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Kevin Cullen

In Philadelphia, a potential harbinger for Boston

The DA’s race in Philly could offer some clues to what might happen in Suffolk and other places where progressive prosecutors have changed the way they do business.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.Claudia Lauer/Associated Press

People in Philadelphia and Boston tend to regard New York as a measure of everything they’re not, but beyond being sports crazy places full of those who despise the Mets, in Philly’s case, and the Yankees, in Boston’s, do things that happen in Philly have any resonance in Boston?

We’re about to find out Tuesday, when the Democratic primary for district attorney there offers a referendum on the progressive policies championed by the chief prosecutors in Philadelphia, Boston and other cities.

Larry Krasner, whose election as Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017 was the first in a series of victories by like-minded progressive prosecutors nationwide, including Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins in 2018, is facing a strong primary challenge from Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor.

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Like Boston, Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Democratic, so whoever wins Tuesday’s primary is a shoo-in for the final. While there is a paucity of polling, many political analysts in Philadelphia consider Krasner the favorite.

But others think Vega has a chance, and point to rising anxiety over a surge in violent crime and the fact that more than 6,000 Republicans have switched parties in Philadelphia this year. The city’s police union, which despises Krasner and is backing Vega, say the vast majority of those who switched parties did so tactically so they could vote for Vega in the primary.

Krasner, a former criminal defense lawyer and quintessential white liberal, is up against a person of color in Vega, the first Latino to serve as a prosecutor in the city’s homicide unit. Vega had been in the district attorney’s office for 35 years before Krasner fired him in 2018, making this race as much personal as political.

Krasner’s policies on seeking alternatives to prosecution and incarceration are popular with many voters, especially in Black communities that backed him four years ago. But Vega and others blame Krasner’s liberal policies, especially the dismissal of more than 1,000 gun-possession charges, for an historic surge in homicides.

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Last week, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who served as Philadelphia’s district attorney and mayor, said he was reluctantly backing Vega, citing the homicide surge.

Vega is also backed by some crime victims who are critical of Krasner’s reforms, many of them people of color. While some crime victims have been critical of Rollins’ progressive approach, the outcry has been relatively muted here compared to Philadelphia.

Crucially, anxiety over violent crime is not nearly as prevalent in Boston as it is in Philadelphia, where homicides rose 40 percent last year, from 356 to 499, when Philadelphia recorded the second-highest number of murders in the city’s history. So far, homicides are 30 percent higher this year than last.

In Boston, while homicides last year rose 39 percent, that came after a 20-year low of 39 homicides in 2019. Last year’s 57 homicides were more in line with 2018, when there were 56 murders in Boston. There have been 13 homicides in Boston this year, compared to 12 at the same time last year.

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.Nancy Lane/Pool

While many police officers complain about Rollins’ approach, given the recent controversies dogging the Boston Police Department, it’s dubious that the kind of police resentment in Philadelphia fueling Vega’s insurgent campaign could be replicated to the same effect in Boston.

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Whatever happens in Philly might be a moot point for Rollins if she is appointed US attorney, a job for which The Boston Globe has reported she is the favorite. But it won’t be for whoever replaces her if she becomes US attorney.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports even some Krasner supporters are frustrated by his propensity to go-it-alone and engage in public squabbles with the city’s police union and other public officials. Rollins has not been shy about publicly criticizing her critics, other politicians, and even some presumed allies.

If Krasner prevails, anybody who wants to take on Rollins or the policies that will likely survive her leaving for a federal gig will be chastened a bit.



Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.