BY ALICE SPERI - THE INTERCEPT
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 reelection.
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 thirty 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.