The election of Larry Krasner as Philadelphia’s district attorney in November 2017 was more predictable than it may have seemed. Philadelphia has a long history of police abuse, dating back to the Frank Rizzo era, when innocent pedestrians were sometimes corralled into police vans and made to spend the night in jail. These abuses of police power have lingered in the public awareness. Fast forward to Krasner’s campaign, which called for an end to mass incarceration and for the elimination of cash bail, in effect allowing criminals greater leeway when it came to returning to the streets and a life of crime. It was a politically successful message.
But having presided over a record-setting spike in homicides, Krasner faces a serious primary challenge. And he has made another, perhaps longer-term enemy in John McNesby, the president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police—who, despite the city’s history, speaks for a growing number of Philadelphians in his outrage over Krasner’s lax approach to crime.
Krasner was born in 1961 in St. Louis, the son of a writer father and a minister mother. He spent his childhood years in both Philadelphia and St. Louis before getting degrees at the University of Chicago and Stanford Law School. As a young law student, Krasner was already working for homeless people, the urban poor, and for “indigenous” rights. Those impulses were still strong in him when he returned to Philadelphia in 1987 to work as a public defender and civil rights attorney. In 1993, he opened his own law practice.
Krasner’s decision to run for district attorney in 2017 was greeted on all sides with derision. A 2018 New Yorker article quoted McNesby calling the idea of a Krasner candidacy “hilarious.” Krasner’s own law firm was said to have broken out in laughter at the announcement of his candidacy. “Krasner received no mainstream-newspaper endorsements and, at first, was supported by only a few Democratic elected officials,” the magazine wrote.
If the lone wolf had a hard road at first, he’s found his way now. Krasner has earned celebrity status thanks to a PBS eight-part documentary series, Philly DA, and he has become one of the faces of the national “progressive prosecutor” movement.
Yet the district attorney has presided over a crime wave that renders him unpopular in much of the city. Since Krasner took office, shootings and homicides have soared. As of April 15, 145 homicides and 442 non-fatal shootings have been registered in the city, including 55 children shot. So far this year, homicides have increased 32 percent from this point in 2020, itself a year when the city experienced its second-highest homicide rate in 60 years. Many of the perpetrators have been found to be repeat offenders or men released on reduced bail due to decisions from the district attorney’s office. Sentiment against Krasner seems to run deepest in city neighborhoods such as Fishtown, Port Richmond, Bridesburg, and South Philadelphia.
With primaries set for May 18, the 2021 race has become a spectacle, with Carlos Vega running against Krasner in the Democratic primary and attorney Chuck Peruto running on the Republican ticket. Vega’s challenge is serious, though Krasner received a boost when the Philadelphia Inquirer endorsed him this week. The bulk of Krasner’s support, however, comes not from within the city but from wealthy left-wing philanthropists and PAC groups based elsewhere. In 2017, George Soros contributed $1.45 million to a PAC supporting Krasner for the post.
Besides Vega, Krasner’s biggest foe is McNesby, the son of a Philadelphia cop who joined the force in 1989 as a patrolman and has served as FOP president since 2007. It wasn’t until Krasner assumed office in 2018, however, that McNesby became an outspoken public figure—thanks mostly to the outcry surrounding Krasner’s reforms.
McNesby remains something of a mystery to most Philadelphians. Biographical data on the FOP president is not readily available. In one online bio, we learn that he “has been refreshingly nondescript, with no pile of civil rights lawsuits or cloud of suspicion over his name,” and that, “given the long time he has spent in office, it’s surprising how little is known about his career.” He doesn’t like giving interviews.
Both men are quite open about their views on how the city should be run. Almost immediately after taking office, Krasner required the prosecutors in his office to state on the record the benefits and costs of the sentences they recommended to judges after winning a conviction. “A dollar spent on incarceration should be worth it,” he said. “Otherwise that dollar may be better spent on addiction treatment, on public education, on policing, and on other types of activity that make us all safer.” Some praise Krasner’s approach, especially in drug-related cases, but many consider his reforms dangerous—especially McNesby. Most homicides in the city since Krasner became district attorney, McNesby says in an interview, have been due to “Krasner’s sweetheart deals” with criminals and their allies. McNesby has a simple prescription to correct gun violence and the murder rate in the city: “Get rid of Krasner.” He doesn’t mince words. Calling Krasner “arrogant,” he tells me that things are so bad in the city now that the only thing left for him to do—since the district attorney’s office seems immune to criticism—is to have “an old-fashioned fistfight in the street” with Krasner.
Philadelphians may not go that far, but as shootings have mounted steadily since 2018, so has criticism of the DA. Eventually, that criticism started coming even from loyal Democrats. Yet McNesby says that the DA’s office sees itself as “untouchable.”
Time will tell whether Krasner faces electoral consequences. Events like the January murder of 25-year-old Temple University graduate Milan Loncar in the city’s Brewerytown neighborhood may do him in. The killing “lies solely on the lap” of Krasner, McNesby says. Loncar was shot and killed while walking his dog in the evening. One of his killers, Josephus Davis, had earlier paid $3,000 in bail on armed robbery and kidnapping charges; bail had been radically reduced because of pandemic-related court closures. That low bail permitted the fatal encounter with Loncar.
You won’t find any mention of Loncar on Krasner’s website, much of which is devoted to his reelection. “During his first term as District Attorney, Larry has supported victims, he has exonerated the innocent, and he has held police accountable,” the site reads. “He has reduced future years of incarceration and supervision while helping to drop the jail population. He has focused on the most serious crimes in Philadelphia while working with leaders to address the root causes of violence.”
McNesby has a different view. “It’s been a complete train wreck since [Krasner] has been in office. His failed social experiment has driven crime up, driven murders up,” McNesby said. “On the street, the criminals know that there are no repercussions. They call him ‘Let ‘Em Out Larry’—it’s a joke.” Referring to bail reforms, McNesby says: “His ‘catch and release’ program he’s experimenting with since 2017 is not working.”
McNesby has come in for criticism of his own. Krasner’s allies have been tough on the union head, who is frequently pilloried by journalists and has been called “racist” on several occasions. At a “Back the Blue” rally in 2017, following a Black Lives Matter protest outside the house of a police officer who had shot and killed a Philadelphia man, McNesby reportedly called the activists “a pack of rabid animals.” Asked about the comment, he says: “Well, I can tell you, they were out there throwing things at the officer’s house. I don’t care what you are: white, Ethiopian, Chinese, Iranian, black . . . if you are behaving like a thug then you are a thug.”
The Krasner–McNesby duel seems to know few bounds. A recent story in Billy Penn reported that a coalition of Democratic elected officials gathered at the statue of civil rights hero Octavius Catto in front of city hall to deliver their endorsement of Krasner. “The next morning,” the story continued, “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 mock Krasner’s position on crime. “Soft on crime. Soft on sentencing,” tweeted union president John McNesby. “Come enjoy a mister softee cone on the cops.”
The primary is a major test for Krasner. But even if the DA manages to hang on, McNesby won’t stop fighting.
Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images