The inside story of how Trump united a city of activists to elect the most progressive district attorney in a generation

Philadelphia district attorney-elect Larry Krasner celebrates at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, PA on November 7, 2017.

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Philadelphia district attorney-elect Larry Krasner celebrates at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, PA on November 7, 2017.
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Courtesy of Cathie Berrey-Green/BG Productions Photos & Video

  • Civil-rights attorney Larry Krasner won the race for Philadelphia’s district attorney on in a blowout.
  • Krasner’s big victory can be traced to massive canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations by local activists and organizers.
  • Many of Philadelphia’s progressive organizations formed a coalition after the election of President Donald Trump to maximize their impact on local politics.

By the time Larry Krasner entered the William Way LGBT Center in Philadelphia Tuesday night, his victory party had already become something like a family reunion.

The ballroom was packed, sweaty with supporters. Dotted around the room were the local activists who led canvassing efforts that helped drive the civil-rights attorney to a landslide victory in the Philadelphia district attorney’s race.

Todd Wolfson, a veteran local organizer, looked around the room and shared glances with many of the city’s community leaders. Each one seemed to say, “Look what we accomplished. We made this happen.” Moments later, Krasner stepped to the podium for his victory speech.

“This is not another story about kings and queens. This is a story about a movement,” Krasner told the ecstatic crowd. “This is what a movement looks like.”

Talking with activists in the city, there is a clear sense that his victory is theirs. And the path to that victory began with the election of President Donald Trump last November.


‘I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore.’

Like it was for most liberal cities in America, the day after last year’s presidential election was dispiriting in Philadelphia.

Rick Krajewski, a software developer, woke up every day with a sense of dread.

“I remember the days after the election feeling very alienated. I was thinking, this is what it must’ve been like to be a black person in the 1960s,” Krajewski told Business Insider. “I just felt like my presence shouldn’t be here. And I’d never felt that before.”

In the days that followed, he began looking for a place to channel his fear and anger. He heard about a community group called Reclaim Philadelphia that was having a meeting at the Teamsters Hall a few days later.

Its members, led by Lev Hirschhorn, a former Bernie Sanders regional field director, talked about economic inequality and its relationship to racial issues. They talked about wanting to get money out of politics and seeing a fundamental change in the system. Krajewski liked what he heard.

Reclaim Philadelphia had started only months earlier, in the wake of the Sanders campaign, with 20 former Sanders staffers and volunteers. In the months that came after, Reclaim’s membership jumped to 300 dues-paying members. Krajewski was one of them.

“I thought to myself, I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Krajewski said.

He wasn’t the only one.


Philadelphia’s activists and organizers create ‘a united front’

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Reverend Gregory Holston and Asa Khalif, a Black Lives Matter activist, celebrate at Krasner victory party at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, PA on November 7, 2017.
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Courtesy of Cathie Berrey-Green/BG Productions Photos & Video

Days before Trump’s inauguration, Rev. Gregory Holston called 25 of the city’s progressive leaders to meet at St. Malachy’s Church, the headquarters of POWER, an interfaith justice organization that he runs.

The group piled into a converted classroom the organization uses for conferences, and Holston began lamenting the danger the incoming Trump administration posed to the city’s most vulnerable communities.

But he had an idea: If the faith-based, community, progressive, and labor organizations assembled there were able to become a “united front,” the group would become a formidable vehicle for pushing back at a time when most felt powerless.

Having worked with most of the groups before, he had seen how change became possible with greater numbers. POWER had supported the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE! efforts to unionize airport workers and raise their wages in 2011. And Holston and his fellow pastors had worked with more than a dozen groups, including the teachers’ union and 215 People’s Alliance, on a long-running campaign to raise school funding and retake control of the city’s school system. (It has been under state control since 2001.)

Holston didn’t have to do a lot of selling – everyone was ready to talk about working together.

“A lot of folks were like we can’t do business as usual any more. We need to build a process with folks who have the same vision of the world,” said Wolfson, who helped found 215PA and was at the meeting. “We’re representing the same kind of folks and we need to build together.”

Holston called the new coalition the Martin Luther King DARE Table, named after a landmark 2015 post-Ferguson march led by POWER that many consider “the birth of the city’s modern justice movement.”

“If the president wants to take credit for a victory, he can take take credit for bringing all of us together,” Mark Tyler, a pastor at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church and a founding member of POWER, told Business Insider.


A surprise turned an “accountability campaign” into a wide-open race

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Krasner supporters celebrate at a victory party at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, PA on November 7, 2017.
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Courtesy of Cathie Berrey-Green/BG Productions Photos & Video

While they was committed to working together, it became a challenge to find an objective that the Table’s diverse organizations – from single issue immigrants’ rights advocates to public sector unions – could agree to.

As the US convulsed over the implementation of Trump’s travel ban, the electorally-minded members of the Table zeroed in on the district attorney’s election.

Months before, another collection of local progressive groups, some associated with members at the Table, had united withACLU Pennsylvania, and Color of Change, a national civil rights advocacy organization, to sketch out a plan for the upcoming DA’s race.

Over the last several years, the push for criminal justice reform has centered around electing progressive DAs. It’s an acknowledgement that DAs make the day-to-day decisions of what cases to pursue, what charges to press, and who gets a second chance.

Seth Williams, the incumbent, was widely expected to win the race, but challengers had begun emerging for the Democratic primary. The coalition, which became known as the Coalition For A Just DA, had been planning to run an “accountability campaign” to push Williams to center communities impacted by DA policies and embrace the reform that he had turned his back on since his first electoral victory in 2009.

Then a corruption scandal erupted involving Williams. The “accountability campaign” suddenly became a wide-open opportunity to elect a progressive committed to the coalition’s goal of “decarceration,” or reducing the number of people imprisoned in the city.

The coalition, and members at the Table like 215PA, Reclaim, and the Working Families Party, a minor progressive political party, picked up the search for their “true progressive.” Krasner, the civil rights attorney who had spent his pro-bono work springing most of them from jail after one protest or another, fit the bill.

Krasner had been toying with a run after seeing the field of, in his words, “faux-progressive” assistant district attorneys emerge. When the groups said they would support him under a platform of ending “mass incarceration,” the constellation of state and federal policies that have put more than 2 million Americans behind bars, the 56-year-old attorney says he knew it was time to run for the first time in his life.

Krasner announced his candidacy surrounded by local activists in February. Two days later, Williams dropped out of the race.

When the MLK DARE Table met for its monthly meeting after Krasner’s announcement, the groups found found that most already had been working on their own toward eitherelecting Krasner or educating their communities about the issues, like cash bail reform, which became important in the race.

It had found the campaign to unite around.


Making Krasner a viable candidate took a massive canvassing operation

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Camille Suarez, a Reclaim Philadelphia canvasser, knocks on doors before the district attorney Democratic primary in Philadelphia, PA.
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Courtesy of Reclaim Philadelphia

In a city as solidly Democratic as Philadelphia, the primary is the real race.

With seven candidates vying for the nomination, it was a crowded field. All of the candidates called for reforming the DA’s office, and most were better supported by the city’s powerful Democratic establishment.Joe Khan and Michael Untermeyer, the two frontrunners, had years of experience in the DA’s office and large fundraising head-starts. Tariq El-Shabazz had been Williams’ right-hand man.

With the knowledge that Hillary Clinton soundly beat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary within the city’s limits, Krasner initially looked like an unlikely candidate.

But 215PA, Reclaim, and other progressive groups organizing around the race wanted to turn the election on its head. Rather than chase the city’s white middle class – the traditional voting population for DAs, according to Fordham professor John Pfaff – they wanted to engage the city’s near-majority communities of color. The Krasner campaign had a similar idea.

The previous competitive DA primaries had seen a turnout of about 100,000 people. A few extra thousand votes could swing the race.

“This isn’t a zero-sum game with people who will or won’t vote in the DA’s race. This is about reaching out to a whole new set of voters who often get turned off by a DA’s race,” said councilperson Helen Gym, who won in Philadelphia in 2015 on a progressive platform.

Reclaim and 215PA set up canvassing operations in areas dominated by young people or communities of color. They targeted heavily African-American neighborhoods like West Philadelphia and Mount Airy, along with Fishtown, a white working-class area that has been gentrified in recent years.

Reclaim took the lead, using tactics Hirschhorn, a former regional field director for the Sanders campaign, learned or developed while working on the 2016 primary. But rather than use a traditional canvassing script that uses a short five-minute pitch to sell the candidate, Reclaim employed what it called “deep canvassing.”

Amanda McIllmurray, a Reclaim community organizer, said that tactic is less about pitching a candidate and more about learning what voters think. Rather than talk, canvassers were instructed to ask residents questions about the issues.

“Do you feel safe in your neighborhood? Has anyone in your family suffered from opioid addiction?”

When canvassers talked about the issues, they talked about their own personal connections to them, whether that was a simple as a unfair police stop or as complex as a family member in the system.

In many cases, Krasner or his platform would only come up toward the end of the often 20- or 30-minute conversations.

“We wanted to get them to think more broadly about criminal justice,” said McIllmurray. “It’s about changing people’s perceptions and talking to them about their lives. Talking to them like a person.”

Krajewski, who quit his well-paying programming job in May to organize full-time for Reclaim, said the strategy worked because they were genuine about their desire to “build roots” in the community beyond the DA’s race. Most canvassers worked in their own neighborhoods, introducing themselves as a concerned neighbor.

“There is a sense of pride,” Krajewski said. “There is a sense of, these are my people. They are hurting, I’m hurting, but we’re going to do something about it.”

By the end of the primary, the Reclaim and 215PA-led operation, which included several other organizations, had knocked on nearly 60,000 doors and spoken to nearly 11,000 voters.


They were far from the only ones in the field.

ACLU Pennsylvania launched a “Smart Justice” campaign in the final month of the primary, sending formerly incarcerated individuals to canvass 10,000 of its members about issues in the campaign important to them, like cash bail reform and mandatory minimum sentences.

POWER’s Action Program, through a national affiliate, launched a phone-banking effort to talk to “low-frequency” African American voters about why the race was so important; they reached more than 16,000 people.

“Voters are not apathetic or low frequency,” said Holston. “They are only that way because we fail to make the link between why your vote makes a difference and the vote that’s being voted over.”


A debate in April showed how much the DA’s race had changed

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The Decarcerate DA Forum at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia on April 18, 2017.
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T.C. Owens/Courtesy of Media Mobilizing Project

By mid-April, Krasner was neck-and-neck with Khan, the establishment frontrunner, and steadily gaining ground as canvassing efforts ramped up.

Then came the Decarcerate DA forum.

The new tenor of the race became apparent at the forum, which was organized by the Coalition for a Just DA. More than 500 people filled the Arch Street United Methodist Church, a landmark center of activism in the city, to hear what the candidates had to say. Only one Democratic candidate didn’t attend.

Clarise McCants, who helped organize the forum and has worked on numerous DA races with COC, said the energy was something she “hadn’t seen before.”

Residents who had been directly affected by DA policies showed up and asked questions. A man held in jail for a year because he could not post bail asked about cash bail reform. A Hispanic woman asked candidates how they would’ve handled a situation involving her mentally ill son who was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The forum ended with a series of yes-or-no questions on specific policies. Many in the city say that was the moment it became apparent who would commit to the reforms progressives wanted and who wouldn’t.

“You could see the looks on their faces like, ‘I have to get this right,'” said McCants. “That was exciting. They felt accountable to us.”

Then came the air support.


The ‘Soros money’ takes the race from close to a ‘blowout’

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Philadelphia Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney, speaks at a candidate forum at Saint Dominics School in Northeast Philadelphia, a predominantly white neighborhood known historically for its high concentration of police officers and firefighters.
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Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

As early as December, there had been rumors that a PAC associated with billionaire financier George Soros would be throwing its considerable weight behind a DA candidate.

Soros’ “Safety and Justice” PACs funneled more than $3 million into seven DA races in 2016 to push progressive candidates. The Philadelphia race seemed like a prime opportunity this year.

But when the PAC’s chosen candidate, Public Defender Association chief Keir Bradford-Grey, declined to run very publicly in January, it was unclear whether the PAC would enter the race. Despite constant rumors that Krasner was their second choice, by mid-April, no backing had arrived for him or any other candidate.

In the last week of April, the ads began to blanket the airwaves. They were impossible to miss. The ads emphasized the more polarizing parts of Krasner’s resume – his defense of activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philadelphia and his relentless prosecution of civil rights abuses by police. By the end of the primary, the Soros-associated PAC had spent more than $1 million on the spots – a fortune in a local race.

Krasner told Business Insider that when the ads first aired he was “disturbed” by them and felt them to be a risky strategy. By all accounts, he was wrong.

Hirschhorn, of Reclaim, said that once the ads started airing, canvassing became easier. Residents were now well aware that a DA race was happening. Most already knew who Krasner was when they got to the door.

By Krasner’s account, before the ads aired, he would attend community meetings in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and often be confused with Joe Khan, his chief opponent. If residents knew who he was, it was because of his association to Michael Coard, a prominent African-American lawyer who wrote a ringing endorsement in the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s African-American paper, calling Krasner “the Blackest white DA candidate ever.”

When the ads began airing, Krasner said, people in the same community meetings would simply come up to him and say, “You’re Larry Krasner and I’m voting for you.”


Krasner wins a decisive victory — twice

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Then-Democratic candidate for district attorney Larry Krasner celebrates his primary victory in May 2017.
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Courtesy of Michael Candelori

By the time polls closed for the primary election, Krasner had won in a “blowout.” He netted 38% in the crowded seven-person Democratic field, with turnout topping 150,000 votes – an increase of more than 50,000 over the previous two open DA races in Philadelphia.

The canvassing, in many places, appeared to make the difference. In numerous majority-minority neighborhoods, Krasner netted more than 1,000 votes more than Williams, the city’s first black DA, did during the 2009 primary.

Reclaim says 64% of the 18-to-35-year-olds that they canvassed voted, slightly more than double the rate of those in that group that they didn’t.

With the nomination in the bag and the city’s 7-to-1 Democratic registration advantage, many assumed Krasner to be a shoe-in against Republican nominee Beth Grossman.

But the city’s Democratic establishment wavered and, in October, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s main paper and one known for its center-left disposition, endorsed Grossman. Many worried that the endorsement was an “alarm bell” to the city’s Democrats to stop Krasner’s progressive ascension.

But the groups at the MLK DARE Table, and others, hammered the race through to November. 215PA and Reclaim joined their canvassing operation with the Krasner campaign and, in the run up to the election, knocked on an 30,000 doors, speaking to 6,000 voters. The POWER-affiliated phone-banking operation spoke to another 17,000 voters.

When the numbers were all tallied on November 7, the results were clear. Krasner won with 75% of vote. The general election turnout spiked to 200,000, almost 75,000 more than the previous two general elections.


Philadelphia’s progressive community isn’t done organizing

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Rick Krajewski of Reclaim Philadelphia speaks at a Coalition For A Just DA press conference to outline the organization’s 100 Days platform for District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner on Thursday November 9, 2017.
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Joe Piette

The race may be over, but Philadelphia’s progressives are now operating with an attitude of permanent organizing.

The Coalition For A Just DA held a press conference Thursday to announce that it would demand a plaftorm for Krasner to implement in his first 100 days in office – an immediate end to cash bail, full anonymized data disclosure, and refusal to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among others.

“Because of the nature of our movement, the district attorney’s office will be more powerful with us than without,” Krajewski, of Reclaim, said to begin the event.

Abraham Gutman, a progressive researcher and writer in Philadelphia, published an op-ed Friday with the title, “I was Krasner’s biggest supporter, and I can’t wait to protest his office.”

After decades in the cold, Philadelphia’s progressive community has now gained footholds in the DA’s office, in the city council, and, to some degree, with Mayor Jim Kenney in City Hall. But they aren’t waiting around for lip service.

Just days before Krasner’s victory, the Table, and others, won a victory long sought by progressives in Philadelphia. After more than a year of waffling, Kenney committed to dissolving the state-controlled School Reform Commission, beginning the long process to return control of the city’s schools to Philly.