Earlier this week, Pennsylvania—America’s current political bellwether—held an uncharacteristically momentous off-year primary, just months after record turnout for the presidential race. A political hangover from that saga doubtless lingers among many voters, but this didn’t stop a higher-than-usual primary turnout throughout Pennsylvania. More than anything, the state primary measured urban Democratic voters’ capacity for progressivism—especially on criminal-justice and public-safety matters. (In each Democratic stronghold, the primary’s results essentially decide who prevails in November’s election.) Stalwart progressives in high-profile races enjoyed resounding victories in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but in Harrisburg, the state capital, the outcome was more mixed.
In Philadelphia, amid rising violent crime, district attorney Larry Krasner overwhelmingly won reelection over Carlos Vega, who ran against the incumbent’s “reckless approach to reform.” “We have a mandate,” Krasner told NBC10. His declaration reflected the margin of victory. Krasner carried minority neighborhoods, most notably North and West Philadelphia, along with Center City—the wealthy core—and tony Chestnut Hill. A former prosecutor fired by Krasner in 2018, Vega prevailed only in parts of South Philadelphia and the city’s Northeast, both bastions of blue-collar, more conservative Democratic voters.
Numerous factors contributed to Vega’s loss, including the political climate in Philadelphia, where progressives are vanquishing the city’s long-time Democratic machine. His defeat, moreover, reflects the waning political influence of Philadelphia’s anti-Krasner police union, which, in recent memory, represented a coveted endorsement for city candidates. But Vega was also outspent and eclipsed by Krasner, a national progressive figure. According to Philadelphia Magazine, most of Vega’s political contributions came from Philadelphians, while three-quarters of Krasner’s campaign funding came from out-of-town, wealthy donors. In addition, Krasner received extensive, if not praiseworthy, media coverage. His memoir was published in April and then, just weeks before the primary, PBS released a documentary series described by one critic as a “publicity machine.” But Vega also had shortcomings as a candidate. When the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board, for example, asked Vega which Krasner policies he’d reverse, he answered, “I’m not going to reverse any policies.”
It was those policies—including decriminalization, decarceration, and opposition to cash bail—that led many to believe the first-term incumbent was politically vulnerable. Ed Rendell—the former governor and mayor, who served as DA in the 1980s—endorsed Vega. Rendell noted how “there’s so much gunfire going on in parts of Philadelphia, that children can’t sit out on a step safely anymore.” He added: “Violence is unacceptable in an American city. It will sap the heart out of any city.”
Indeed, crime—partly fueled by repeat offenders—has precipitously increased since Krasner entered office. Thirty victims were shot or stabbed, with two fatal cases, on the weekend before the primary. So far, in 2021, Philadelphia has seen 199 homicides—on pace to surpass the total in 1990, the city’s deadliest year. One resident, who previously voted for Krasner, observed the deteriorating conditions in his Kensington neighborhood, a notorious heroin market. “There’s no acknowledgement that some of the things might not be working,” he told the Inquirer. “It’s just full speed ahead.”
Meantime, in Pittsburgh, Democrats voted “full speed ahead” with progressive stewardship. In an upset Democratic mayoral race, Ed Gainey, a five-term state representative, defeated Bill Peduto, the two-term incumbent and an avowed progressive. Gainey, who will be the city’s first African-American mayor, is the first mayoral candidate to beat an incumbent since 1933 (which also happens to be the last time a Republican led the city).
In a race largely focused on racial equity, Gainey ran to Peduto’s left, though he crafted a unifying message that resonated with Democrats across Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods. Gainey received widespread support from the city’s most progressive organizers and elected officials, including Democratic Socialist legislators. Such backing only deepened Peduto’s political vulnerability. The incumbent considered himself an anti-establishment figure, but Democrats became skeptical over the course of his tenure, seeing the mayor as full of empty rhetoric and disengaged. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Julian Routh reported, noting the view of “activists and supporters,” Gainey’s victory “should serve as a warning to the region’s Democratic establishment that ‘people-powered politics’ are continuing to form a well-oiled political infrastructure.”
Gainey criticized Peduto for insufficiently addressing progressive concerns, including “overpolicing.” At one point, Gainey called Peduto’s police-reform efforts “just talk.” Though Peduto reallocated millions from the police budget to community services, he was pragmatic on public-safety issues, at least when compared with most progressives. He opposed defunding the police—as did Gainey—but he was also forthright about the importance of law enforcement. “Crime has decreased because our police budget has been increasing,” Peduto said at a roundtable last October. “If we defund the police what will be cut . . . are the officers working in order to be engaged with the community.” Gainey, however, believed that the city should “invest in public health and other social welfare programs, not more law enforcement,” according to a report in the Washington Post. “We can never incarcerate our way out of violence,” he told the paper.
Voters’ choice to move even further to the left comes just as public-safety concerns in Pittsburgh are growing. Though the city has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades, violent crime and homicides have risen markedly. Last year, for example, homicides increased by 36 percent from 2019. By late April of this year, city shootings were 80 percent higher than at the same point in 2020. “The increase in shootings has reached heights not seen in the city in years,” the Post-Gazette reported. As one community activist told the paper: “We’re seeing a preface of what’s to come this summer, I hate to say that. It’s not looking good at all.”
In Harrisburg, the primary outcome evidently reflected Democratic voters’ public-safety concerns, along with an anti-incumbent mood similar to Pittsburgh. City council president Wanda Williams narrowly defeated Eric Papenfuse, the mayor since 2014, when the capital city was recovering from its infamous financial crisis. Before the primary, an Advance Insights poll found that “crime and public safety” ranked as the most important issue among Harrisburg residents. In 2020, the city experienced its highest homicide rate in 30 years. During the campaign, Papenfuse was criticized for being too focused on the city’s downtown, which has declined since its 2000s-era renaissance, and Midtown, a popular neighborhood among young professionals. This perception didn’t play well in the city’s minority neighborhoods, such as Uptown and Allison Hill, which grapple with crime and poverty.
Williams, the victor, was described by PennLive’s Charles Thompson as “a bit of a law and order candidate.” While Papenfuse addressed improving quality-of-life enforcement, Williams discussed public safety. She called for working more with the Pennsylvania State Police and other police agencies in order “to put a hard-core press on those breaking the law in our city.” Williams also opposed defunding police, which she described as “a great opportunity for those criminals to cause havoc on the streets.”
Pennsylvania’s cities often dictate the economic and political mood of their respective regions. Over the next 18 months, with a governor’s race looming in 2022, crime and public safety will remain major issues among urban and suburban voters. Time will tell whether the progressive politics of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh imperil statewide Democratic candidates. Something like that happened last year, after all—Joe Biden won the state, largely due to suburban support, but Republicans enjoyed down-ballot success in those same areas.
This summer, many suburban commuters will return to their offices in Philadelphia’s Center City and Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. Will they embrace Krasner’s mandate and Gainey’s vision if crime continues rising? The answer to that question will figure prominently in determining Pennsylvania’s next governor.