Here’s What’s Behind the Sharp Left Turn in Philly’s District Attorney Race


Is Philadelphia really ready for a revolution? Or are we still the same city that elected Lynne Abraham four times in a row?

... Perhaps the clearest sign that something has shifted in Philadelphia came over the winter, when a number of political insiders, looking at what appeared to be a pretty progressive field of candidates in the DA’s race, decided it wasn’t progressive enough and set about looking for another option.

The four challengers in the Democratic primary at that time were Michael Untermeyer, a former prosecutor who’s running to eliminate cash bail completely and divert even the hardest drug users out of the justice system before they’re booked; another ex-ADA, Joe Khan, who adamantly defends sanctuary cities and also hates cash bail; former managing director Richard Negrin, a more moderate voice who nonetheless rails against the city’s “unjust” civil forfeiture program and is campaigning to clean up the office; and Teresa Carr Deni, a centrist Municipal Court judge who has a decent reputation among liberal defense attorneys.

Some, if not most, of these candidates would have looked bold to Democrats a few years ago. But in 2017, criminal justice reformers were skeptical. Untermeyer was a Republican in a past life. Negrin has talked up stop-and-frisk, and Deni once suggested that the rape of a prostitute was a “theft of services.” So a search for someone else began, not only among locals, but also at a super PAC funded by billionaire George Soros. After a few big-shot progressives, including the head of the city’s public defender’s office, turned the opportunity down, a true believer threw his hat in the ring: Larry Krasner.

Krasner is a civil rights attorney known for doing battle with police unions and defending the First Amendment rights of protesters; he’s never worked a day in his life as a prosecutor. On the day he announced his candidacy, a horde of activists, including public-school moms, Black Lives Matter protesters and Occupy Philadelphia alumni, gathered behind him at the studios of a community TV station. He had, at one point or another, represented many of them in court.

Krasner was wearing his signature hipster glasses and a skinny navy blue suit, but he sounded like a West Philly activist at an anti-police brutality protest. “We have the highest percent of incarcerated people of the nations in the world,” he said. “We have more men of color in prison, jail, on probation or parole than there were in slavery at the start of the Civil War. And are we safe? The answer is we are not.”

Asa Khalif, the face of the local Black Lives Matter movement, took the unusual step of endorsing Krasner that night. Attorney Michael Coard, a militant critic of the city’s jails and police, also backed him. “He has fought and continues to fight the racist nonstop police brutality epidemic,” Coard wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune. “He is the blackest white guy I know.”

In the same week, the leader of the city’s police union called Krasner’s candidacy “hilarious.” It was Krasner, after all, who defended ex-Eagles player LeSean McCoy while he was being investigated for an alleged bar fight with two off-duty cops. McCoy was never charged. And it was Krasner who convinced Seth Williams to stop allowing a group of narcotics officers to be court witnesses because, he argued, they were unreliable.

Krasner simply wouldn’t have been a viable district attorney candidate a few years ago. He threatens the status quo as much as do Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But he has grassroots support, and there are rumors that the Soros-funded super PAC might back him. Even if the Fraternal Order of Police dooms his candidacy, the fact that it exists says something about how attitudes toward justice have changed in Philadelphia. ...