The May 18 primary was a strong win for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh progressive Democrats. The Republican-led state legislature also won a decisive victory on two statewide ballot initiatives they put forward to limit the powers of the governor in an emergency.
Turnout was low statewide: More than 2 million ballots were cast — less than a quarter of the state’s 8.7 million registered voters.
Philadelphia re-elected District Attorney Larry Krasner in a crushing defeat of challenger Carlos Vega, who had the support of the FOP and former governor Ed Rendell. Vega’s campaign blamed Krasner for the city’s out-of-control gun violence and soaring homicide rate, claiming the violence was somehow a result of Krasner’s prosecutorial and criminal justice reforms.
Philadelphia also nominated Gregory Yorgey-Girdy to the Municipal Court. Girdy was one of eight Democrats who prevailed in the primary last night, and he is set to become the Philadelphia Municipal Court’s first Black gay judge after the general election in November.
Statewide, history was made when Pittsburgh ousted its two-term incumbent Democratic mayor, Bill Peduto, and paved the way for its first Black mayor by choosing progressive State Rep. Ed Gainey.
Mid-state, Dr. Titus Tyler, Erie School Board President, narrowly won the Democratic primary for Erie County Executive in a four-way race. Titus, the first openly transgender person ever to be elected in Pennsylvania history, said in a statement: “This victory belongs to the people of Erie County who know we need new leadership to build a prosperous future for all of us. From investing in our schools and infrastructure to expanding broadband access and creating good-paying jobs across the county, it’s time to unite and deliver results for families across Erie County.”
Fran Price, executive director of Philly Pride Presents, won the mayoral race in Folcroft borough in Delaware County.
And in a Scranton special election, Democrats held SD-22 as State Rep Marty Flynn beat Republican County Commissioner Chris Chermak. Flynn fills the seat in the 22nd State Senate District vacated by the retired John Blake.
The 22nd District covers all 163 precincts in Lackawanna County, 10 in Luzerne County, and seven in Monroe County.
Chermak had been leading in polls and was expected to win the seat, so Flynn’s win was a welcome surprise for Democrats.
In Philadelphia, 8 judicial candidates endorsed by the local progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia appear to have won their races, with some still too close to call. This is a major coup for Krasner because judges have been an obstacle for some of Krasner’s reforms so far.
The Philadelphia DA’s race was closely watched nationally, widely viewed by pundits as a referendum on whether a prosecutor who was elected on platform of criminal justice reform measures that included shorter probation and parole times, as well as suspending cash bail that disproportionately keeps poor defendants in jail for extended periods prior to trial, would be blamed for increasing violence. During his campaign, Krasner argued that gun violence was up across the country due in part to the pandemic and that prosecutors with traditional criminal justice values faced similar spikes in violent crime.
Krasner addressed supporters in Center City on Tuesday night after winning the nomination.
“The second term, which is 4.5 years — starts now,” Krasner told a cheering crowd, dismissing the November general election and his GOP challenger, Republican A. Charles Peruto, Jr., a well-known criminal defense attorney. Peruto had promised to drop out of the race if Vega won.
In 2013, Peruto’s girlfriend, paralegal Julia Law, 27, was found dead in the attorney’s bathtub in his Center City mansion off Rittenhouse Square.
“We are going to continue down a path that joins a focus on very serious crime with reform that is constructive for society,” Krasner said.
While campaigning over the weekend, Krasner told reporters, “Our promise fundamentally was that we would focus on serious crime while bringing reform. We said we would do something about mass incarceration. We have cut the future years of incarceration in half.”
Krasner won more than 80% of the vote in Black neighborhoods in the city, while Vega drew his primary support from South Philadelphia and the Northeast — traditional white strongholds.Thousands of voters switched parties from Republican to Democrat for the primary specifically to get Vega on the Democratic ticket. No Republican has won the DA’s office since 1985.
“This was not easy for the crime victims especially,” Vega said after conceding Tuesday night, making no effort at conciliation. “Please remember them… I am hopeful that my opponent will take them more seriously during his tenure.”
Krasner’s win was applauded by his supporters. City Councilwoman Kendra Brooks said in a statement, “Last summer, tens of thousands of young Black people took to the streets to demand we disinvest from our police force and begin investing in Black communities.”
Brooks said, “The re-election of Larry Krasner is a testament to the movement’s strength.”
Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier said at Krasner’s victory party, “This feels like Philadelphians meant it, they meant what happened the first time, and they mean it even more now.”
Among his accomplishments in judicial reform, Krasner’s conviction integrity unit helped free nearly two dozen wrongfully convicted people. Krasner used grant funding to create the DA’s office’s first data team to examine long-term effects of policies. Krasner also hired the office’s first criminologist.
On an even more critical scale, Krasner ended a 10-year contract that shared data with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), noting, “Trump was trying to deport victims of domestic violence.” Krasner said, “We cannot have a world where they are afraid to walk into a courthouse or afraid to seek help.”
ICE has also targeted LGBTQ immigrants in Philadelphia. PGN has reported on the perils of queer and trans asylum seekers.
On ballot initiatives Democrats lost big. Pennsylvania voters became the first in the country to limit a governor’s emergency powers, approving constitutional amendments proposed by Republican lawmakers angry over Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Republicans view the referendum as a major victory with a governor’s race in 2022 when Tom Wolf leaves office after two terms.
Republicans have made Wolf a political target, repeatedly attacking his choices during the pandemic, including his orders shuttering businesses, sending students home for online schooling and ordering masks worn outside the home. Those decisions by Wolf have been lauded by public health officials, signaling reduced death counts in the state compared with New Jersey and New York.
The GOP touted the ballot wins for the party. “Last night, Pennsylvanians voted to reject Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf’s overreach of executive powers after his failed COVID response — a clear sign of accountability coming in 2022,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted Wednesday morning.
The confusingly worded questions asked voters to end a governor’s emergency disaster declaration after 21 days and to give lawmakers the sole authority to extend it or end it at any time with a simple majority vote.
The state constitution had, until this vote, required a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end a governor’s disaster declaration and, legally, the governor could issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit.
Wolf had vetoed more than a half-dozen different bills designed to restrict his authority under a disaster declaration and the courts had found in Wolf’s favor repeatedly in challenges to his COVID restrictions.
Wolf opposed the changes, but governors have no power to stop such initiatives.
Pennsylvania voters also backed a proposal to amend the state constitution to outlaw discrimination based on race and ethnicity. Philadelphia State Sen. Vince Hughes said he sponsored the change to mitigate against federal anti-discrimination case law being undermined or abrogated by the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court or federal judges appointed by Donald Trump.
Hughes said he was concerned federal judges appointed by former Trump could roll back civil rights protections.
The question is thought to be the first time since last summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd by police that voters in any state have decided a racial equity issue on a statewide ballot.
The change to the constitution will become the state constitution’s fourth equality provision, added to “all men are born equally free and independent,” a protection from discrimination in exercising civil rights, and a 1971 amendment that ensures gender equality.