Reisig Unopposed for DA, But That’s Not Unusual

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reisig-2009People have come up to me quite frequently in the last few months asking why no one has challenged District Attorney Jeff Reisig.  That’s a complicated question that in part shows his strength in the office despite criticism from small segments of the population.  But in part, is the larger part of a much bigger puzzle.

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.

Here Yolo County is not alone.  According to Marc Miller, a University of Arizona law professor, who has done research on the topic, incumbent District Attorneys win 95 percent of the time when they seek reelection and 85% percent of those elections, they are not even challenged.

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Reisig Unopposed for DA, But That’s Not Unusual”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    DPD: “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.”

    I’m not following your logic of how Mr. Reisig “neutralized” his possible opposition…how did the publishing of the Guitierrez report cause Raven and Pohl to not oppose Reisig for the position of DA?

  2. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “Because who was their base going to be with which to oppose him?”

    You believe the publishing of a single favorable report did all that -completely neutralized all opposition?

  3. E Roberts Musser

    DGM: “For example, I don’t think anyone in the Hispanic community was going to support Pohl for DA after that report came out.”

    The Hispanic community is probably a small segment of the voting population in Yolo County – don’t you think? Also, bc of small voter turnout, oftentimes candidates succeed bc they get their base to come out and vote when no one else will bother. It is also possible most voters like the job Reisig is doing…and is the reason he is running unopposed…

  4. David M. Greenwald

    In order to defeat any incumbent, you have to create a coalition of people that has some sort of grievance and problem with the incumbent. So who is going to coalesce to oppose Reisig? Probably a lot of people who also have a problem with that report. Does that make sense?

  5. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “In order to defeat any incumbent, you have to create a coalition of people that has some sort of grievance and problem with the incumbent. So who is going to coalesce to oppose Reisig? Probably a lot of people who also have a problem with that report. Does that make sense?”

    You can defeat an incumbent by proving you can do a better job, not necessarily bc the incumbent has done anything wrong.

    If people have a problem with that report, they don’t seem willing to coalesce enought to oppose Reisig. Just curious, why do you think that is?

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: Not generally, you have to show a real problem with incumbents to defeat them.

    DA is too specialized a position. If Reisig were a supervisor, he would have had a challenger.

  7. Superfluous Man

    If elections truly are the best way for the public to hold DA’s accountable and they are so infrequently challenged and when challenged, triumphant, who holds their feet to the fire? Media? I suppose there is the thought that at some time the DA must run for reelection, thus, they might take that into consideration as they prosecute cases and run the office, in other words serves as a check.

    If Reisig was challenged would we get more answers and information than we are getting from his office now, I think so. What incentive does Reisig have now to divulge, explain, debate, etc his actions, policies, practices and so forth? Not much of one.

    So we have a situation in which the DA’s rarely run opposed, have very little oversight(we the people pretty much are the oversight) and when they are opposed they are very successful in defeating their opponent. It also helps little that the local media seems more interested in remaining on good terms or developing a good report with the local law enforcement agencies. With no challenger and a local media that by and large serves as a public relations arm of the DA’s Office, sounds like the elected office of DA is pretty secure in Yolo County.

    What’s more, not just anyone can run for this position, a candidate must currently licensed to practice law in CA. However, a candidate with any shot at unseating the current DA would need a background in this area of law or something similar, I would think. They would also need to be a citizen of Yolo County. That cuts the number of realistic candidates down quite a bit and many of those potential candidates probably currently work for the DA.

  8. jimt

    Is oversight of the DAs office at the State Govt. level pretty much limited to investigating allegations of gross misconduct? Isn’t there also more systematic monitoring of the activities of the DAs office in each county, by one of the State Govt agencies? I’m naive about how this actually works, but interested in finding out more!

    I have to say that I’m a typical citizen in being supportive of tough-on-crime leaders like Reiseg. If there are some people who some of his policies unfairly hurt, is there a way to demonstrate this and bring it to his attention, in a way that might lead him to modify such policies? Seems to me this whole area of victims rights vs rights of the accused is a very difficult balance to make in practice; likely no easy answers or policies that can guarantee fairness to everyone–but I would agree that there is always room for improvement in an inherently imperfect system!

  9. nena8

    “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.”

    After all of the exposed corruption in the Yolo County DA’s office, it is extremely disappointing to see that no one is opposing Reisig during the election. This means Yolo County citizens can count on his continued motivation to win convictions more than justice; prosecution of weak cases; inflation of charges to get convictions; overzealous prosecutors; and unfair trials. A perfect illustration of this is Ajay Dev’s case (http://www.advocatesforajay.com/). He was sentenced to 378 years in prison in a case where there was NO physical evidence. He was a victim of the DA’s “Cash for Conviction Program” (each conviction equals to federal grant funding). His family has raised their voices (and I believe will continue to do so) in unity with others to root out the corruption that has taken the freedom of too many innocent people in Yolo County. Reisig may remain in office but many have demanded that the Department of Justice do its duty and initiate an investigation into Reisig and his office. I for one am eager to see this come to fruition.

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