The Power of Our Votes

Progressives won the Philadelphia primary. The whole country was watching Philadelphia to see how the city would vote in the crucial DA’s race. This wasn’t only a fight between incumbent Larry Krasner and former prosecutor Carlos Vega. This election was a referendum on criminal justice reform, addressing systemic racism in prosecutions and whether the Trumpian GOP voices that have been so loud in our national discourse for the past four years would drown out those of us committed to social justice, anti-racism and an end to mass incarceration.

We won.

Turnout was embarrassingly low, which is regrettably common in off-year elections. Yet what mattered in the end, this time, was not how many Philadelphians voted, but how they voted. Equally important was what that vote signals for the future of our city and for marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by policing and by the criminal justice system: people of color, poor people and LGBTQ people.

Although Vega ran as a Democrat, his platform was a primer on GOP talking points. Vega ran a disgracefully manipulative ad campaign targeting Black and Latinx voters. While rank and file police and firefighters supported Krasner overwhelmingly, Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby said the FOP had put more money into supporting Vega than into any other candidate in memory.

The stakes were that high for old guard Philadelphia.

Those days are drawing to a close. In a city with an 8-1 ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans, it is never news that a Democrat has won a major election. What is news is a candidate’s platform and the changes that platform can bring, particularly for those of us historically shut out of the mainstream political discourse and kept from a seat at the table.

Being not just included, but prioritized, is critical for communities of color and LGBTQ people. Supporting candidates who put our concerns and our needs foremost is thus a crucial step toward realizing those goals.

Last summer Philadelphians of all races, ages, genders and identities marched in solidarity to protest the killing of George Floyd and the rampant police brutality that has become endemic in America’s police departments. Philadelphia has a long and terrible history of police brutality and LGBTQ people have long been a focus of that brutality.

Queer and trans people of the Stonewall era remember the relentless harassment, raids, arrests, beatings and sexual assaults by police against gay and lesbian patrons of the local bar scene. Police violence is part of our collective LGBTQ history; commitment to the police reform movement is one of self-preservation.

Krasner has worked to change and limit prosecution for crimes like prostitution/survival sex and minor drug offenses. LGBTQ people — particularly gender nonconforming lesbians and trans women — are disproportionately represented in the prison system due in part to these prosecutions.

Votes for Krasner and the progressive judges who will support his mandate will help mitigate these prosecutions and criminalizations that also prevent people from securing and maintaining employment and even housing.

On the other side of the state in Pittsburgh and Allegheny county, the primary secured other important progressive wins. Voters banned no-knock warrants of the kind that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor and banned solitary confinement in jail. Solitary confinement has been shown to have often deadly psychological impact on incarcerated people and that punishment has historically impacted LGBTQ prisoners disproportionately.

Pittsburgh also fired its incumbent Democratic mayor and chose his progressive challenger: a Black state rep. In addition, as in Philadelphia, progressives who ran for judgeships on curbing bail and incarceration won, all of them women.

In just a few months, the race for 2022 begins in earnest. Local state representative Malcolm Kenyatta is running for Pat Toomey’s Senate seat while Rep. Brian Sims is running for lieutenant governor. These two gay men have already made electoral history in Philadelphia and the state, but would make national history if they win.

The fight to retain Democratic control of the House and Senate will be intense. That cannot happen without a fully engaged electorate. While Philadelphia won the DA’s race and some judgeships, the state of Pennsylvania lost on two crucial ballot initiatives that ceded power to the GOP-led state legislature over the governor.

If this off-year election was a test of commitment to voting, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania both failed. Mail-in ballots were fewer than 10% of what they were in November, and in-person voting was light. Fewer than a fifth of registered voters in the state cast ballots.

That can’t happen in 2022. The Krasner win wasn’t a fluke with 65% of the vote. But the low number of votes cast in a city the size of Philadelphia is inexcusable.

The fear-mongering that was Carlos Vega’s whole platform is a national drumbeat from the right. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) led the GOP fight to decertify the 2020 election, with Pennsylvania his first target. McCarthy only lost the vote for Speaker of the House by eight votes in January. What do you think he will do if Republicans win back the House in midterms? Do you think your vote will be safe in a swing state like Pennsylvania with McCarthy in control?

Fully 70% of Republicans still believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, not President Biden. The GOP is recounting votes again in Arizona, six months later. This is what we are up against.

The House has a slender Democratic lead. The Senate is 50-50 with Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote. The Equality Act passed months ago in the House. It is unlikely to pass in the Senate which has yet to even debate it. But in GOP-led legislatures nationwide, anti-LGBTQ laws are being passed.

While this election was an exciting win for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, 2022 looms large and the stakes could not be higher.

The power of our votes was felt on May 18. But we need to do much better next year. The fight for our very lives is real; we’ve witnessed it. The fight to maintain our democracy is also real and increasingly tenuous. Our votes are our voice. We must be sure our voices are heard.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.