Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia district attorney on Tuesday, capping a once-improbable campaign to be the city’s top prosecutor and amid signals that he would bring significant, if not drastic, changes to the office.
A longtime defense lawyer, the Democrat won despite lacking political or prosecutorial experience and, at least early in the race, establishment support. But he rode the financial backing of one of his party’s most progressive billionaires, and benefited from a fractured field of opponents.
His last challenger, Republican Beth Grossman, proved to be slightly more formidable than some of her party’s predecessors in a city dominated by Democrats. But Grossman failed Tuesday to convince enough voters that her 21 years as an assistant district attorney made her the better choice.
The Associated Press proclaimed Krasner the winner just after 9 p.m. With nearly 98 percent of the votes counted, he had outpaced her by a 3-1 ratio, unofficial returns showed.
Addressing supporters gathered for his victory party at the William Way LGBT Community Center, Krasner promised his election would herald “transformational change” in the city’s criminal justice system and a fairness “for a system that has systematically picked on black and brown people.”
“This,” he told the crowd, “is what a movement looks like.”
The son of a crime-fiction author and an evangelical Christian minister, Krasner grew up in St. Louis, graduated from Stanford Law School, and is married to Common Pleas Court Judge Lisa M. Rau.
Despite three decades as a lawyer, the 56-year-old was assailed from the start of his campaign by critics as unsuitable for the job — as an attorney best known for taking on civil rights cases and suing the Philadelphia Police Department. It was for some of the same reasons that he drew support from activists demanding criminal justice reform from an office they deemed unfair, and he returned to those themes Tuesday night.
DA vote reveals a divided city
“If you, like us, believe it’s time to end the death penalty…mass incarceration … cash bail …,” he said, drawing cheers from the crowd that packed into an overheated and small second-floor ballroom.
In the end, several factors worked in his favor in what is typically a low-key election won by a Democrat.
First, former District Attorney Seth Williams dropped his bid for a third term two days after Krasner entered the race in February. Williams, a Democrat, was indicted on federal corruption charges in March, pleaded guilty to a bribery charge during his trial in June and was sentenced in October to five years in prison.
The open seat drew a crowd of seven candidates for the Democratic primary, most with experience as assistant district attorneys. Krasner, running as a reformer, knocked them as “part of the problem.”
And Krasner had a significant political patron on his side — New York billionaire George Soros sank nearly $1.7 million into an independent political action committee that aired television ads in support of Krasner, who easily won the primary.
Grossman ran unopposed for the Republican nomination but could not marshal the resources to catch Krasner in a city where Democratic voters outnumber GOP by 7-1.
“I️ am just proud. I️ feel honored and privileged to have run this race,” she told supporters in her concession speech at the United Republican Club in Kensington. “I️ am so proud of the numbers — a great showing for a Republican candidate.”
Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police became Grossman’s most public backer, giving her campaign $12,500 and issuing a letter to police officers in October accusing Krasner of showing “an open hostility against police and law enforcement in general.”
The Republican City Committee and the state Republican Party, while railing against Krasner, did not foster the fundraising needed to raise Grossman’s name recognition in the city. Still, they tried to keep their spirits up Tuesday night as they watched returns at the Kensington club.
Chris Mundiath, Grossman’s communications director, said the campaign had always expected an uphill battle but had hoped for a slimmer margin. He said he had heard from some Democrats and ward leaders concerned that Krasner was too far to the left and had hoped that might translate into more votes.
Across the room, Daphne Goggins, a Republican ward leader and the vice chair of the Philadelphia Black Ward Leaders Caucus, was livid. Earlier in the night, she said she’d felt a Grossman victory was coming, the same way she felt a Trump victory last year. Now, she called Krasner “Lucifer.”
“I’m very, very upset,” she said. But she said she hoped Grossman would run for office again: “We’ll dust her off and run her for mayor.”
Grossman had proved to be a lively opponent, frequently suggesting that she was interested in justice for victims of crime while claiming Krasner was more interested in reforms to help those accused of crimes.
Krasner countered with stories of going to court to secure the assets of convicted criminals to benefit their victims. And he recounted being sliced with a blade he never saw during a mugging in the alley behind his Center City office a decade ago.
With Krasner’s election, many expect some level of disruption in the District Attorney’s Office, which employs about 300 lawyers and 300 support staff, and has a budget of $54 million for the fiscal year that started in July. Krasner has said he has “no magic list” of employees to keep or fire, although he has been critical of the office’s past performance.
Kelley Hodge was appointed interim district attorney in July by the Common Pleas Court Board of Judges and has won praise for restoring order to the scandal-plagued agency.
In his brief speech, Krasner thanked Grossman for maintaining a level of civility “that frankly is uncommon in Trump world” and urged his supporters to apply for jobs at KrasnerTransition.com. Though the crowd included some party stalwarts, it was mostly young and casual, filled with activists known for protests and lobbying at City Hall.
Will Mega, a former reality television performer who has four times run unsuccessfully for office without traditional party support, said Krasner’s victory told supporters one thing — “that their vote matters.”