Progressive, anti-Trump surge takes Philly in surprising political directions

 Larry Krasner celebrates winning the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney Tuesday.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Larry Krasner celebrates winning the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney Tuesday.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In this week’s primary elections, Democratic voters in Philadelphia took the city in some surprising directions.

First, they gave longtime civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner a big win in his bid to be the city’s next district attorney. Even more surprisingly, they chose Rebecca Rhynhart over three-term incumbent Alan Butkovitz for city controller by a commanding margin.

Turnout in Philadelphia was more than 50 percent higher than it was eight years ago — the last time there was an open seat for district attorney.

A major reason for that may be frustration with President Donald Trump’s administration, especially for younger, progressive Democrats, according to Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

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“It is pretty unusual to see incumbents lose,” he said. “But I think that the environment of a set of people who are mobilized and maybe, they haven’t paid a lot of attention to Philadelphia politics, but now this gives them an outlet for a lot of political energy and built-up sense of threat.”

A WHYY analysis shows turnout was robust in areas of South Philadelphia and Center City where many young, progressive voters live. 

The following shows Democratic voter turnout in four wards representing those neighborhoods:

Ward Total Votes: District Attorney Total Votes: City Controller Total Registered Democrats DA Turnout Controller Turnout
1 2898 2639 9258 31.30% 28.51%
2 4783 4446 14093 33.94% 31.55%
5 5844 5465 22410 26.08% 24.39%
8 5960 5688 20201 29.50% 28.16%

 Data source: Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners

That’s not surprising to those who’ve been around the block, including Frank DiCicco, a former city councilman who has been involved in politics since 1967 and has lived in South Philadelphia all of his life.

Back in the day, DiCicco could deliver a lot of votes for the Democratic Party’s chosen candidates by tapping his family tree.

“In my neighborhood, the 2nd Ward, 7th Division there were literally 52 relatives — aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews — you name it,” he said. “And I’m not exaggerating.”

On Election Day, DiCicco would hang out at the polling place, handing out sample ballots to those relatives and to their friends and families, letting them know how the Democratic Party wanted them to vote. For the most part, they listened.

Times have changed.

Now, DiCicco’s down to only two relatives in the neighborhood. Taking their place are younger people — still Democrats — but with an independent streak, he said.

Last year, before he stepped down as a local committeeman to serve on the city’s zoning board, DiCicco said he was handing out literature and saw very few familiar faces.

“I was a councilman for 16 years — you’d think that somebody would recognize me,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that they would have voted the way I wanted — point is, they don’t even take a ballot. They’ll say ‘I know who I’m voting for’ and just walk right past you.”

In DiCicco’s ward — the 2nd — turnout was more than 30 percent on Tuesday. That’s twice the turnout in the 66th Ward in the far Northeast and much higher than the citywide average of about 19 percent.

It’s not clear whether this progressive surge will continue in future elections, but for now, those voters have made their mark in a big way, casting their ballots for a political newcomer and the first woman to become the city’s fiscal watchdog … and for a longtime criminal defense attorney to be the city’s top prosecutor.

WHYY/NewsWorks’ Dave Davies contributed reporting. 

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