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Last Thursday, a coalition of Democratic elected officials gathered at the statue of civil rights hero Octavius Catto to deliver their endorsement of District Attorney Larry Krasner ahead of the May 18 primary.
The next morning, officials with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 parked a Mister Softee truck across the street from the DA’s office and gave out free soft-serve — to taunt Krasner for being “soft on crime” and reiterate its support for his Democratic challenger, Carlos Vega.
“Soft on crime. Soft on sentencing,” tweeted union president John McNesby. “Come enjoy a mister softee cone on the cops.”
The two events highlight the political bases driving a hotly contested district attorney’s race that’s heading into the home stretch.
Both candidates have been savaging each other in campaign ads. Vega has blamed Krasner’s progressive politics for the city’s record-setting homicide rate. The sitting DA has cast Vega as a tool of a corrupt and heavy-handed police union.
Despite the mudslinging on both sides, political support in the race is still lopsided.
Granted, some Democratic leaders are steering clear of the slugfest. Mayor Jim Kenney ducked the question in an interview last week, despite endorsing Krasner in 2017. The Democratic City Committee declined to choose a candidate, and party chief Bob Brady also took a pass.
The high profile abstentions are a blow to Krasner, but there’s no doubt he leads the pack when it comes to establishment support.
Half of City Council is now going to bat for the reform-minded prosecutor. So are three state senators and four Democratic state representatives, plus a slate of celebrities like John Legend and Malcolm Jenkins. In its corner, the Vega campaign lists one Democratic state senator, three state representatives, a retired Eagles player and a man who describes himself as “the mayor of Southwest Philadelphia.”
Nearly a third of the city’s 66 ward leaders have publicly said they will back Krasner, according to the campaign. Vega named just 10 wards in support.
It’s not unusual for newcomers to struggle in that realm, and Vega has remained competitive with fundraising. He won endorsements from seven labor unions, and pulled in contributions from 17 of them, including large and politically generous locals like the firefighters and roofers. It’s a key political base in Philadelphia, and one Krasner has struggled to fully consolidate.
The incumbent has won nine union endorsements, from the teachers unions to the AFL-CIO. But the Krasner campaign spent close to $30,000 to curry more favor, campaign finance records show, hiring an expensive “union consulting” firm run by operative Ismail Shahid, who admitted it was a struggle to line up more support.
Does FOP support help or hurt Vega?
There is little doubt Vega’s most vocal backer is the police union. Whether or not that helps or hurts his ability to get other political support remains a matter of debate.
The local FOP routinely endorses candidates of both parties in local races, but this time the endorsement sits center stage.
Some Democratic leaders said the police union’s backing erased whatever chance they might have had of endorsing Vega. But Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson — who has publicly sparred with the FOP — said the union’s role had nothing to do with her decision to back Krasner. The freshman lawmaker cited Krasner’s policies and praised his transparency.
The attempt to pin the crime spike on the incumbent did not resonate, she said: “We all know that the cause of what we’re seeing today is the cause of years of disinvestment in communities that deserve to be invested in.”
To political consultant Mustafa Rashed, that Krasner earned endorsements from some pols whose districts have been hit hard by gun violence shows searing criticism over the murder rate has not tarred him as thoroughly as opponents hoped.
“I think it speaks against the narrative that there’s one person, office or entity responsible for this record high homicide rate,” Rashed said.
The visibility of the police union takes oxygen away from Vega’s policies, Rashed added: “Vega may have some really good ideas, but he’s being drowned out. He’s the collateral damage of this long feud.”
But public affairs strategist Larry Ceisler said he viewed the race as a public referendum on Krasner and his progressive policies — meaning Vega’s ideas mattered little.
“This election is about Larry Krasner, his approach to running the office of the District Attorney and the criminal justice system,” Ceisler said. “Vega’s last name might as well be ‘no’ or ‘not Larry Krasner.'”
The FOP spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to support its slate each year, campaign finance records show. For Vega, the group has even lobbied its Republican members to switch to Democrat so they can vote against Krasner in the primary.
Other police support has backfired on the former homicide prosecutor.
The Protect Our Police PAC, a pro-cop political group financed heavily by the FOP, landed Vega in hot water earlier this month after sending out a fund-raising message that blamed George Floyd for his own murder at the hands of a Minneopolis police officer. The PAC retracted the claim. The Vega campaign denounced the message and said it has no affiliation with the PAC.
‘Mayor of Southwest’ and the $30k consultant
Both candidates made moves that hinted at anxieties over the breadth or depth of their support.
Vega’s campaign listed endorsements from some unusual figures, including Hollis Thomas, who played with the Eagles a decade ago and briefly hosted a show on SportsRadio 94WIP, and Bill Cecil, a man described as “the mayor of Southwest Philadelphia.” The Vega campaign described Cecil as a community leader, though little information is available about him online.
Vega also cited the backing of “153 former ADAs,” alluding to a cosigned letter from ex-prosecutors who have long been some of Krasner’s most vocal opponents.
Krasner’s campaign has meanwhile spent big bucks in an effort to bolster support among unions that ostensibly support him — while retaining an old opponent’s onetime political operative to do it.
Mixed in with Krasner’s campaign media buys and campaign staff, expense records show about $28,000 paid over several months to an obscure company called “Cornerstone Strategy,” ostensibly for “labor consulting.” The company lists a P.O. Box in Bala Cynwyd, has no website and does not appear to have been paid by any other candidates in Philadelphia.
In fact, these payments were going to Ismail Shahid, a West Philadelphia political operative who formerly helmed a group known as “Trustwave PAC” that campaigned on behalf of defense attorney Tariq El-Shabazz when he ran against Krasner and others in the 2017 DA Primary.
Later, after Shahid had resigned, Trustwave was dissolved when the Ethics Board determined it had effectively functioned as an extension of El-Shabazz’s own campaign and violated campaign guidelines in the process.
In a phone call, Shahid said he now works as an independent consultant and had reached out to Krasner through a mutual party with an offer to perform similar get out the vote work — but also to shore up labor union support.
But he said the second part hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been a little rough. It’s been a hard lift,” Shahid said.
Krasner’s campaign countered, saying it enjoys broad support from labor, noting the office’s efforts to protect workers and prosecute scofflaw employers.
“In fact, our labor support has grown since we ran in 2017,” said campaign spokesperson Jessica Brand, “as we have followed through on our commitments to protect the rights of the hard working people in this city.”
But Shahid said Krasner’s record had made it harder to convince blue collar tradesmen to back the DA.
“I can only do so much,” he said. “It’s a hard lift because people are going to judge you based on your past performance.”
Each campaign provided the following list of endorsements, which has been updated since publication.
7, 19, 23, 26, 43, 57, 58, 63, 64, 66A, 66B
Sheet Metal Workers Local 19
Cement Masons and Plasterers Local 592
Painters DC 21
Bricklayers Local 1
Sprinkler Fitters Local 692
Fire Fighters and Paramedics Local 22
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5
State Sen. Tina Tartaglione
State Rep. Mike Driscoll
State Rep. Angel Cruz (also 7th Ward Leader)
State Rep. Kevin Boyle
Hollis Thomas, former Philadelphia Eagles Player
Tim Costello, of the Costello Boxing Family
Bill Cecil, “Mayor of Southwest”
153 Former ADAs who cosigned a letter against Krasner
1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 17, 20, 27, 28, 29, 32, 33, 42, 47, 50, 52, 61
Laborers Local 332
AFSCME DC 33
Faculty and Staff of the Community College of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
PA Working Families Party
Penn Dems (University of Penn student group)
Penn Justice Democrats
Make the Road PA
215 People’s Alliance
Free the Ballot
Real Justice PAC
Color of Change
State Rep. Morgan Cephas
State Rep. Izzy Fitzgerald
State Rep. Rick Krajewski
State Rep. and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton
Councilmember Kendra Brooks
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier
Councilmember Cherelle Parker
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez
Senator Sharif Street
Senator Tony Williams
Senator Nikil Saval
Councilman Curtis Jones
Councilman Isaiah Thomas
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson
Councilmember Helen Gym
U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders