Updated: Wednesday, May 17, 2017, 5:56 PM
What happens in a “ward leader” election when Philadelphia’s Democratic ward leaders can’t unify behind one candidate for district attorney?
Larry Krasner will tell you it can be a very good day for an antiestablishment candidate.
Krasner, a defense lawyer known for taking on civil rights cases, cruised to victory in Tuesday’s primary.
He played to progressive groups with his lack of prosecutorial experience and a call for reform in the District Attorney’s Office. On Wednesday, he said his connections to some of the activists who rallied for him went back two decades.
"They're leaders, and so they grow up to be the heads of nonprofits, the heads of organizations, executives," Krasner said. "They grow up to be people who have a circle of others who listen to them and are persuaded by them and care deeply about what's right and wrong, as I do. Those are the people who won this election, because they know their networks and those networks have networks."
Five of the seven candidates in the race had served as assistant district attorneys. Another had been a Municipal Court judge for 21 years. Krasner painted them all during the primary as part of the problem at the District Attorney's Office.
“In a wide-open race, what happened was he was antiestablishment and the rest were part of the establishment,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell called Tuesday’s primary, which also saw incumbent City Controller Alan Butkovitz lose his bid for a fourth term to a candidate aligned with progressive groups, “a huge victory for independent voters and a bad day for the Democratic machine.”
For district attorney, Rendell had endorsed Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor who finished second in the race, 18 points behind Krasner.
Rendell said Krasner also benefited from a crowded field, which split the vote.
“I think Joe might have beaten him one on one,” Rendell said. “That’s just the way it is. I’m not saying [Krasner’s] victory isn’t legitimate. It is what it is.”
Ward-by-ward results offer some details for Krasner’s win, since no candidate was able to muster enough ward leader support to win the party’s endorsement.
The 34th Ward, led by Brady, remained neutral. Krasner won with 34.5 percent of the vote. Tariq El-Shabazz, who until February was the top aide to District Attorney Seth Williams, took second with 27 percent. El-Shabazz finished fourth overall in the race.
Next door in the Fourth Ward, led by Edgar “Sonny” Campbell Jr., El-Shabazz beat Krasner by just four votes. Campbell heads the United Ward Leaders of Color. El-Shabazz was the only African American candidate in the race.
“If you’re doing that in the African American wards, imagine what you’re doing in the white wards,” said Brady, who praised Krasner’s performance among black voters.
Krasner’s civil rights work has included representing members of Black Lives Matter.
“His Black Lives Matter really generated,” Brady said. “That’s a hot button. And he campaigned on that.”
Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the most politically influential unions in the city and state, waited until late in the primary to fall behind Jack O’Neill, a former assistant district attorney.
But a late burst of money for campaign signs and Election Day volunteers did little to help.
Consider the First Ward in South Philly, previously led by Local 98 chief John Dougherty. Krasner won that ward with 54 percent. O’Neill, who finished sixth overall, took just 13 percent there.
Ultimately, money played a key role for one candidate, but not for another.
Billionaire George Soros put $1.45 million into an independent political action committee that backed Krasner. Michael Untermeyer, a former city and state prosecutor who invested $1.3 million of his own money to air campaign commercials weeks before any other candidate, finished fifth overall.
A review of internal campaign polls show Untermeyer actually lost ground from mid-April to Tuesday while Krasner surged from little-known to a front-runner.
Rendell called Krasner’s late burst proof that “concentrated, high-volume television” works.
A significant chunk of the Soros money was also used to pay canvassers to knock on doors to turn out voters for Krasner.
“Krasner put a lot of money on the street,” Rendell said. “They used it very effectively.”
Krasner on Wednesday pushed back against criticism of a billionaire from outside of the city influencing a local election.
"I disagree that people who are idealistic and want to end things like mass incarceration are outsiders," he said.
Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.
Read full story: Krasner's anti-establishment push for DA wins over splintered Dems