City prosecutors not celebrating Krasner's victory

Running for DA, Larry Krasner attends the traditional Election Day Lunch at Relish on Ogontz, Tuesday May 16, 2019. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Larry Krasner’s sizable win Tuesday in the crowded Democratic primary for district attorney is being hailed across the country as a victory for progressive values in the age of Trump.

But the career defense attorney could face an even bigger challenge if he tops Republican Beth Grossman in the November general election: winning over the 600 employees of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Krasner pitched himself to voters as the true progressive in the race, a civil rights expert who’s represented members of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philly.

His criticism of the District Attorney’s Office went beyond its policies. He portrayed it as agency that was flawed to the core, “with a mad zeal for the highest charge, for the highest level of conviction, a culture that can find no flaw in police misconduct, that is drunk on the death penalty.”

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the people who could be reporting to him come January.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” one longtime prosecutor told the Inquirer and Daily News on Wednesday morning, speaking anonymously, as others did, out of concern for the future of their jobs. “It’s kind of hard to separate the person from what he said during the campaign. I don’t think he has much goodwill in the office, given the tenor and tone of what he’s been saying.”

But fiery campaign rhetoric is just that: talk. The true measure of Krasner’s impact on the District Attorney’s Office would be in the protocols he’d seek to create -- and others that he’d end. This, too, worries some prosecutors who know him as a fierce adversary in the courtroom.

“His idea of justice is different than the vast majority of people’s in the city,” said an assistant district attorney who is higher up the chain of command. “We’re in a city ravaged by gun violence and violent crime. When your platform is civil rights and resisting Trump, well, that’s not the job of the prosecutor. Our job is to protect the city and keep people safe.”

Krasner cast his relationship with the office in a softer light during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. 

“I have very close connections to many, many prosecutors there. There are really good people in that office, and really good people in that office want things to be better there," he said.

Some, he said, sent him congratulatory emails and text messages. But how will Krasner address prosecutors who view him with suspicion? Or, as one longtime prosecutor put it: "Everything we've seen from him during the campaign has been about how the DA's Office is unethical and prosecutes terrible cases, and only he can fix it."

"Ultimately, I think everyone understands in an election that it's in the interest of some candidates to turn the other candidates into cartoon characters," Krasner said.

"It's a talking point, it's a point of persuasion. But the reality is, the ones who know me, and who know me as a three-dimensional person, know that I'm very different from that cartoon character.

"I really don't think there will be any difficulty at all in conveying to the good people in the DA's Office that we're on the same mission, which is a mission toward justice."

Although his election in November might still result in some veteran prosecutors leaving the office, others are trying to set aside the hysteria of the moment.

“I think it can work, but it’s not going to be an easy transition,” said David Rudovsky, the vice president of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “I think he’s going to find a way to work with the staff and find others who will work with him.”

Rudovsky noted that there is public support for some of Krasner’s proposals, like abolishing the death penalty and scaling back use of civil-asset forfeiture. 

Still, Rudovsky said, Krasner is “committed to pursuing serious crime. I think that’s what the people of Philadelphia want.”

But some observers remain skeptical, like Richard Sax, who retired last month after serving 37 years as a city prosecutor. "I can't see him giving up a lifetime of work and a commitment to things he's said over time," said Sax, 61. "I think he's sold us a bill of goods."

Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.