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Hammering Democrats on crime, Pa. Republicans target a liberal prosecutor

A GOP-led investigation of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, which allies call politically motivated, has highlighted a rift between the Democratic nominees for Senate and governor.
Larry Krasner
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia on Jan. 31.Matt Rourke / AP file

PHILADELPHIA — Campaigning on crime and looking for boogeymen, Republicans in Pennsylvania have zeroed in on Philadelphia's progressive district attorney, a national leader on criminal justice reform who could be impeached just ahead of the November election.

The drive against Larry Krasner has already divided Democrats on the politically charged issues of policing and public safety, cleaving at the diverse coalition of voters Democrats need to turn out in this critical swing state.

“All we need to do is keep together the Democratic coalition that elected Joe Biden,” said Joe Corrigan, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist involved in several local and state races. “My fear is that Republicans are doing a decent job of driving a wedge into the coalition.”

Critics — including some Democrats — allege that Krasner's policies have given free rein to criminals and allowed crime rates to soar in Philadelphia, which set a homicide record last year and has seen more violence than other major cities like New York.

“Krasner is a target because of what he symbolizes,” said Berwood Yost, a pollster who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Center for Opinion Research, which conducts the Franklin & Marshall poll in Pennsylvania. “He’s a direct tie to what Republicans would call ‘woke, soft-on-crime views towards the police’ — and those views are just not a popular position anywhere outside of Philadelphia.”

That link is especially clear with Democratic candidate for Senate, John Fetterman, a criminal justice reformer who endorsed Krasner's re-election campaign last year and worked with him to secure the release of two incarcerated brothers who are now prominently featured in GOP attack ads.

Republican Mehmet Oz struggled all summer to cut into Fetterman's polling lead and only began to see success when his campaign shifted its focus to the Democratic lieutenant governor's work chairing the state's pardon board, where he pushed for clemency for the Philadelphia brothers and many others.

"Republicans have used that to remind their base about matters of importance to them and as symbol of the opposition being out of touch," Yost said. "And Fetterman, in my estimation, didn't have a good response."

Oz's campaign and its allies have repeatedly hit Fetterman on his ties to Krasner, with the president of a Philadelphia police union saying it was endorsing Oz in part because “Fetterman is Krasner’s biggest cheerleader.”

In a statement, Oz's campaign spokesperson Brittany Yanick slammed Fetterman for "standing with radical Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose policies led Philadelphia to become one of the most dangerous cities in the nation."

Fetterman, however, like other Pennsylvania Democrats facing tough elections this year, is not eager to publicly defend Krasner.

So far, neither Fetterman nor Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro have raised their voices to defend Krasner — even as some party leaders and progressive activists demand they do just that.

"We call on every Democrat, every elected official who claims to care about making the cause of democracy real to condemn this," state Sen. Nikil Saval said. "That means uniform opposition to this committee, to these proceedings, and any impeachment votes."

Asked about Krasner, a Fetterman spokesperson sent a statement that did not include Krasner’s name or any specific reference to him.

But Democrats may not be able to avoid talking about Krasner for much longer.

Republicans who control the state Legislature in Harrisburg are looking to schedule an impeachment vote when they reconvene in the final week of October, which would force Democrats into the uncomfortable position of having to either disown or defend the controversial Krasner.

“Since the beginning of the effort to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, we have heard from countless Pennsylvanians, business owners and families who are fed up with the absolute lawlessness in Philadelphia,” Republican state Rep. Josh Kail, whose district is on the other side of the state, said in a statement.

If the Pennsylvania House votes to impeach Krasner, he would then stand trial in the Senate, which could vote to either acquit him or remove him from office, just as with the federal impeachment process.

Impeachment and removal would be virtually unprecedented. In the entire history of Pennsylvania, the Legislature has successfully used its impeachment powers only twice — in 1994 and 1811.

Krasner’s allies see an undemocratic attempt to overturn the will of Philadelphia voters, who re-elected him last year by a wide margin, and note there have been countless Pennsylvania officials in the past two centuries who committed serious crimes but were never targeted for impeachment.

“This is an orchestrated attempt by this neo-fascist movement to roll back the choices of citizens of Philadelphia," said Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor and official with the progressive Working Families Party, which helped get Krasner elected. "The fact that there would be some Democrats who would give aid to that is deeply frustrating and insulting."

They blame Republicans’ opposition to gun safety laws for the rise in violent crime and note crime is also up in rural and conservative parts of the state.

Still, Krasner's blunt style and progressive policies have divided Democrats in both Harrisburg and in Philadelphia, a city run largely by Black Democrats.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter slammed the DA’s “anti-police narrative" in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed last year and wondered "what kind of messed up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive district attorney."

The select committee that has been investigating Krasner for months is run by Republicans, but its membership is bipartisan, with three Republicans and two Democrats, both of whom represent Philadelphia.

And earlier this month, a surprising 49 state House Democrats — including Shapiro's running mate — sided with Republicans in voting to hold Krasner in contempt for declining to turn over subpoenaed documents to the committee that he says he is legally prohibited from releasing.

In an interview from his 18th floor office overlooking Philadelphia’s towering City Hall, Krasner insisted the movement of "progressive prosecutors" — those who favor alternatives to policing and incarceration — has not reversed, though he allowed it may have “stalled” for the moment.

Krasner helped kicked off a wave of progressives getting elected to top law enforcement jobs in major cities, but they’ve faced backlash as crime rates soared during the pandemic, and Republicans and police unions mobilized against them.

San Francisco voters ousted Chesa Boudin this summer while progressive prosecutors in Los Angeles, Chicago, Virginia and elsewhere have faced recall attempts, electoral challenges and other threats.

While Boudin lost his recall vote, others have successfully fought off challenges, and Krasner said he expects a progressive to win across the bay in Oakland’s Alameda County, which is bigger than San Francisco. 

Krasner blamed “MAGA Republicans” and the political opponents like "white supremacist leadership of the FoP” — one of two police unions backing Shapiro but not Fetterman — for ginning up the backlash, acknowledging that while his city's homicide rate is "horrifying," crime is up almost everywhere in America, including in conservative and rural areas.

Still, he acknowledged that Democrats such as Fetterman and Shapiro may want to keep their distance from him.

“Would I like to see them speak up? I think the most important thing right now is they have to win,” Krasner said, adding that he did not expect the impeachment effort to succeed. “If they felt like weighing in, so be it. But I’m not up for election, they are."