Philadelphia district attorney candidate profile: Carlos Vega

District Attorney candidate Carlos Vega (center) speaks to voters and press at an event in Kensington.
District Attorney candidate Carlos Vega (center) speaks to voters and press at an event in Kensington. Photo credit Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

The primary election for Philadelphia district attorney is two weeks from Tuesday. On Wednesday night, 7 p.m., you can listen to a live debate between incumbent Larry Krasner and challenger Carlos Vega, whom we profile here. Listen on 103.9 FM or 1060 AM, on the Audacy app, or on your smart speaker.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Born in Puerto Rico, Vega grew up in New York City.

“I learned how to speak English in grammar school,” he said. “I didn’t know how to speak English.”

Vega went to Catholic schools and worked in the Bronx bodega his family owned.

“Growing up, it was the height of the heroin epidemic, so we were burglarized numerous times at gunpoint and knifepoint,” said Vega.

”My friends I went to school with, a lot of them went to prison. Some of them died of overdoses.”

Those childhood influences are what inspired Vega to go to law school and become a prosecutor.

“I felt it was important for someone to protect my mom,” says Vega, who still visits his mother in New York on the weekends a couple times a month.

“I always wanted to protect those moms that I worry about. I worried about my mother being killed.”

After graduating from high school, he went on to Fordham University and then to Boston College for law school.

Recruited to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office by then-DA Ed Rendell, Vega became the first Latino prosecutor in Pennsylvania history and spent 35 years in the DA's office. Most of his career, he worked in the homicide unit, trying hundreds of cases.

The single dad raised two of his three children while working nights at UPS in order to make his ADA salary work for him.

His DA career ended when Krasner took office. Thanks to city pension, UPS pension and some decent investments, Vega says he was content working behind the scenes and never planned to run for district attorney.

But he said he changed his mind when he repeatedly got calls from crime victims, and families he told him their case wasn’t handled right. He says it was those families who encouraged him to run.

“All the mothers calling me complaining saying, ‘Carlos, can you do something?” he explained. “I told them, ‘I can’t do anything. I am not the in the DA's office,' and they go, ‘Well, why aren’t you?’ "

Those calls from families, and the families from hard-hit communities, are at the foundation of what Vega calls his vision.

“How do you raise a family and walk around the street when you see someone shooting up or having an overdose?” he asked. “Or how do you raise a family when you worry about your child getting shot?”

Recognizing that many Black and brown families have been hit hard by poverty, addiction and crime, Vega says his vision also includes programs that will divert youth and get folks off the streets.

“I want to do an adopt-a-school program or a learn-and-earn program,” he said.

He said transparency and diversity and inclusion will also be a focus.

“Because I don’t want to get a call from a mother saying, 'I didn’t know. you didn’t tell me,'” he said.

“I also want to make the office more inclusive. For me being the only Puerto Rican in Homicide for 30 years, you couldn’t tell me there wasn’t another Latino that had the talent to be there.”

Vega believes he was a fair prosecutor, respected by defense attorneys, judges, victims and police, and he says he would be a fair DA.

“I will make allies and not burn bridges,” he says.

He said that he has what it takes to bring better balance between public safety and reform.

“Because the city is in a bad way,” he said, “and because somebody has to do it.”