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Democrats are embracing the police, but can that distract from crime in their cities?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Pollsters say crime is one of the three big issues on the minds of voters this year, along with inflation and abortion. Republicans blame Democrats for rising violent crime, while Democrats brag about funding the police. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Republican playbook here is similar to what we've been seeing around the country. Take this TV ad by Senate candidate Mehmet Oz.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Weak prosecutors, crime skyrocketing, failed liberal policies making us less safe.

KASTE: And in Pennsylvania, the political symbol of crime is the biggest city, Philadelphia. It's suffered a terrible wave of violence recently as the number of shooting victims has jumped almost 60% in two years. Yolanda Jennings lives in West Philly. She's an activist with a group called Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

YOLANDA JENNINGS: I get emotional. I really get emotional because I do love this city so much. And it's very hard to watch the things going on in this city.

KASTE: At the same time, Jennings says she's unhappy with the role that the city's being cast in during this election cycle.

JENNINGS: We're being used as political tools.

KASTE: Standing at the center of all this is Larry Krasner. He's Philly's progressive district attorney, a nationally known figure in the movement for less incarceration. The Republican-controlled state House has targeted him with something called the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order. It's been holding hearings throughout the campaign season. Here's State Representative John Lawrence opening one of the sessions with a litany of tragic headlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LAWRENCE: "Two-Year-Old Shot In Another Night Of Gun Violence In Philly." "Girl, 8, Caught In The Crossfire As Nearly 50 Shots Fired In North Philadelphia." So this is not normal. It is not OK.

KASTE: The committee could end up recommending Krasner's impeachment, and that would be just fine with Charles Strange.

CHARLES STRANGE: I think they definitely have to get rid of Krasner.

KASTE: Wearing a Trump hat and a Phillies jacket, Strange lives in Bucks County, where the select committee just held a hearing on whether Philly crime is now spilling into the suburbs. He believes it is.

STRANGE: Oh, it's here. And what are you going to do? When you lock them up, they're out the next day.

KASTE: Ask Krasner about all this, and he sees politics and racism.

LARRY KRASNER: I think the Republican logic goes like this - fear, fear, fear, fear, Willie Horton. That's their logic.

KASTE: Krasner's in his downtown office, sitting underneath a poster of the police mug shots of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Philadelphians reelected him by a wide margin last year. And he says that's why the Republican legislature is now talking about impeaching him.

KRASNER: It is a fundamentally anti-democratic, fundamentally fascistic effort to erase the votes of the people whose elected official they elect.

KASTE: He says it's true that he doesn't prosecute lower-level crimes such as prostitution or marijuana possession, but he most certainly does go after gun crime. As to the midterms, Krasner says statewide Democrats might do better this year if they took a chance and embraced what he's been trying to do in Philadelphia.

KRASNER: There's this huge segment of voters who are left, and they are progressive, and they're Black, and they're brown, and they're broke. And they will come out for reform prosecutors. And the mainstream Democratic Party is running away from victory, and they're running away from success.

KASTE: But outside the city, Democratic candidates are not about to take that advice. In Wilkes-Barre two hours north of Philly, Congressman Matt Cartwright has just announced a million dollars in federal grants to help hire more local cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT CARTWRIGHT: So please join me in saluting these valiant police officers and police departments, and commend them on the work that they've done to make our community safer.

(APPLAUSE)

KASTE: Cartwright's in a tight race against Republican challenger Jim Bognet, and he won't be dragged into giving an opinion about what's happening in Philadelphia.

CARTWRIGHT: We are immensely proud of the Philadelphia Phillies. We love the Philadelphia Eagles. But we don't really want the problems that they have in Philadelphia with crime and policing and the things that Mr. Krasner's dealing with. So I don't have a lot to say about what the answers are there.

KASTE: It's a strategy that's best summed up by Cartwright's latest TV ad, in which the Democratic congressman is endorsed by a man in a red MAGA hat who says he's for the police. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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