On Tuesday night, a 56-year-old bespectacled criminal defense attorney gave criminal justice reformers their biggest win yet. Larry Krasner won a crowded seven-candidate Democratic primary against practically the entire Philadelphia establishment to become the party’s nominee for District Attorney; in a city where Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by sixty-seven points, Krasner is a heavy favorite to win the general election on Nov. 7.
In the famously conservative realm of district attorneys, Larry Krasner might as well be Emma Goldman. According to a recent Mother Jones profile, he’s represented Occupy and 2012 Republican National Convention protesters, sued the police over seventy-five times for civil rights violations, and gotten over eight hundred narcotics convictions thrown out. Not to mention he’s never prosecuted a case in his life; in response to concerns that he’d be “soft” on crime, Krasner responded, “I don’t really think there’s anything tougher than being a criminal defense attorney who represents poor people up against the power of government, which has infinite resources when you’re basically doing war with your fingernails.”
As you would expect from someone who has seen the worst abuses of the justice system, Krasner’s platform is a laundry list of criminal justice reform goals for progressives. Among other things, Krasner wants to end the death penalty, cash bail imprisonment, stop and frisk, and civil asset forfeiture. He’s also promising to fight the Trump administration on immigration and Jeff Sessions’ renewed drug war.
Perhaps most notably, he seems willing to take on police misconduct, which is a far cry from the vast majority of prosecutors. “Larry will keep up the pressure for reform by rejecting cases that rely on abusive or discriminatory actions by the police, by prosecuting police when appropriate, and by making the case that good policing is more effective than the divisive law enforcement tactics encouraged by politicians like Trump and Sessions,” Krasner’s website reads.
Predictably, the powerful city establishment came out against Krasner: the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, and former Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty all endorsed the eventual third-place finisher, Rich Negrin. And last week, a group of former ADAs released an open letter against Krasner which called him a “candidate who is dangerous to the city.” Krasner’s endorsements, meanwhile, mostly came from a litany of social justice, labor, and progressive organizations — and, notably, in the form of a $1.45 million donation from George Soros.
To put it simply, Krasner can be a generational reformer. If he’s successful, Philadelphia’s next district attorney will redefine what success means in an office where “results” usually means a high conviction rate and a vague notion that “criminals” are being kept off the streets. The importance of his victory for the city’s marginalized citizens, and families who come in contact with the system, can’t be overstated.
You only need to look the last two people to occupy that office to know the conditions in which a Krasner could win: the Philadelphia DA from 1991 to 2010, Lynne Abraham — also known as the “Queen of Death” — was cited in a 2016 Fair Punishment Project report as one of the “top five deadliest prosecutors” because she so frequently sought and obtained the death sentence — 108 times in total.
Her successor, Seth Williams, fashioned himself as a breath of fresh air. But as Josie Duffy Rice wrote in her appraisal of Williams’ career for Slate, a lot of that talk ultimately turned out to be just that, as Williams pursued civil asset forfeiture, fought a gubernatorial moratorium on the death penalty, went back on a promise to offer the chance of parole to juveniles who get life sentences, and turned a blind eye to prosecutorial and police misconduct. “Williams abused the public trust in multiple ways during his tenure as district attorney,” Duffy Rice wrote. “In the end, it turned out his reform jargon was mostly for show.” Williams was indicted in March on bribery charges.
This victory doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. Recently, more liberal candidates for top prosecutor positions around the country have won out over “tough-on-crime” incumbents. One was last March’s state’s attorney race in Cook County, Illinois, where Kim Foxx trounced incumbent Anita Alvarez by thirty points after Alvarez’s many missteps following the murder of seventeen-year old LaQuan McDonald by a Chicago police officer.
But because of Krasner’s concrete ideas for reforming the DA’s office, the Fair Punishment Project, a pro-criminal justice reform group affiliated with Harvard University, says that his win is particularly special. “Forward thinking candidates winning local district attorney elections reflects a powerful and encouraging trend, but Larry Krasner winning tonight in Philadelphia is something of a revolution,” FPP director Robert Smith said in a statement on Tuesday night.
Krasner’s win, along with the probable election of left-winger Chokwe Antar Lumumba as the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, provides two very important lessons for progressives. The first is that one path to taking power and institutionalizing change — maybe the best path — runs through local governments. In Philly’s case, Democrats hold all of the power, but the continuous failure of Democrats on criminal justice and policing issues — going back decades — presented an opportunity for real, substantive wins that can affect real change.
The second lesson is that providing actual solutions to fixing institutional problems seems to be the recipe for a winning campaign message. Krasner saw the problems and offered substantial remedies, things that advocates of reforms have wanted for years; for that, Philadelphia Democrats gave him their vote over several more traditional, establishment-backed candidates.
“Your passion and thirst for equal justice got us here today…It’s time to get to work.” Krasner tweeted after the race was called. The challenge now is holding him to his promises; in the meantime, however, progressives should relish one of their biggest victories in a long, long time.