According to the Yolo County Elections office the 2006 battle between Deputy District Attorney’s Jeff Reisig and Pat Lenzi was the first of its kind in Yolo County since 1990. Dave Henderson was elected five times to office, was unopposed in 1994, 1998, and 2002, and drew opponents in his first two elections in 1986 and 1990. In other words, only one of the last five DA elections has been contested.
Professor Wright in his recent article, “How Prosecutor Elections Fail Us” argues, “Uncontested elections short-circuit the opportunities for voters to learn about the incumbent’s performance in office and to make an informed judgment about the quality of criminal enforcement in their district.”
People assume that elections equate to democracy and better governance. However, according to a study by Ron Wright, a Wake Forest University law professor that might not be true at least with regards to district attorney elections.
Cindy V. Culp, in the Waco Tribune-Herald, wrote a story on December 14, 2009 entitled, “Voters often Underinformed in DA Contests.”
In it, she cites Professor Wright’s work. He argued that even when prosecutor elections are contested, the campaigns tend to focus on trivial matters.
“What they often talk about is single cases,” Ms. Culp quotes Professor Wright. “They talk about their lawyering skills and background. What you are far less likely to see is a discussion about the overall output of their office, their priorities.”
Professor Wright’s article in part surveys the typical rhetoric in District Attorney campaigns. He finds, “Even in those exceptional campaign settings when the incumbent prosecutor faces a challenge and is forced to explain the priorities and performance of the office, elections do not perform well.”
“Sadly, these campaign statements dwell on outcomes in a few high visibility cases, such as botched murder trials and public corruption investigations,” he writes. “Incumbents and challengers have little to say about the overall pattern of outcomes that attorneys in the office produce or the priorities of the office. “
Both Professors Wright and Miller find this trend worrisome. As Yolo County residents who follow the District Attorney’s office know, the “chief prosecutors occupy one of the most powerful positions in the criminal justice system. The discretion they have to prosecute cases or reject them gives them more control over the fate of those accused of a crime than a judge or jury.”
Elections, they argue, represent one of the very few checks on that power. And when they are challenged, they only win 69 percent of the time. That may seem high, but it is considerably lower than other offices.
According to Professor Wright again in Ms. Culp’s story, the primary reasons that DA’s do not face challengers is that few people are qualified and willing to run against them.
In Ms. Culp’s article both Professors Wright and Miller offer questions that ought to be asked of incumbents, the problem, as we know in Yolo County is that we have no challenger.
In Yolo County, we have seen scrutiny on the District Attorney’s office for what some have called overzealous prosecutions and at the same time, the questionable investigation into a Sheriff’s Deputy Shooting has created a strong activist base.
But still, Jeff Reisig faced no challenge. In part that had to do with smart politics. While groups representing minorities and some on the left have complained about the DA’s policies, Mr. Reisig has worked hard to consolidate power by grabbing the middle and the right. Few may recall that despite a huge resource advantage and establishment backing him – including the DA’s office and most elected officials across the county – Reisig only won a barebone majority over his rival in 2006.
The recent crime victims tribute illustrates the effectiveness. Last week, the DA’s office put together a tribute to honor a number of victims of crime. According to published reports, more than 100 people attended the tribute.
The District Attorney brags about its high conviction rate and its toughness on crime. This plays well to the middle class majority in the county. Generally the people victimized by the DA’s policies are marginalized people without the means or voice to fight back. That makes the prosecution of Ajay Dev unusual and the reaction by his family and friends even more so. However, even that failed to generate so much as an opponent in the election.
One thing that the Yolo Judicial Watch Project noticed immediately is that the DA really controls the message. There are high profile cases that the local media like the Bee, Enterprise, and Daily Democrat will send reporters to cover, but most of the time, they do not have the resources to do that. So the DA’s office sends out press releases. Not only do they choose which cases to highlight, but most of the papers re-print the press releases almost verbatim. And even when they do re-write the cases, they never attempt to get the other side of the story. That creates a reporting bias that paints a positive view of the office.
A final point that ought to be mentioned here is that if rivals were going to come from his own office, Mr. Reisig shrewdly neutralized that possibility. The “Report on the Shooting of Luis Gutierrez” was written by Jonathan Raven and Nelson Pohl. Now Mr. Raven is the Assistant Chief Deputy DA and a close ally of Mr. Reisig. He was unlikely to challenge Mr. Reisig. But Nelson Pohl was said to have considered running for the spot in 2006 and also was rumored to be considering running this year.
However, once that report came out, he was effectively eliminated as the core base opposing Mr. Reisig would not have supported him given this report. So effectively, Mr. Reisig took out two potential rivals in his office with one fell swoop.
In this economy, where fundraising is difficult, no one else had the name recognition or the donor base to materialize and now Mr. Reisig is off scott-free for the next four years.
Mr. Reisig has often expressed the idea that opposition to his policies is politically-based rather than policy-based. One of the reasons I argue against that view is what are the politics here? There is no challenger, so politics to what end? People simply disagree with the DA’s policies. And those who disagree are either small in number or limited in political power.
—David M. Greenwald reporting