Philadelphia’s Progressive District Attorney Fends Off Democratic Challenger 1

Larry Krasner, part of a new breed of prosecutors, easily defeated Carlos Vega in Tuesday’s primary in spite of a rise in gun crime.

Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, won the Democratic nomination in his re-election campaign on Tuesday, easily fending off a challenge from a former prosecutor who had argued that Mr. Krasner was making the city less safe.

Voters were unconvinced by that argument. When The Associated Press called the race late Tuesday night, Mr. Krasner was ahead of his rival, Carlos Vega, by almost 40,000 votes.

Throughout his campaign, Mr. Krasner argued that a 40 percent increase in homicides in Philadelphia last year had nothing to do with his progressive policies, pointing to cities with more traditional prosecutors that had experienced similar trends during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Krasner does not prosecute some low-level offenses, such as drug possession and prostitution, and has sought more lenient sentences than his predecessors.

In a speech to supporters on Tuesday night at a hotel in downtown Philadelphia, Mr. Krasner said he had been re-elected because he had kept his promises, and he claimed a mandate from the voters most affected by serious crime.

“We in this movement for criminal justice reform just won a big one,” he said.

Mr. Krasner’s convincing victory, achieved in spite of a sharp increase in gun crime in Philadelphia over the past two years, may indicate that the appeal of progressive prosecutors will hold steady for voters even as public safety becomes a more pressing issue.

Mr. Krasner acknowledged that in his victory remarks.

“We hear all this talk about how somehow progressive prosecution can’t survive,” he said. “That’s not what I see. What I see is that traditional prosecution can’t survive.”

Mr. Vega acknowledged his loss in a tweet shortly before midnight on Tuesday, saying, “It looks like tonight we did not get the result we wanted, but even in defeat we have grace & we smile.”

He thanked his supporters and expressed his own support for the victims of crimes. A spokesman for his campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As in his first campaign, in which he ran against six other candidates, Mr. Krasner, 60, won significant support from Black voters in the northern and western parts of the city. Those neighborhoods have been the most affected by gun violence, and were places where Mr. Vega, 64, had hoped to make inroads.

“Black voters — and not just Black voters — believe that change is necessary and that the direction that Larry Krasner is taking is the right direction,” said State Senator Vincent J. Hughes, who represents several of those neighborhoods. “This is not a close victory. It is an affirmation that we have to go in a different direction in the pursuit of justice.”

Enthusiasm for what used to be a low-turnout race remained high. When all the votes are counted, including mail-in ballots, turnout will almost certainly be higher than it was four years ago, when 155,000 people voted in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Vega, a longtime homicide prosecutor, was among the first employees whom Mr. Krasner fired after taking over the district attorney’s office in 2018. Mr. Vega argued that the leniency of Mr. Krasner’s policies had led to the increase in crime.

Criminologists said there would be no way to prove Mr. Vega’s assertions. David S. Abrams, a professor of law and economics at the University of Pennsylvania who has tracked crime statistics across the country over the past year, said any theory would have to take into account both the rise in homicides and shootings and the overall decline in crime, at least through 2020.

“It’s a mystery,” he said. “There are a ton of theories, almost none of which fit all the facts.”

Mr. Vega received ample support from the police, whose powerful union poured tens of thousands of dollars into his campaign and tarred Mr. Krasner as soft on crime at every opportunity.

Mr. Krasner won office four years ago as part of a new breed of progressive prosecutors. In addition to upholding his campaign pledge not to prosecute low-level crimes, he lowered the number of people in the city’s jail by more than 30 percent.

That approach won him approval from voters but also a significant amount of criticism, particularly from former prosecutors and even some of his own employees. Thomas Mandracchia, who worked for Mr. Krasner for about two years, said the district attorney’s insistence on firing so many experienced lawyers had contributed to an office plagued by disorganization. But none of those criticisms appeared to put a dent in Mr. Krasner’s support on Tuesday.

In November’s general election, Mr. Krasner will face Charles Peruto Jr., a Republican defense lawyer who has campaigned on a strong message of public safety, saying that it is more important than civil rights. Mr. Peruto has called Mr. Krasner’s tenure “a disgrace” and said he would drop out of the race if Mr. Vega won.