Philly D.A. primary leads to upset with national implications

I’m going to take a detour from discussion of national issues to discuss something much closer to home.  As you know if you read my “about” page, I’m a lawyer here in Philly, and yesterday was the primary for a number of spots in local government, primarily the District Attorney and some trial and appellate court judges.

The race ended up getting a good deal of national attention, because it had national implications.  In a surprise upset, Larry Krasner, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, who has gotten a lot of love from the social justice movement, beat party favorites to win the Democratic primary.  Given Philly’s strong Democratic majority, he is a near-lock to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney.

Krasner has represented clients that include Occupy Philly and Black Lives Matter.  And although he never used the description himself, it’s pretty much known here that he was the Bernie Sanders of the Philly DA race.

Like many primaries, this was expected to be a low turnout election day.  But it actually drew more voters than the election that put now-disgraced District Attorney Seth Williams into office in 2009.  Early returns showed 108,000 votes were cast with 75 percent of precincts reporting, meaning voter turnout is higher than than the last competitive district attorney’s race in 2009, when 103,000 votes were cast.  Still appallingly low in a city with over a million people, but primaries are primaries.

Krasner’s win is politically significant. For one thing, a civil rights attorney winning a local election like the Philadelphia district attorney’s race has national implications. It’s one of the first tests of the anti-Donald Trump resistance movement in Philadelphia, and it showed that focusing national attention on a local race can work.  Notable people who plugged Krasner include John Legend and Susan Sarandon.  And it certainly bears mentioning that George Soros threw some major money behind Krasner.


Krasner’s spent the better part of his career criticizing a system he’ll now likely lead, unless something unexpected happens in November and Republican candidate Beth Grossman pulls off a win, or an independent enters the race.  Neither is likely.  He beat out some formidable opponents, including former federal prosecutor Joe Khan, former managing director of the city Rich Negrin, former prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, ex-Seth Williams right-hand-man Tariq El-Shabazz, Municipal Court judge Teresa Carr Deni and prosecutor John O’Neill.

Krasner is an avowed progressive and a longtime, very vocal civil rights activist.  His progressivism on criminal justice clearly resonated here. He had no experience as a prosecutor, but still beat candidates who were more or less career prosecutors.  The Soros money can’t be discounted as a contributing factor to that victory, but it’s his  super-progressive platform that could shake things up, both in terms of who will support him in November and what a DA’s office under his leadership will look like.  While some former prosecutors have publicly stated their support for Krasner and his vision to better implement criminal justice reforms, others have railed against him, particularly a group of ex-assistant district attorneys who penned an open letter urging against voting for Krasner.

A win in November for Krasner would also undoubtedly shake things up in an office that for the last two months has been operating under indicted District Attorney Seth Williams, a two-term Democrat who was charged with corruption in March, had his law license suspended and continues to refuse to resign.

Others in the criminal justice community have pointed out that the winner of the Philadelphia DA’s race is an important local check on a national system.  Given Jeff Sessions regressive return to the drug war and mandatory minimums, the Krasner victory shows that the mobilized left isn’t interested in that agenda – and that it can beat out establishment candidates.