Philadelphia’s ultra-progressive newly elected district attorney explains why local elections matter now more than ever

Activists from Philly R.E.A.L. Justice Coalition, an organization focused on ending oppression, protest in front of police officers on October 21, 2017.

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Activists from Philly R.E.A.L. Justice Coalition, an organization focused on ending oppression, protest in front of police officers on October 21, 2017.
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Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

    Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won the Philadelphia district attorney’s race Tuesday in a blowout. Krasner says the race shows why local elections are so important. He argues that local officials hold incredible power over people’s day-to-day lives and can push reform “upward” to the national level.

The Philadelphia district attorney race has generated an almost unheard of amount of press attention and enthusiasm for a local election, due in large part to civil rights attorney Larry Krasner’s blunt platform.

He calls for an end to “mass incarceration,” the constellation of state and federal policies that have put more than 2 million Americans behind bars.

Krasner won in a blowout, according to the Associated Press, besting his Republican opponent Beth Grossman with approximately 75% of the vote.

Krasner told Business Insider last week that the enthusiasm around the Philadelphia DA race illustrates a deeper point about the increasing importance of local elections, particularly for those who believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed – an increasingly mainstream view held by both conservatives and liberals cross the country.

DAs “have so much power to stay their hand or use an iron fist” on those involved in the criminal justice system, Krasner said, that electing progressive-minded people to the position makes “a tremendous difference.”

Krasner isn’t the only one to recognize the outsized impact that district attorneys can have on reform.

Over the last several years, criminal justice activists have centered their efforts around electing progressive district attorneys, 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.

Much of that push has been led by billionaire financier George Soros, and his “Safety and Justice” PACs, which funneled more than $3 million into seven DA races in 2016. The PACs reportedly put more than $1 million behind the Krasner campaign, a fact detractors have repeatedly seized upon.

Electing progressive DAs, according to Krasner, not only affects criminal justice in the cities they are elected in, but can also establish the legitimacy of reform efforts on a national level, provided those efforts are successful.

Here’s how Krasner put it:

“If you have major cities with major mass incarceration problems, where progressive DAs are coming in, you are going to see big changes to mass incarceration in terms of the policies that are pursued.

And to the extent that those policies can prove themselves – which I believe they will – then you may see more of a national discussion and more of a legislative discussion about how science … supports this change in the law.”

Philadelphia Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner talks to community members after a candidate forum at at the Kingsessing Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia.

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Philadelphia Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner talks to community members after a candidate forum at at the Kingsessing Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia.
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Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Krasner said real reform, which he likened to “turning a giant ship in a bathtub,” will only happen if it occurs first on the local or municipal level and is then driven upward.

“The only way [reform is] going to happen is if it’s forced down some of [lawmakers’] throats,” he said. “And it’s going to be forced down some of their throats because the cities can turn out a vote and then, after some period of time, these policies will start to look sensible.”

Philadelphia councilwoman Helen Gym, who was elected in 2015 on a progressive platform around education, said driving reform “upward” around any issue, be it criminal justice, education, or something else, generally has better results than waiting for the national government to act.

“At the local level, not only are you more likely to see a broader, more diverse representation; you have the possibility to really effectively change things,” Gym told Business Insider. “When this change is shared across cities, we can see a lot of the issues and reforms we are looking for drive policy upward rather than the opposite way.”

Business Insider recently followed Krasner during the last days of his campaign – here’s what it was like »