Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner celebrates his reelection in May 2021 with supporters at his victory party Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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District Attorney Larry Krasner has won the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney, fending off a challenge from Carlos Vega, a former city homicide prosecutor, and all but securing a second term for his reform-driven criminal justice agenda.

Krasner declared victory just before 11 p.m., and Vega conceded about 45 minutes later.

The Associated Press officially called the race near midnight, with nearly 90% of precincts reporting and Krasner holding a nearly 2-to-1 lead over his rival.

The typically quiet primary race drew more than 185,000 voters, according to unofficial returns. While still accounting for just 17% to 19% of the city’s more than 1,050,000 eligible voters, the results surpassed the relatively high turnout seen in 2017, in which 165,000 votes were cast.

Unusual for an incumbent, Krasner faced an uphill primary that pitted his progressive agenda against a surge of gun violence. While cities across the U.S. saw spikes in homicide during the last year, in Philadelphia shootings reached levels unseen since 1990 — and the murder rate has continued to climb in 2021.

The race became widely seen as a referendum on Krasner as an avatar of a larger criminal justice reform movement, as big cities grappled with skyrocketing bloodshed during pandemic lockdowns and a summer of protests over aggressive policing.

The otherwise sleepy district attorney’s race turned acrimonious in the final weeks of the primary. The two candidates sparred on stage after their only televised debate, with Vega seemingly lobbing veiled threats at his opponent. In an unusual move, Vega also advanced a libel lawsuit against Krasner and activist supporter Shaun King in the final leadup to Election Day — his second lawsuit against the DA to date.

Krasner, 60, cast the race as a choice between progress and older days of mass incarceration.

Speaking to a crowd of a few dozen supporters at the Sonesta hotel in Center City on Thursday night, the DA highlighted his efforts to overhaul the office while also holding violent offenders accountable.

“Four years ago, we promised reform and a focus on serious crime,” Krasner said. “People voted us into office with a mandate…and they voted us back in with a mandate again.”

The DA said that mandate came from “the people most affected by serious crime” as well as by mass incarceration.

A former defense attorney who rose to prominence by suing the police department and representing Black Lives Matter activists, Krasner was viewed as an improbable candidate when he jumped into the race for DA in 2017. He brought no prosecutorial experience. He wanted to root out law-and-order policies from an office where law and order had long been the status quo.

Nonetheless, Krasner developed a fiery base of both progressive and establishment supporters in Philadelphia, as well as national patrons. In 2017, New York billionaire George Soros spent $1.7 million on a political action committee to support Krasner’s election.

Krasner has since became a poster child for the national criminal justice reform movement — one of several self-styled progressive DAs to shake up the top prosecutor’s office in big U.S. cities.

In his first term, Krasner argued he had made strides while also hitting roadblocks.

Since 2018, his office has won 20 exonerations of wrongful convictions, helped cut probation and parole supervision by a third, reduced prosecution for simple drug possession and other misdemeanors, and filed dozens of criminal cases against police officers — though many have since been dismissed.

While supporters say those are promises kept, some among Krasner’s left-leaning base assailed him for not going far enough on some promises, like abolishing cash bail.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner declares victory in the Democratic primary at his campaign party at the Sonesta Hotel in Center City Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Over the years, his office has also faced pushback from crime victims, some of whom decried his office as insensitive, uncommunicative or overly lenient. The city’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, cast Krasner as uniquely responsible for the city’s rising tide of gun violence.

Conversely, Vega, a 64-year-old longtime city homicide prosecutor whom Krasner fired when he took office, drew vocal backing from FOP.

The city’s police union had waged ideological war against Krasner for years, but the incumbent’s reelection fight saw the union pour money into a political action committee known as Protect Our Police. The PAC spent heavily in support of Vega’s campaign, but also drew controversy for statements about the death of George Floyd and scrutiny for its repeated failure to meet deadlines for campaign finance disclosures.

“I would like to thank the army of supporters my campaign has generated, despite being outspent significantly by my opponent, and despite receiving no establishment or celebrity support,” Vega said in a statement that referred to his goal of “lifting up the voice of victims.”

Ultimately, Vega’s loudest backers may have also led to his undoing, as a string of prominent local politicians lined up behind Krasner — and against the FOP.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, a Democrat representing parts of West Philly, alluded to the opposition in a congratulatory speech to Krasner.

“People out there tried to divide us. They tried to capitalize on the pain and trauma of our communities — and tonight they lost,” Gauthier said.

Krasner will now face off in the November general election against Chuck Peruto, a defense attorney and the lone Republican to run in the primary.

But in a formidably Democratic town where Republicans are outnumbered nearly 7-to-1, that race is a long shot for Peruto. The last time Philadelphia voters elected a Republican DA was in 1985.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...