Democrats and progressives suffered setbacks across the country last week, especially in Virginia, with Glen Youngkin’s win in the governor’s race. In Pennsylvania, the results were more mixed: Democrats retained their stranglehold on political offices in the major cities, but elsewhere, Republicans showed strength.
Democrats always win in politically progressive Philadelphia, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. That reality was confirmed in the city’s most anticipated race, in which attorney Chuck Peruto challenged incumbent district attorney Larry Krasner, a poster boy for the “progressive prosecutor” movement. This was a battle that the Republican Peruto never expected to win, given the sustained national media adulation directed toward Krasner, including an eight-part PBS docuseries on Krasner’s first year in office. The campaign to unseat Krasner, however, did achieve a significant social media presence, especially on Facebook pages for neighborhood groups where anti-Krasner sentiment was vehement and widespread. Running as a Republican in a Democratic stronghold might be considered a masochistic endeavor, but Peruto had much to gain and little to lose from the effort. In the end, Krasner coasted to victory with 70 percent of the vote.
“This is about a movement,” Krasner said in his victory speech, referring to the high numbers of progressive prosecutors in office around the country. “It is not about us as individuals. . . . In Philadelphia, this is a movement that has been led by Black and brown and broke people, and progressives. And if you’re Black or brown or broke, you better be progressive because there isn’t much of an alternative.”
Peruto attributed Philadelphia’s rise in gun violence to the discontinuation of proactive stop-and-frisk policies. He campaigned for harsher criminal penalties, such as two years in prison for illegal gun possession. But none of this was enough to boost a campaign that many perceived as unorthodox. The Peruto for DA website, for example, included a full explanation of his involvement in a 2013 scandal in which a 26-year-old former paralegal at his law firm died in his Center City bathtub from a seizure after consuming large amounts of alcohol. Peruto, who had been having an affair with the woman, was vacationing at the shore with his family at the time of her death. Though police never implicated Peruto in her accidental death, the tragedy didn’t help the attorney’s reputation. Peruto’s website, which mentioned his support for Black Lives Matter, also revealed his Democratic Party roots (he switched parties to run against Krasner).
Odd-year elections rarely generate enthusiastic voter interest. This year, Philadelphia ‘received only 60,000 mail-in ballots, a stark contrast to last year’s election, in which more than 400,000 mail-in and absentee ballots were tallied. Voter turnout at the polls was also low in a city where Democrats enjoy a seven-to-one registration advantage. At my polling place in the Port Richmond-Fishtown neighborhood, Election Day administrators seated at sign-in tables outnumbered voters.
In Pittsburgh, meantime, the big news was the election of the city’s first black mayor, Ed Gainey, who crushed his Republican opponent, Tony Moreno, with 71 percent of the vote. Like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh is a one-horse political town; it hasn’t had a Republican mayor in 92 years. Gainey, who tends to shout, told a jubilant crowd on election night that the first thing he’ll do as mayor is “clean this city up and make sure the roads are clean because safety is number one.” He also pledged to make Pittsburgh “the most affordable in the country.”
Gainey’s win was no surprise, after his defeat of incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary this spring. Pittsburgh, with three Democrats to every one Republican, saw even more Democratic victories in its suburbs. Butler County shifted left, and Democrats flipped several state legislative seats and school boards as well. While Westmoreland County “went totally GOP,” in the words of the progressive Pittsburgh City Paper, and some “exurban and rural areas in Pittsburgh saw a shift to the right,” most victories went to the Democrats.
Statewide, however, Republicans scored significant victories, especially in judicial races. Kevin Brobson, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge, was elected to the state Supreme Court, outpacing his Democratic opponent Maria McLaughlin, a Philadelphian, with 52 percent of the vote. In the race for Superior Court judge, Megan Sullivan, a suburban Philadelphia resident and former Chester County prosecutor, scored 55.4 percent of the vote to beat Judge Timika Lane, a Democrat assigned to Philadelphia’s Major Trials Program in the Criminal Division. Republicans also scored wins in the lower courts. Republicans Stacy Wallace and Drew Crompton won the two available seats on the Commonwealth Court, beating out two Democrats.
Sullivan, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary, told me in an interview earlier this year about her participation in a 2021 Superior Court Candidates Forum panel where three Democratic candidates joined her in a discussion largely framed with Democratic Party references. In a YouTube video of that discussion, Sullivan holds her own as the three Democrats attempt to outdo one another on the topic of diversity. “I was in a general election, that’s where my head was,” Sullivan said. “They [the Democrats] were in a very different mode and basically playing to their base.”
The Republican judicial wins made an impression. PBS News warned Democrats that, along with GOP triumphs in Virginia, Pennsylvania’s judicial races prove that the “Growing Republican wave is real.” That remains to be seen. For the time being, anyway, there will be no Republican waves in Pennsylvania’s big cities.
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