun violence. Krasner was a frequent target of Philadelphia’s former top federal prosecutor under President Donald Trump, Republican U.S. Attorney William McSwain, who blamed him when a police officer was shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant last spring. Lawmakers in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, passed legislation in 2019 taking away some of the DA’s power to prosecute certain gun crimes in Philadelphia, giving them instead to the attorney general.
Philadelphia saw a rise in gun violence this past summer coinciding with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the kind of spike that is typical in major cities during warm months. The Philadelphia City Council adopted a resolution in September urging Mayor Jim Kenney to declare the city’s gun violence issue a citywide emergency. Kenney has so far declined to do so. Eight people were shot in broad daylight outside of a public transit station in the city’s Olney neighborhood last week, with people quickly placing the blame on Krasner. Transit police officers were present during the shooting and were not able to stop it.
Krasner said that he couldn’t comment on criticism from city and law enforcement officials blaming his policies for recent violence but that he would keep working with officials toward safety and reform. “We will continue to work with elected officials and law enforcement to ensure the safety of the citizens of Philadelphia while continuing to do the necessary work of reform in policy and in practice to ensure fair and equitable outcomes for all,” he told The Intercept.
The Philadelphia race will test whether aggressive criminal justice reforms can survive the inevitable opposition they face from groups that see such reforms as a threat to the status quo.
The incumbent DA’s chances of winning the May primary in the heavily Democratic city are strong; he has raised more money than his opponent this cycle and has significantly more cash on hand. Still, just how much traction Vega’s campaign gains — at a time when tough-on-crime rhetoric is resonating with some segments of the public — will be a bellwether for the challenges facing other radical reformers elected on similar promises. That includes St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, up for reelection in 2022; St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, up for reelection in 2025; and San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, up for reelection in 2024, who have also faced intense backlash for their decarceral policies. The Philadelphia race will test whether aggressive criminal justice reforms can survive the inevitable opposition they face from groups that see such reforms as a threat to the status quo and if progressive prosecutors can out-message law enforcement groups on the other side.
The pushback to decarceral policies comes in part from a societal desire for punishment and redress, not a data-informed approach to addressing the root causes of crime, said Chenjerai Kumanyika, a Philadelphia-based scholar, journalist, and assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “I think that the desire for redress, or the desire to have someone deal with our loved ones who have been killed or hurt, is then manipulated by the state to become a punitive thirst that justifies policing,” Kumanyika said. “That nexus is what I’d like to see become central to the district attorney’s race.”
Given the recent incidents of gun violence in Philadelphia, some local officials worry that tough-on-crime narratives will have traction, even among voters who want to see reforms to the criminal justice system.
“Sometimes I’m fearful about those forces and their ability to be successful at a time when people are frightened,” said City Council member Jamie Gauthier, who introduced the resolution asking the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency. She said that more people should be talking about gun violence as a public health issue. “That’s a part of why I’m such a champion of Larry’s. Because if he goes and if Vega gets in there, that’s not where we’re gonna be.”
When Vega announced in December that he would run against Krasner in the primary, he said the DA “never talks about the victim” and hasn’t kept communities safe. Vega, who is 64 years old, is also currently suing the DA for age discrimination over being fired when Krasner took office.
Vega has framed his campaign as a route to a “safer, fairer Philadelphia” through “real progressive reform,” saying that he’s running in part to address the city’s murder rate. When he launched his campaign website, he touted his run as an antidote to Krasner’s policies. “Philadelphia cannot afford four more years of an absent District Attorney, who ignores black and brown victims of crime as homicides skyrocket,” reads an archived version of Vega’s website from December, which has since been redesigned. “We need a District Attorney who puts public safety first.”
Vega is running on improving the DA’s relationship with communities and wants to start an “adopt-a-school” program in which prosecutors meet and engage with children and parents a few times a month. Vega also wants to stop withdrawing gun cases and pleading out shooting cases and expand the conviction integrity unit relaunched under Krasner.
In response to Vega’s comments on his treatment of victims, Krasner said, “That’s a lie, and Mr. Vega knows it.” Krasner said that he had “dramatically expanded our programs to support victims from what existed when Mr. Vega was there,” including a team that offers support in every homicide case and a unit dedicated to connecting victims and their families with necessary services. “What we do not do is use victims for political gain,” Krasner said.
Practices of previous administrations caused immense harm to victims, Krasner added, including wrongful convictions in which both the victims and the wrongfully convicted suffer from a mismanagement of justice.
Asked about criticism that he would take a tough-on-crime approach that has historically disproportionately harmed Black and brown communities, Vega said his campaign is not “tough on crime” but that he wants to keep communities safe. Vega said he would address disparities in the criminal justice system by trying to increase diversity in the DA’s office and would seek to distinguish between petty and violent crimes, with a particular focus on people with substance use issues and in sex work.
“Our citizens, especially the communities of color, are being devastated by crimes of violence and drug dealing,” Vega told The Intercept. He also wants to address petty crimes of “shoplifting, burglary, and prostitution. Those people aren’t doing it ’cause they want to or making a career of it. These people are under the slave mentality of, they’re addicted to drugs and are trying to feed a drug habit,” Vega said, adding that he would want to send people experiencing drug use and mental health issues to diversion programs.
“I can’t control whether someone supports me, backs me, whatever. But my campaign is not pro-police.”
Vega has raised $132,300 so far from 294 individual donors, including $12,600 from the labor union for the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, and another $5,000 from the union’s PAC. Vega also contributed $10,900 of his own money. Vega also has support from the Philadelphia Firefighters’ and Paramedics’ Union, which gave $5,000 to his campaign; the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 League for Political Education, which gave $2,500; and the PAC for the Sprinkler Fitters Local Union No. 692, which gave $3,000. Vega raised the bulk of his contributions in less than a month. Local attorneys, including several others who were fired from Krasner’s office and hired by the attorney general, have contributed to Vega’s campaign. He’s also received contributions from two attorneys who represented a Philadelphia cop in a case Krasner filed during uprisings against police brutality last summer: The officer had beaten protesters with a baton during two separate incidents in one week. The campaign does not yet have any endorsements from local groups or elected officials.
The Protect Our Police PAC, meanwhile, has not yet endorsed in the race but has run a poll in its effort to find a candidate to back. The poll tested Vega’s chances against Krasner, as well as the chances of former interim District Attorney Kelley Hodge, who has been courted to run but has not entered the race, the Inquirer reported. The Inquirer also obtained a memo prepared by the polling firm hired by the PAC titled “Carlos Vega for Philadelphia DA.” The PAC started last June and is led by ex-cops, some with a history of violence and hateful posts on social media, according to Philly Power Research, a group of volunteer researchers investigating politics in the city. (One of the board members whose posts were cited by Philly Power Research, Bob Walls, is no longer involved with the PAC.) The group has raised two-thirds of its funds from Timothy Mellon, an heir to the Mellon banking fortune and a top Trump donor who called federal programs like the Affordable Care Act and food stamps “slavery redux” in a self-published 2015 autobiography.
“I can’t control whether someone supports me, backs me, whatever,” Vega said. “But my campaign is not pro-police.”
As an assistant DA, Vega was involved in prosecuting a retrial of a high-profile wrongful conviction case in which the defendant, Anthony Wright, was acquitted by a jury and exonerated by DNA evidence after being incarcerated for 25 years. Asked about the case, Vega said it was not his case and that Wright wasn’t exonerated, but cleared by a jury. (A jury cleared Wright during the 2016 trial after being presented with DNA evidence proving his innocence.) Vega was deposed in 2017 as part of a civil rights suit brought by Wright against the city, in which he said he would not have dismissed the indictment against Wright even if he had learned that the police officers involved had fabricated a confession from Wright or planted evidence.
“This was the case of another DA that had it for four years,” Vega said, noting that he was brought on several weeks before the trial. “My only participation in that case was calling the civilian witnesses and I think the crime scene personnel. With respect to the rest of the case, I was not involved at all. It was not my case.”
Vega received campaign contributions from two police officers who worked on the Wright wrongful conviction case, including an officer whose work Vega defended in statements he made when re-prosecuting the case in 2016 amid allegations that the officer fabricated a confession from Wright, WHYY reported. After WHYY asked the campaign about the contributions from the two cops, the campaign said it would return them. Vega told The Intercept that he can’t keep track of all donations he receives and can’t control who supports him. “I don’t want any hint of impropriety, so I returned that,” Vega said, noting that police officers aren’t allowed to contribute to political campaigns.
Former criminal defense attorney Chuck Peruto announced earlier this month that he would run for the seat as a Republican. Peruto has said that if Vega wins the primary, he won’t challenge him in the general.
Krasner was elected in 2017 on a promise to work toward ending mass incarceration and radically changing the way the city’s criminal justice system treated crime, substance use issues, and mental health.
His chances of winning reelection are strong. Krasner’s campaign has $399,000 on hand, including $211,984 raised last year from 212 donors. The current DA has support from the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, Real Justice PAC, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, and the unions AFSCME 1199C, which represents hospital and health care employees; AFSCME District Council 33, the union for city and public employees; and AFSCME District Council 47, which represents workers in the nonprofit, higher education, and government sectors.
Still, the DA has come under criticism from some of his supporters who back his campaign but say he hasn’t lived up to all of his promises. Malik Neal, executive director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this month criticizing Krasner for requesting cash bail in the case of a pregnant woman, arguing that the case was “emblematic of the widening gap between the rhetoric and the reality of criminal justice form.”
“The DA has done some great and unprecedented things while in office,” Neal told The Intercept. “But on the issue of bail and pretrial detention, he has, by his rhetoric and recent practices, failed to embrace the large-scale, transformative change needed to upend a fundamentally unjust system.”
Since taking office, Krasner has tried to adopt a restorative rather than a punitive approach to prosecution, ending cash bail requests for a variety of misdemeanor and felony offenses, declining charges for marijuana and sex work, and expanding the use of diversion programs for certain offenses, including arrest for carrying a gun without a permit. His office has continued to ask for cash bail in some cases where defendants haven’t been able to have a pretrial hearing, though it is seeking to implement full pretrial hearings in every case in order to further eliminate the use of cash bail and recently announced the expansion of an early bail review program aimed at reducing pretrial detention.
State law limits how much the office can do on its own to end cash bail and leaves much of the discretion up to magisterial district judges — though in practice, judges typically follow the lead of prosecutors on requesting bail. He has called for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to end cash bail across the state, and state Rep. Summer Lee plans to introduce a bill to do so this session.
The DA has made “enormous strides” toward his campaign promises, Krasner campaign spokesperson Brandon Evans told The Intercept, “and a look at our campaign promises and what we’ve accomplished shows that we kept those promises.” Evans pointed to decreases in the county jail population and the amount of time people spend behind bars and under probation or parole, handling the majority of juvenile cases in juvenile court and cutting the number of children placed outside their homes, and securing 18 exonerations so far.
State Rep. Rick Krajewski, an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia who took office in January, is supportive of Krasner’s administration but said that the DA needs to communicate better with the groups that helped him get elected.
Despite any shortcomings, Krajewski said, it’s irresponsible for law enforcement and other groups to blame Krasner’s office for violence in the city.
“Crime is not increasing because of the DA’s office,” Krajewski said. “Crime’s gone up because we have a fucking pandemic and people are losing their jobs, and they’re losing their health care, and they’re going crazy because they’ve been stuck in their houses all day. Those are the social factors that are causing crime to go up. And I think blaming it on the DA’s office is — I’ll say it’s irresponsible. Because it’s not taking the issue seriously.”
Correction: Feb. 25, 2021
A previous version of this article stated that the Protect our Police PAC is backing Vega. While the PAC has considered backing Vega, it has not yet made an endorsement in the race.