As the national political media updates for the ‘nth time their statistical models on the likelihood of Senate control changing hands, races with a far more direct and pervasive influence on the criminal justice system have been playing out across the country this fall with scant media attention.
Earlier this month, the Metro Trends blog ran a list of Ten reasons to care about your local DA race, and while the Open File makes no political endorsements, we certainly endorse each of these reasons to vote. Prominent among them: 86% of the national prison population is under state jurisdiction, and in the 75 largest US counties, 98% of felony convictions resulted from plea agreements, where the prosecutor’s power is at its zenith.
Prosecutorial accountability runs through the ballot box as surely as it does through any policy reform. One need look no further than last year’s Brooklyn DA’s race, the dramatic consequences of which we’ve chronicled. As The Root pointed out this week in urging readers to pay attention to these elections, they are of particular importance to people of color, who face a disproportionate number of criminal prosecutions
Here, then, and later in Part II, are a look at some of the races we’re following.
Three Cities in Texas
Dallas County: Craig Watkins, the incumbent Democrat, and the first African-American to be elected to a district attorney’s office in state history, is in a surprisingly tight race with his Republican challenger, Susan Hawk. According to the Dallas Morning News, Watkins came to national prominence in 2007 as a DA working actively to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners, but since then he has been dogged by questions about his management of the office. Grits for Breakfast points out that he has been further harmed by party infighting involving his encouraging his own prosecutors to run against sitting Democratic judges whom he had disagreements with.
All of this has led the Morning News to endorse his opponent. But Hawk, a former Democrat, whose last campaign was run by Watkins’s wife–further muddying the ideological waters–will have to poach from Watkins’ African-American base to win in one of the bluest counties in Texas. That said, she is out-fundraising Watkins, whose campaign has thus far been lackluster.
Harris County: Harris encompasses Houston, and is the 3rd largest county in the US at 4.1 million residents. The incumbent Republican, Devon Anderson, was appointed by Governor Rick Perry when her husband died in office. She is being challenged by Democrat Kim Ogg, who has garnered the endorsement of the out-lesbian Democratic major, Annise Parker, and much of the Houston Democratic establishment. As a useful backgrounder in the Houston Chronicle reports, Anderson and Ogg both worked for “legendary” former DA Johnny Holmes, when “Harris County led the country in death penalty verdicts.”
In her latest ads, Anderson seems to want to follow in this tradition, highlighting her seeking of the death penalty in the case of a murdered police officer. “The fact is, when you behave like a monster and hurt someone, you have voluntarily surrendered your life free and perhaps even your right to live at all.” One ad says that, “[a]s a judge, she handed down thousands of years of prison time,” concluding she is “one tough prosecutor.”
Ogg has run on her record as a gang prosecutor and on the promise to redirect prosecutorial resources away from non-violent drug offenders toward burglary and rape cases that she says too often go unsolved. As the Chronicle reports, “Anderson and Ogg agree on little, but both want a change in misdemeanor marijuana prosecution to allow offenders to avoid conviction and jail time.” The race appears to be the most closely contested election in Houston this fall.
Bexar County: In San Antonio, a sixteen year Republican incumbent, Susan Reed, is trying to fend off a repeat challenge from Democrat Nicholas LaHood, a defense attorney, who has drawn attention for a campaign donation of nearly $700,000 from a single donor, a plaintiffs’ attorney named Thomas Henry.
The campaigns are clashing over whether violent crime has gone up or down during Reed’s tenure, a staple issue in DA elections, and the San Antonio Express News has a wonderfully in-depth explanation of how these statistics are being massaged by both campaigns.
But according to the Texas Tribune, Reed, a former state district judge, who “has long been a tough-on-crime candidate” is leaning on her “anti-drunken driving message [which] has resonated with voters,” while LaHood has emphasized the need to prosecute more cases of child abuse, sighting the high incidence of it in San Antonio.
When it comes down to it, these are all local races. The issues that national criminal justice advocates on the left and right contend over—from mass incarceration, to drug-sentencing, to the death penalty—can and do play major roles in any given contest. But just as frequently, whatever most often leads the six o’clock news emerges as the only narrative hook in these low-information elections, which are often swung by strait ticket voting on higher profile offices.
Thomas Henry’s outsized contribution in Bexar County notwithstanding, district attorney races offices have yet to be fought over in the systematic way that, say, religious conservatives in the 1990s began to contest school board elections along organized, ideological lines and across multiple districts. According to the Tribune, an average DA candidate in San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the country, would spend about $400,000 running for office. In many rural counties, the cost is a small fraction of that amount, meaning relatively modest outside contributions could have large impacts.
Given their enormous collective effect on outcomes in the criminal justice system, and the increasing sophistication of national political coalitions’ efforts to sway local elections on issues like education, tax policy, and now, increasingly, judicial elections, might we begin to see nationally coordinated financial backing for state district attorneys? The direction of our political system would suggest the answer is yes.
Stay tuned for Part II with further thoughts, and a look at some races elsewhere in the country.