The Trailer: Cops vs. Krasner: A fight over criminal justice reform in Philadelphia

“We’re going to have robocalls,” said McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5, from his northeast Philadelphia office. “We’re going to have text alerts. We’re going to do email alerts. We’re going to have lawn signs. We’re going to have planes flying over Major League Baseball events. I’m actually getting ready to put a Mister Softee truck ice cream truck right outside the DA’s office for the next three or four Fridays.” 

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McNesby is in the final weeks of a campaign to oust Krasner, whose surprise 2017 victory supercharged the criminal justice movement, putting a defense attorney into a job only ever held by prosecutors. Police unions have worked to make the race a referendum on the city’s rising crime rate and a repudiation of Krasner’s agenda: No prosecutions for marijuana possession or sex work, no cash bail for most prisoners, and a refusal to seek the death penalty. 

Krasner would happily make it a referendum on the police union, portraying his May 18 primary opponent Carlos Vega as a stand-in for the FOP, running to undo his reforms.

“The respect and trust that exists for the FOP right now is so low, it’s around the level of Donald Trump in Philly,” Krasner said in an interview near his downtown office. “I’m not running nationally. I’m running here. If I’m in the leadership of the FOP, if I’m a Trumpie, if I am a fake Democrat like my opponent, then I would not want to be facing the Philadelphia electorate right now.”

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The 60-year old Krasner, who had never sought office before 2017, was not the first criminal justice reformer to take over a DA’s office. The year before, the liberal philanthropist George Soros funded a network of PACs to support reformers running to become city and county prosecutors, identifying typically low-profile, low-turnout contests where ad buys could swing elections. As cities grew more liberal and Republicans in them grew less relevant, candidates who ran on undoing “mass incarceration” could win elections. 

Krasner quickly became the best-known of the reformer DAs, laying off 31 prosecutors as soon as he took office and clashing with ambitious prosecutors in both parties. Former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain, who has accused Krasner of advancing a “radical pro-defendant ideology,” is a likely Republican candidate for governor; state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who hired some of the fired prosecutors that Krasner called “war criminals,” is a likely Democratic gubernatorial opponent. 

And at the same time, reformers with the same prosecutorial theories as Krasner took over DA offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and St. Louis. None of those prosecutors has lost an election; Krasner’s opponents hope he’ll be the first. In the May 18 Democratic primary, Krasner will face Vega, one of the fired prosecutors, a Democrat who blamed the district attorney for the city’s surging gun crime, with more than 100 homicides so far this year. 

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With the FOP’s support — the union has convinced more than 9,000 independents and Republicans to become Democrats for the primary, according to McNesby — Vega has echoed liberal concerns about “systemic racism,” while arguing that Krasner’s response to it has simply gone too far.

“When you look at the numbers, the level of dropping charges, and the level of dropping conviction rates, you see it’s the same judges, the same police officers,” Vega said over coffee at a south Philadelphia diner. “The only thing that changed in 2018 is Mr. Krasner.”

Krasner doesn’t dispute that violent crime has gone up. He points out that it has gone up everywhere, after a year in which the “already diminished resources” available to Philadelphians were locked down, everything from libraries to parks to courts. 

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“We absolutely expected resistance from institutions not yet ready for change, but I certainly did not anticipate a pandemic,” Krasner said. “When we actually look at the reported data from last year, what happened? We see that on average the increase (in homicides nationally) was 40 percent. The increase in Philly? Forty percent. And when you rank the cities, Philly came in, not the worst, not the second-worst, not the third-worst, but the 23rd. The commonality is the shutdown of this fabric of society. And you also have an unprecedented and nearly complete shutdown of normal law enforcement.”

The FOP’s strategy of getting behind a single candidate is a correction from 2017, when multiple similar contenders split an anti-Krasner vote. The DA’s opponents also have a backup plan in Chuck Peruto, a Republican candidate who has said he’ll suspend his campaign if Vega wins the primary and stay in the race if Krasner is the Democratic candidate  — “Philadelphia’s insurance policy,” he has said, “in case Carlos can’t beat Larry.” Republicans had similar ambitions four years ago, but their candidate, endorsed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the FOP, grabbed just a quarter of the citywide vote. Krasner’s 2017 win was sealed in a primary where around 150,000 voters cast ballots, tripling turnout from the past election. If his opponents have a chance of defeating Krasner, it is on May 18.

In other cities where reformers have captured DA offices, opponents are citing the higher crime rate as a reason to unify and oust them, with recall campaigns underway to remove San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles’s George Gascón. The message is the same: Crime is up, and the new DAs and their changes are responsible.

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“He’s just not responsive to victims’ families,” said Tania Owen, the widow of an L.A. County sheriff who was killed on assignment in 2016, and a chief organizer of the recall effort against Gascón. The campaign against Krasner hits the same themes, with the FOP-backed Protect Police PAC running ads in which female and non-White Philadelphians say he cares “more about the criminals than he does the victims.”

Krasner’s allies say that a defeat, while unlikely, would be disastrous for the reform movement. Krasner has commanded more media attention than his peers, with a PBS documentary series about his term debuting today, along with his memoir, “For the People.” Although Vega doesn’t talk about reversing Krasner’s entire agenda, a defeat would be seen that way, proof that a deeply Democratic city is exhausted by the reform agenda and blames it for higher crime.

“Larry was the first person to come into that job as a movement candidate,” said Kendra Brooks, a Philadelphia city council member who took over a Republican seat in 2019, with much of the same local political backing as Krasner. “This call to accountability has grown here in Philadelphia, and I feel like he has been at the forefront of that. We need another term to continue what he’s doing, whereas I feel that Vega and the FOP are trying to stop all the progress he’s been making.”

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Vega has worked to portray the race as a disagreement among Democrats, nothing larger. It hasn’t been easy. Although Vega has not criticized Black Lives Matter activists, McNesby frequently has, calling them “wild animals” and a “terrorist group.” Although Vega has not courted conservative media, McNesby has appeared on Fox to tear into Krasner; although Vega says he did not vote for President Donald Trump, McNesby met with the former president in 2019, attacking “rogue” prosecutors such as Krasner, ahead of the national FOP’s endorsement of Trump’s campaign.

“I am honored once again to be attacked by President Trump, the most criminal U.S. president of my lifetime,” Krasner said at the time.

McNesby said that any focus by Krasner on Trump was a distraction, and that the union would happily work with any president. “I think our Democratic folks here in the city of Philadelphia are very smart,” McNesby said. “They can see exactly what’s going on. They as much as anybody want to rid the city of this cancer.”

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Vega, while embracing the FOP, has tried to stay clear of the Trump connection. His biggest political coup of the race was getting a group of Democratic ward leaders to make no endorsement, keeping the local party’s hands out of the primary. (Many ward leaders have independently backed Krasner.) In his own campaigning and advertising, he has portrayed Krasner’s focus on ending mass incarceration as an experiment that has hurt non-White Philadelphians.

“Communities of color are being ravaged with violence,” Vega said. “Eighty-seven percent of murder victims are Black. Twelve percent are Latino. We’re dying.”

Krasner doesn’t buy it. In the interview, after he was briefly stopped by a Black sanitation worker who wanted to share an idea about gun crime, Krasner pointed out that Black women were his most likely supporters in 2017. 

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“If we were going to have a problem, it would be a problem in our base, and there is absolutely no sign of that whatsoever,” Krasner said. “This is not 1968. This is not 1972. The Frank Rizzo statue is gone, and this is what they are not getting.”

The removal of that statue, and the destruction of a mural commemorating the cop-turned-mayor, are featured in Krasner’s memoir. He writes, with clear satisfaction, that the yanking of the statue at night was a sort of “extraordinary rendition,” tactics Rizzo “might have liked to use on the living.” Four years of his own battles with former prosecutors, of insult contests with the FOP, are coming to a head. He likes his chances.

“Even. After. George. Floyd,” Krasner said, pounding his fist to emphasize each word. “Even after the polling, after George Floyd, they are not getting that people want criminal justice reform.”

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Special elections

MANSFIELD, Tex. — Early voting in Texas’s 6th Congressional District started on Monday, as the 23 candidates on the May 1 ballot released their pre-primary fundraising totals. The rundown, in order:

Brian Harrison (R) raised $647,334, leading the field in the first race he has run, benefiting from the Trump administration Department of Health and Human Services experience that’s the focus of his campaign. That total includes a $285,000 loan from Harris, money that helped him go on the air early and frequently. (Among his donors: Trump ally and libertarian investor Peter Thiel.) Jake Ellzey (R), a state legislator who lost the 2018 primary for the seat, raised $503,523, more in just a few weeks than he raised for the entire race that year.

Susan Wright (R), the widow of former Rep. Ron Wright, trailed both challengers with $286,331 since she entered the race. She also raised less than Dan Rodimer (R), a businessman and onetime wrestler whose campaign, which began with a hasty move to Texas from Nevada, hasn’t impressed local Republican leaders; he raised $337,101, on the strength of viral videos that portray him as “big Dan,” a brawler who’ll fight liberals in Washington. Unlike last month’s House race in Louisiana, where Rep. Julia Letlow (R) cleared the field after her husband’s death, Wright has been in a scramble for a runoff slot.

“Susan Wright is every bit as qualified as her husband was, and people see her as an equal competitor,” said Rick Barnes, the chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. “It’s a fair race, as opposed to a sort of sympathy race, and I think more people stepped in as a result of that.”

Two Democrats raised more than Wright: nonprofit organization director Shawn Lassiter (D) with $322,255 and business executive Jana Lynne Sanchez with $299,008. Sanchez has more resources overall, with the Latino candidate-focused Nuestro PAC running Spanish-language ads for her over the past few weeks; Lassiter has some help from Collective PAC, which aids Black candidates, and an endorsement from 314 Action, which backs candidates with STEM experience. Lydia Bean (D), an unsuccessful state legislative candidate last year, raised $223,056. Neither national nor Texas Democrats have done much to emphasize what they see here, that Sanchez has the best shot at making the runoff. 

Just a few other candidates have a real presence in the race, apart from the occasional lawn sign or walk-in at a candidate forum. Green Beret Michael Egan (R) raised $116,074, and fellow veteran Michael Wood (R) put together $98,627 for a campaign he has turned into a challenge of President Donald Trump’s political legacy, and a challenge to Republican voters to move past conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. A full look at the race will run in the next Trailer.

Ad watch

Protect Our Police PAC, “Victims of Krasner.” The campaign to unseat Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner has blamed him and his approach to incarceration for, essentially, any increase in local crime rates. In the main TV message from this PAC, funded by the Fraternal Order of Police, five women (and no men) talk about men in their lives who were murdered, blaming Krasner for letting killers out of jail. One grieving mother worries that Krasner “may not let this murder charge stick,” against her son’s killer.

Melanie Stansbury, “New Mexicans deserve a leader who fights for Social Security.” The nominees in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District exchanged their first negative ads over the past week, with Republican Mark Moores striking first. His spot accused Stansbury of not working to pass legislation that would scrap a tax the state’s seniors pay on their benefits; Stansbury’s response notes that Moores opposed “President Biden’s American Rescue Plan,” and twice points out that he’s a Republican, a fact not put on-screen in Moores’s ads. The district backed Joe Biden by 23 points last year; the election is on June 1.

Karen Carter Peterson, “Ask.” Since the March primary for the 2nd Congressional District in Louisiana, Carter Peterson has worked to consolidate the liberal vote, starting with the endorsement of activist and defeated rival Gary Chambers. He appears again here, sharing billing with Stacey Abrams and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and with the candidate’s emphasis on Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. Fellow Democrat Troy Carter, her opponent in Saturday’s runoff, does not support the latter.

Club for Growth Action, “Friends.” The conservative PAC has played in a run of Texas races, and opposed state Rep. Jake Ellzey when he sought the seat three years ago. Ellzey has now out-fundraised Susan Wright, who like her late husband won the Club’s endorsement. The group’s response: linking Ellzey to the #NeverTrump movement via his donation from William Kristol, which the ad introduces to voters as “maybe the most vicious” conservative Trump foe. The group spent millions unsuccessfully against Trump in 2016, but since then has used the 45th president to challenge the movement credentials of candidates it opposes. The election is on May 1.

Nuestro PAC, “Texas Tough.” English and Spanish versions of this spot have been running in Texas’s 7th Congressional District, with nearly the same text, all backing Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez. The biggest difference: When the narrator says that Texans endured a blizzard that “Republicans failed to protect us from,” the English version says “hell,” and the Spanish says “caramba.” The overall effort: Introduce Sanchez, one of several credible Democrats, as the one with the best shot at getting first or second place in the race, making the runoff.

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Poll watch

Andrew Yang: 22%
Eric Adams: 13%
Scott Stringer: 11%
Maya Wiley: 7%
Ray McGuire: 6%
Shaun Donovan: 6%
Dianne Morales: 5%
Kathryn Garcia: 4%

Since jumping into the Democrats’ mayoral primary in New York, Andrew Yang has led every public poll, giving him the aura of a front-runner. He’s still got it, 63 days out from the primary, but slightly more New York Democrats say they “don’t know” who they’ll support ― 26 percent ― than say they’ll support Yang, who has far less support from traditional power brokers than Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, or Stringer, the two-term city comptroller. This will be the first New York election under a ranked-choice voting system, and when asked to list a second choice, the picture is even murkier: 14 percent say Stringer, 13 percent say Yang, and 10 percent say Adams, with no other candidate cracking double digits.

Yang’s skeptics have been predicting for months that he’ll fade, and growing more nervous and confused as he holds onto the lead. But in the internals here, you can see why supporters of Adams, Stringer, and the stragglers think they have a chance. Seventy-seven percent of likely voters say they have at least some opinion of Yang, to 61 percent for Stringer and 53 percent for Adams. The vast majority of voters don’t know anything about the other candidates, which gives them hope that a tuned-in electorate, after endorsements have been made, will move off Yang.

In the states

Democrats, wary of retirements and deaths reducing their House majority, got a breather this week with the retirement of Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District. The Columbus-area congressman, who chaired the NRCC during its star-crossed 2018 cycle, leaves behind a seat that backed Donald Trump by 15 points in 2016, then 14 points in 2020, a tribute to the inelasticity of rural Ohio and the map Republicans drew to shore up their majority 10 years ago.

Stivers won’t hit the exit until May 16, and Republicans are already lining up to fill the seat before it’s redrawn for next year. State Rep. Brian Stewart and state Sen. Bob Peterson jumped into the race first, and the vote could come as soon as August; if so, it would fall along the same schedule as the election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, with the primary winners heading to a November 3 special election.

At the same time, not far down Interstate 70, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley launched her second bid for governor; she abandoned a 2018 bid after eventual Democratic nominee Richard Cordray entered the race. In Maryland, former Obama education secretary John B. King Jr. launched a run for governor, becoming the second high-profile Democrat in the race, though he hasn’t sought electoral office before. (Neither had outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan until he won in 2014.)

Dems in disarray

Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, the dean of Florida’s House delegation, died two weeks ago today. The last time that a member of Congress from Florida did not live to complete his term, an election was set to fill the vacancy in 13 days. There’s no date set yet in Florida’s 20th Congressional District for a number of reasons, several leading back to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Florida’s Constitution leaves it up to the governor to set special election dates, with no conditions. “Details on timing for a special election to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Representative Alcee Hastings are currently being determined and will be announced in the future,” a spokesman for Florida’s Department of State said in an email. And as Christine Stapleton explained in the Palm Beach Post, there are political upsides to calling it quickly, and a different set up of upsides to waiting.

Here are the calculations: Several of the Democrats already running for the seat hold state and local office. Under Florida’s “resign to run” law, candidates holding local elected office must vacate it if the job they’re seeking would begin before their current terms are over. Two announced Democratic candidates, Barbara Sharief and Dale Holness, are commissioners in deep blue Broward County; quitting would allow the governor to appoint Republicans to jobs that the GOP has been unable to win in ordinary elections.

Republicans won’t be very competitive in the House race, either, in a majority-minority district that gave 77 percent of the vote to Joe Biden. The winner of an eventual Democratic primary would have a glide path to the House, restoring some of the majority the party won last year. Right now, the last scheduled House election of 2021 is the Nov. 2 race to fill Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, also safely Democratic. As long as the Florida seat is open, Democrats would be one vote closer to defeat on their legislation. The party’s narrow majority hasn’t stymied legislation so far, but the potential is there.

Democrats in the House have emphasized that factor in calling for an election to be held quickly. But local Democrats have undercut them. The chief election officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties, both containing parts of the district, met with Florida’s secretary of sate this week to pitch a slower schedule: a Nov. 2 primary and a Jan. 11 election. 

Broward’s Joe Scott suggested a rationale that other Democrats hadn’t mentioned, that schools will be starting fall classes in August — one early possible date — and holding elections could pose a “burden on the school system.” A later House election, if the “resign-to-run” hopefuls did resign, could also take place at the same time as special elections to replace them.

And that’s why Democrats aren’t sure when one of their four open seats will be filled. One of them, the vacancy in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District, will be filled by an election on Saturday.

Countdown

… four days until the runoff in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District
… 11 days until the special primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 18 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 42 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 49 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 63 days until New York Citys primary
… 105 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District