An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

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Philadelphia LarryKrasner (34 of 97) Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider Philadelphia Democratic district attorney candidate Larry Krasner gives a speech at a fundraiser at a supporter's house in Center City, Philadelphia.

  • Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner is the heavy front-runner to win the race to be Philadelphia's next district attorney, a powerful position in the heavily incarcerated city.
  • While he has never served in government, he has a long career of suing police for civil rights abuses and defending activists in court.
  • District attorneys' races have become the frontline in the battle to reform criminal justice and end "mass incarceration," with millions of dollars being poured into local races over the last year.


Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner has always been obsessed with what it takes to make change. At the age of 11, he got into a debate with his Sunday School teacher about whether it was right to break the law for the greater good. The two were arguing over the Civil Rights movement and protests over the Vietnam War - events that shaped his life and perspective.

Today, Krasner is running for district attorney of Philadelphia, a powerful position in a city with the highest rate of incarceration of the US's 10 most populated cities.

At 56, he is pursuing elected office for the first time after a 30-year career defending radical activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philadelphia. He's also sued police for civil rights violations more than 75 times.

"I was born in '61. So in '68 when I'm watching TV ... I'm seeing the Vietnam War and the protests and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago," Krasner told Business Insider.

"I remember all that and, even more importantly, I remember [Martin Luther] King. ... It was a very visual time, and when you are a 7- or 8-year-old kid and you're watching this happen ... it's compelling. The war was compelling. It was all compelling. And then, they were getting killed. [Robert F. Kennedy] was speaking out against the war. And then he is dead. And then King is dead, and he's dead because of white supremacists."

Krasner, well-dressed in a sharply cut blue suit, tinted horn-rimmed glasses, and a well-kempt head of silvery hair, doesn't look the part of a political outsider.

Philadelphia LarryKrasner (71 of 97) Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider Krasner talks to community members after a candidate forum at at the Kingsessing Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia.

With his raspy but measured speech, he could pass for a senator in a liberal state. But make no mistake, Krasner may be the most progressive candidate for such a major office in years. The center of his campaign platform is ending "mass incarceration," the constellation of state and federal policies that have put more than 2 million Americans behind bars .

And though nearly all of the candidates in the seven-person Democratic primary he won in May promised reform, all it took was one look at their careers to convince him to run for office for the first time in his life.

Some of the candidates "were flagrantly authoritarian during their careers," Krasner said. "And yet all of a sudden I'm hearing about their 'Which way is the wind blowing now' virtues, and I just figured this is ridiculous."

"Somebody real has got to get into this, because these people aren't going to change anything."

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An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

If he wins, Krasner will have to navigate a tight path between Mayor James Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who eye reform while shying from Krasner's bolder policies; the city's millennials and communities of color who demand change, input, and transparency after decades in the proverbial cold; a police union president who called him "catastrophic" to the city; and the office's assistant district attorneys, whose buy-in will determine the fate of reform.

And that's before you even get into what can happen to the public appetite for reform if there is a crime spike. But Krasner thinks he's got an ace up his sleeve: "the movement."

"If you have a crime spike, and you have 'people power,' the 'people power' will answer because it's just not about what Krasner thinks," he said.

"It's about all of these community groups, these activists, these non-profits, these local leaders as clergy saying, 'Forget about Krasner. It's a movement and this is what we say."

But first, he has to win.

Even if he wins, Krasner faces a difficult path to reform

The quiet atmosphere inside the nave was contrasted by a fiery protest a block away outside the Philadelphia Convention Hall, where an international police convention was taking place.

Several criminal justice and racial justice groups had gathered in front of a phalanx of police astride bicycles to harangue them for recent police-involved shootings, racial bias, and over-enforcement, and to call for the "abolishment" of the department.

As visiting police chiefs and their families looked on, the protesters advanced toward the officers into the treacherous space where a protest can turn into violence.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

The following day, Krasner was back answering Philadelphians' questions at a forum at Arch Street United Methodist Church, a landmark center of activism in the city. Grossman was supposed to join him, but she had dropped out earlier in the week due to a "scheduling conflict."

Krasner was happy to hold the floor for several hours, providing ample time to take questions on topics like victims' rights, and racial and gender bias.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

In each case, Krasner tackled the question head on, working through the specifics analytically in his sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned speech or telling an apt story that illustrated his point.

By the end of the forum, which lasted a half hour longer than the first time the moderator said "only one more question," Krasner had won the 60-odd-person crowd's rapturous applause, and then spent some time talking and taking photos with attendees.

For a man who's never run for office, he sure can work a room.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

After a short speech on putting more funds into education, prevention, and job-training to reduce crime, he began to take questions from the residents, and it became clear that this arena — the adversarial place where he must defend or advocate a position — is where he thrives.

Despite the support he enjoys from the city's African-American community, there were no softball questions to be had.

The community has seen a lot of politicians talk change and then turn their backs in office. Most notably, Williams, the recently sentenced African-American former DA, ran on a message of reform in 2009 only to fall back on "tough on crime" policies in office. Attendees invoked his name often.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

Krasner was late, and state Sen. Anthony Williams gave a rousing speech to his constituents on the importance of down-ballot races while they waited for his arrival. When he did finally arrive, he ran down to the mic after being introduced like a star point guard making his way onto the court.

Krasner gets no softball questions at community meetings, even from supporters

Shortly after the fundraiser, Krasner hustled to a candidate forum in Southwest Philadelphia, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, where he was to take questions directly from potential constituents.

Inside the rec center, on the basketball court, the essentials of local politics were underway. A formation of metal chairs had been arranged in front of a mic stand while music blared over the loudspeakers. A table was lined with covered metal trays hovering over sterno cans for a post-meeting dinner, while the chef shot the breeze with others on the bleachers.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

Though nearly every article on the race points out that Democrats hold a 7:1 registration advantage in the city, most close watchers of the race acknowledge that the advantage may not hold in such an unconventional campaign.

Grossman was long a Democrat before registering as a Republican in 2013, and she too has called for reform in the DA's office. There is some fear that Krasner's far-left alignment could push the city's centrists to come out in force for Grossman.

Coard, one of Krasner's biggest supporters, said that after the 2016 election, he's "scared s---less" about Election Day.

As Officer Eddie Lopez Sr., the president of the city's Spanish American Law Enforcement Association and a Grossman supporter, told me, "Everyone thought Hillary [Clinton] would win too. Beth Grossman might just be your Donald Trump."

The city's newspaper sends 'an alarm bell' to the city's centrists

Krasner hit on that point one night in October at a fundraiser hosted by a couple of local philanthropists and artists near Rittenhouse Square, one of the highest income neighborhoods in the country.

The house was filled with ornate rugs, modern and tribal art. Dulcet tones drifted from a jazz duo in the background.

Our platform "wasn't based on polls. It wasn't based on consultants," Krasner told the room of mostly white supporters.

"It was based on beliefs. We had a message. That message resonated. And it resonated broadly in a way that even Bernie Sanders was not able to achieve. It resonated to a coalition of millennials … and it resonated to African American women, in particular, and African Americans, in general. My opinion? Just because they have in-depth knowledge of the reality of 'mass incarceration' and what it has meant in their communities, and in their families, and its devastating effects."

The talk among the attendees alternated between excitement at the idea that Philadelphia could become "a model for the nation," and worry over The Philadelphia Inquirer's endorsement of Grossman the week before.

The Inquirer, the main paper in Philadelphia, is known for its center-left disposition, and many worried that the endorsement was either an "alarm bell" to the city's Democrats to stop Krasner's progressive ascension, or a cynical move for the editorial board to establish credibility with the city's conservatives in a lost election.

No one yet knows the answer.

Krasner blew away the primary competition in what was supposed to be a close election

By the time the primary polls closed in May, Krasner had won in a blowout, netting 38% in the crowded field, with turnout topping 150,000 votes — an increase of more than 50,000 over the previous two open DA races in Philadelphia. Khan, the establishment front-runner, came in second with just over 20% of the Democratic vote.

But the results, and the disconnect between the primary's other candidates and the populace, illuminates a major point about the race.

While it's fair to say that the mobilization of the city's progressives was, in many respects, a reaction to Trumpism nationally, it does little to explain how a 57-year-old white man was able to drive turnout for the city's near-majority African-American population.

In numerous majority-minority neighborhoods, Krasner netted more than 1000 votes more than Williams, the city's first black DA, did during the 2009 primary.

Prominent African-American lawyer Michael Coard, who has worked on activist cases with Krasner for a decade, wrote a ringing endorsement before the primary in the Philadelphia Tribune, the city's African-American paper, calling Krasner "the Blackest white D.A. candidate ever."

By the time the Democratic primary was in full swing in the spring, Coard told Business Insider that a "sleeping giant" of progressive Philadelphians and communities of color had "woken" to campaign, canvas, and vouch for Krasner.

In many ways, the Democratic primary represented a correction to decades of voting patterns for district attorney. As John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, explained, the traditional voting base for a DA tends to be white, middle class, and affluent — meaning, he said, "those who have the loudest political voice tend to be those with the least exposure to prosecutorial punitiveness."

When DA's take "tough on crime" stances, as they have for decades, affluent populations see benefits in public safety, while poor and minority families "bear the brunt" of over-enforcement, Pfaff said. By mobilizing the city's African-American population, Krasner opened space for the possibility of drastic reform.

William Wagner, a canvasser for the ACLU's "Smart Justice" campaign and and a formerly incarcerated person, put it another way. "Voting for a DA, where I come from, is something that we don't care about."

But this year was different, he told me, because "the candidates are specifically campaigning on the issues that we want our constituents to vote for."

Former members of the DA's office have called him 'dangerous to the city'

Krasner's policies, though bold and progressive, are hardly as radical as many of his detractors have made it seem. While his overt support for Black Lives Matter and his ability to talk credibly about the phenomenon of "mass incarceration" and fighting police abuses make him a powerful advocate for the left, his policies are largely drawn from the "Smart on Crime" consensus emerging across the country in places like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Chicago, and even Texas.

Still, a group of former assistant district attorneys released an open letter in May shortly before the Democratic primary calling Krasner "dangerous to the city," criticizing his negative characterization of the DA's office, and saying he has done little to advocate for victims.

But those criticisms were couched by the ADAs' acknowledgement that nearly every candidate in the Democratic primary, as well as Grossman, Krasner's Republican general election opponent, support similar policy initiatives.

They all want to stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases, reform the cash bail system, prosecute police corruption, and overturn life sentences for juveniles.

The letter had little effect.

It's not the man, but the message that is winning

Krasner frequently brings up "the movement" when talking about his campaign for DA, and it’s clear that he believes it sincerely. His decision to get in the race, after a life eschewing traditional politics, was largely because activists he once defended urged him to run.

While he had been toying with the idea for months, a coalition of local activist and organizing groups assured Krasner that, should he decide to run, he would have the support of leftist organizations in the city.

The Working Families Party, a minor progressive party; 215 People's Alliance, a multiracial organization fighting for racial and economic justice; and Reclaim Philadelphia, a political organization formed by ex-Bernie Sanders campaign staff and volunteers, all said they would back him.

Criminal justice activists, clergy, and prominent members of the city's African-American community joined in support soon after.

And while he is no doubt a dynamic personality, again and again in conversations with activists and organizers in the city, the message was the same: Krasner is great, but it's his ideas that have resonated with the city.

"People rallied around not Larry the man, but the message. He united people from all walks of life, but it's the message that he's promoting," said Asa Khalif, a Black Lives Matter activist prominent in Philadelphia for staging disruptive protests over the police-involved death of his cousin Brandon Tate-Brown, among others. Krasner has defended Khalif in court on multiple occasions.

'We don't sue people for honest mistakes,' Krasner said of his law practice

In the 25 years of his law practice, Krasner has established a reputation as a tenacious lawyer, with a focus on defending the poor and people of color.

His defense of activists and free speech rights is, he says, something of a hobby, often done pro bono.

And while those avenues of law are not usually lucrative, Krasner has done well for himself. His office is situated in one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, and he drives a red Tesla.

Criminal defense has been the firm's bread and butter, but Krasner says they have gotten lucky taking on a few personal injury cases that he felt raised a civil rights issue and ended up paying handsomely.

In one case, he helped sue a construction company on behalf of an undocumented Mexican worker who was paralyzed on the job. The company said it was not responsible because the man was a subcontractor and was only eligible to recoup Mexican wages.

Krasner helped win a $5.3 million jury verdict.

"We don't sue people for honest mistakes. We've rejected an awful lot of cases that came in here," he said.

"But when it's systemic or individual corruption, when its malice, when its brutality that is unjustified, that's the kind of stuff we do."

Krasner was at the center of a 'classic confrontation' between people and power in Philadelphia

In 1984, Krasner met Rau, his future wife, in their first week at Stanford Law. After graduation, the two decided to move to Philadelphia so that they could each pursue their legal interests — employment discrimination for Rau and criminal defense for Krasner.

A few years into their careers, Rau became connected with the famous AIDs activist group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (or ACT UP), through her discrimination work. At the time, the AIDs crisis was reaching its peak with some estimates suggesting nearly 40,000 Americans died of the disease in 1991. The administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were heavily criticized for doing little to alleviate the issue.

In September of that year, ACT UP, which was known for its creative and disruptive use of direct action, planned a protest for Bush's visit to Philadelphia, where he was scheduled to visit the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel for a reelection fundraiser. A mass of more than 7,000 protesters, led by ACT UP, greeted Bush's arrival with signs, whistles, and shouts of "Shame."

One ACT UP protester was carrying a coffin filled with symbolic ashes — cat litter — to signify all those who had died of AIDS. When the coffin fell, striking an officer, police descended on the protesters with batons and shouted homophobic slurs.

Days after the incident, Mayor Wilson Goode, the city's first black mayor, called for the creation of an independent advisory panel to review the incident. ACT UP demanded that Krasner, who they knew through Rau, be appointed to the panel. Goode agreed.

Seven months later, the panel issued a damning report, slamming the police for beating and mistreating protesters, fracturing one's skull, as well as making numerous ''misstatements of fact" in reports related to the incident.

"The point for me was that it was this classic confrontation in a democracy between people trying to make the world better, and power, which was at least misunderstanding what was happening, and maybe a little bit worse than that," Krasner said.

His experience on the panel convinced him to leave the public defender's office, where he spent the first years of his career, and establish a private practice so that he could take on civil rights cases and defend activists and organizers.

Krasner has spent his life embroiled in the law — more than 10,000 cases to be exact

Krasner was born in St. Louis to a middle-class family. His father, William, was a journalist and a novelist while his mother was, in his words, a "tent preacher."

While he had little involvement with activism in his youth, the philosophical underpinnings of it possessed him at an early age, like during that debate with his Sunday School teacher.

But even into his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, he wasn't thinking about a legal career — he majored in Spanish. During his first year out of college, while living in Philadelphia and working in construction, Krasner was chosen to serve on a jury in a gruesome death penalty trial involving the rape and murder of a 76-year-old woman who turned out to be the mother of an FBI agent.

It was a real lesson in how wonderful and how terrible this giant brain of 12 people can be.

The murderer was quickly found nearby covered in the woman's blood with the woman's car parked out front.

It was more or less an open-and-shut case on guilt, but Krasner and his fellow jurors were tasked with deciding whether to sentence the man to death.

"It was a real lesson in how wonderful and how terrible this giant brain of 12 people can be," Krasner said on the Philadelphia-based podcast "Pushback" in July.

Krasner and his fellow jurors were never asked to decide the death penalty for the culprit after one juror had to be removed from the trial due to mental illness. A deal was cut to avoid a mistrial, and the murderer was sentenced to life in prison.

It wasn't long after that his brother convinced him that his adversarial personality would be best suited in the courtroom.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

By Krasner's account, the detail in his platform far surpassed his opponents', who he says looked "like they were polling to figure out what they believed."

Rudovsky, the UPenn professor, said Krasner's entrance drove candidates to the left, where Krasner stood out as someone who had long fought for the principles that all were espousing.

In many ways, the Democratic primary in Philadelphia and the subsequent general election have looked at times like a bizarro version of the 2016 election: brash outsider without political experience runs up the score on an establishment candidate running on his or her experience, all with a blunt populist message.

Yet one key difference exists — by all accounts, from both supporters and detractors, Krasner won in May, and continues to stoke enthusiasm for next week's general election, with his ideas, not his personality.

A PAC associated with George Soros put $1+ million behind Krasner's campaign

Over the last several years, the push for criminal justice reform has centered 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.

But while Krasner concedes the "Soros money" — as it's been called locally — "amplified" his message, he established himself long before it arrived.

On day one of his campaign in February, Krasner released a detailed platform calling for an end to cash bail imprisonment, reviewing convictions and freeing the wrongfully convicted, ending "stop and frisk" and civil asset forfeiture abuse, and standing up to police misconduct.

By the time Soros-paid ads aired in late April, three weeks before the primary, Krasner had a slight edge over Joe Khan, the establishment front-runner when the race began, and a heavy lead over Michael Untermeyer, an ex-Republican who put nearly $1 million of his own money into the race.

An inside look at the most progressive candidate in a generation, who's poised to take on the most incarcerated major city in the US

President Donald Trump's roaring victory in last year's election has cast a shadow over the DA's race ever since candidates began throwing their hats in the ring last September — almost as much as that of Seth Williams, the city's last elected DA.

Williams resigned in June after a year-long corruption scandal and was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for, in the words of the judge, feeding "his face at the trough" of public money.

When Krasner announced his candidacy in February, in an 11-minute video surrounded by local activists, he joined a crowded Democratic field of former assistant district attorneys and a judge.

David Rudovsky, a civil rights professor at University of Pennsylvania's law school, told Business Insider they were all "trying to out-progressive each other" on everything from mass incarceration and racial injustice to the death penalty.

At a debate in April that Rudovsky moderated, he told the seven Democratic candidates, "It sounds like you all are running for public defender."

Lawyers are usually 'technicians' for the movement, not the leaders

Krasner is widely expected to win the general election against his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, due to Philadelphia's 7:1 Democratic registration advantage, but he isn't spending the final days of the campaign resting.

With the November election weeks away, Krasner is spending every day hitting the pavement courting voters — over the course of the weekend he would run from debate to community meeting to city forum.

Though he sounds excited, Krasner is also keenly aware of how winning will upend his life, his successful and lucrative criminal defense and civil rights practice, and his family. His wife, Lisa M. Rau, is a judge on the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia and has been unable to attend any campaign events out of ethical concerns.

If elected, Krasner wouldn't be the first progressive district attorney in a major US city, but he might be the most radical — though he is loathe to use the term. When I asked him whether he considered himself an activist after spending his career defending the rights of activists and suing police, he demurred.

"I don't think I deserve that much credit," he said. "I consider myself an activist's lawyer. I consider myself to be a movement lawyer." After a little pressing, Krasner launched into a story, as he often does. He referenced the relationship between William Kunstler, the famous civil rights lawyer and activist, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I think [Kunstler] used to refer to the lawyers as 'technicians' for the movement," he added.

That idea, of lawyer as a "technician" to a movement is central to Krasner's idea of himself. Though he is a charismatic figure, he seemed uncomfortable to suddenly be the face of Philadelphia's leading movement for change.

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