Sunday Commentary: The Arrogance of Incumbency

DA Jeff Reisig

Doesn’t an Elected Official Owe It to the Voters to Participate in Candidate Forums?

Dean Johansson tells the story about his encounter with Jeff Reisig: “I did track him down on the street when he was walking to the courthouse…  I went up to him, I honestly didn’t know if he was going to swing on me or what, I was a little intimidated.  The bottom line is we shook hands, agreed not to hit below the belt.  I asked him if he would debate me and he told me that he was busy.

“I thought, busy for the next four months, I’m not sure how that works.

“He’s had two opportunities and he didn’t show up.  West Sac we had a forum and he didn’t show up and today he didn’t show up.”

My thinking was, given the district attorney’s history with the Vanguard, while I think he should have participated in our forum and answered some tough questions, I get why he wouldn’t.  But for him to not participate in a forum put on by law students at the UC Davis School of Law?  For him not even to respond to an email request from Kim Angulo, a law student who put on the forum, is frankly the height of arrogance.

He couldn’t have at least emailed her and said, thank you for the invitation, but I have a conflict in my schedule?  There are two other forums, one a League of Women Voters Forum in West Sacramento for which he has told them he has a conflict.  The other is a League of Women Voters Forum on the 18th in Woodland, which he has agreed to attend.

If he participates in one forum, has he done his duty to the voters?  Or is he obligated to participate in activities and allow the voters to ask questions and get answers?

Here are some thoughts I have on his non-participation.

First of all, Dean Johansson points out that, for the most part, Mr. Reisig is not in court doing trials.  Over the last eight years I can name off the top of my head only a few cases he was directly involved in – Marco Topete’s death penalty trial, Billy Wolfington’s murder trial, and recently the Case Del Sol trial.

Is running a prosecution office a full-time plus job in a county like Yolo?  No doubt.

But there is a funny thing about being too busy to engage the public in your reelection bid – if you piss off enough people who think you are dodging the hard questions and the debate, you might find that you have no job and thus have all the time in the world.

At this point, Mr. Reisig is probably not fearful of his electoral future, but, really, that is no reason not to engage the voters in these forums.

For one thing, Jeff Reisig hasn’t faced any sort of opposition at all since 2006.  That’s 12 years.  At that time he was a deputy DA, he had never run the office before, and while he had a record as a prosecutor, he had no record as the elected district attorney.

Twelve years is a long time to not have faced the voters.  In 2006, the President was George W. Bush.  We have gone through the entire administration of Barack Obama and nearly half the first term of Donald Trump, as well as the second half of the second term of President Bush in between elections.

The world has changed in that 12 years.  We have had a number of changes including realignment, Prop. 47, Prop. 57, and other things.

We have a true clash of prosecutorial philosophies, where Jeff Reisig has taken on the tough-on-crime, traditional prosecutor mantle, and Dean Johansson is pushing criminal justice reform.  Jeff Reisig on the other hand was a two-time opponent of ending the death penalty (Johansson supports ending the death penalty), he opposed realignment, opposed Prop. 47, opposed early release under Prop. 57, opposed ending of direct files for juvenile case (Yolo had the highest direct file rate in the state under Reisig) – and Mr. Reisig not only has opposed Prop. 64, he at least for a time has aggressively pursued marijuana cases.

My point here is not to argue that one approach is right, one approach is wrong – but rather that Mr. Reisig owes it to the voters to take questions on his views and stands, to explain himself and allow the voters to decide which approach they prefer.

One of the big initiatives he pushed in his early years was the West Sacramento Gang Injunction.  In 2010, the Vanguard covered the Gang Injunction Trial from wall to wall.  A lot of people in Broderick have opposed that policy – Mr. Reisig should have gone to West Sacramento and taken questions on it.

During his presentation on Thursday, Dean Johansson explained that 85 percent of all DAs get reelected.  A large part of that is that the DA runs unopposed much of the time.  But even when challenged, DAs are reelected at a 69 percent rate.

Law and order has been a winning issue in America for some time.  For the most part, politicians from both parties have pushed to one-up themselves to show who is toughest on crime.

But in recent years, reform-minded DAs like Larry Krasner have been able to win and push a reform agenda at the county level.  That is the model Dean Johansson is seeking to borrow from.

Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, writing in his 2017 book, Locked In, like many sees DAs as the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system.

He writes, “Mass incarceration is one of the biggest social problems the United States faces today; our sprawling prison system imposes staggering economic, social, political, and racial costs.”

Part of the problem that he sees is that DAs have drastically increased the number of felony cases where all but a tiny fraction result in plea bargains.  To make matters worse, Professor Pfaff writes, locally elected prosecutors are rarely held accountable by the voters for their decisions.

The bottom line is that we have a very clear choice in this race between a tough-on-crime incumbent and a reform-minded challenger.  So why not engage in the debate and allow the voters to decide which approach they prefer?

While Dean Johansson is probably still a long shot to win, I would think that Jeff Reisig would owe to the voters to at least have the discussion.

But mostly I would ask, what is he afraid of? Doesn’t he stand by his record?

—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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  1. Keith O

    My thinking was given the District Attorney’s history with the Vanguard, while I think he should have participated in our forum and answered some tough questions, I get why he wouldn’t. 

    That’s funny, you didn’t “get why he wouldn’t” in our earlier discussion about this.  Now if the shoe was on the other foot and Dean Johansson was the incumbent and Jeff Reisig was his challenger I’d bet that this story would read much differently.  In my opinion the title would read something like “What does Johannson have to gain by debating Reisig when he already has the election virtually locked?”

    1. David Greenwald

      I still think he should’ve done it but I understand his rationale. He has less of an excuse for not participating in the law school forum.

    2. Ken A

      After the election we will see if the DA was smart to take his campaign manager’s advice and blow off the Vanguard forum or if David is correct and he is out of a job after pisses off people who think he is “dodging the hard questions”.  I’m not an actual campaign manager but just like I would tell Hillary Clinton not to attend the gun owning bible thumper candidate forum I would tell the DA to pretend that he does not even know about the Vanguard forum.

        1. Keith O

          I can agree that maybe Reisig should’ve considered attending the law school debate but David, do you really feel the League of Women Voters is a fair unbiased venue?

          1. David Greenwald

            They are probably the most fair venue I’ve seen, although sometimes the questions are a bit dated.

        2. Don Shor

          Yes, the League of Women Voters is a fair, unbiased venue. They have been known for years for their sponsorship of debates that have been run well and without partisanship.

        3. Ken A

          If Don asks any political consultant they will tell him that the League of Women Voters in CA is not super partisan but it leans left with a strong preference for left of center Democrats.  The only people that think the League of Women Voters is “unbiased” are the people that (really) think that CNN and NPR are “unbiased”…

          1. Don Shor

            I didn’t say the organization is “unbiased.” I said

            They have been known for years for their sponsorship of debates that have been run well and without partisanship.

        4. David Greenwald

          I’ve covered numerous LWV candidate forums, as I said above, I find the questions to be stale and am not a big fan of the format, but the questions and moderations has always been professional.

      1. Howard P

        Technically, known as ‘a calculated risk’… you are correct, will be interesting… some say “arrogance of incumbancy”… others might say, “the reality of incumbancy”… others might say, “advantages of term limits for electeds”… time will tell…

    3. Alan Pryor

      The Sierra Club Yolano Group (of which I am Chair) attempted to send a questionnaire to the Reisig and Johansson campaigns inquiring about their views on environmental and social justice issues. Johansson’s campaign responded instantly and let us send them the questionnaire via email which they dutifully returned within the 2 1/2 week time period allowed for responses. Resig’s campaign did not respond to 3 emails to his campaign and a certified letter containing the questionnaire. Neither he nor his campaign even bothered to acknowledge that they received any of the emails and questionnaire. I understand he probably does not consider the Sierra Club to represent his base but to not even provide the courtesy of a response is exceedingly rude.

      1. Howard P

        Will you post the questionnaire, so that we can evaluate whether the questions were ‘honest’ or ‘baited’?  If not, so much for transparency, and will heavily discount your comments, at least in my view….

  2. Keith O

    Not saying that at all, where did you READ that?  Quit projecting.

    Here’s just one of many articles that shows some light:

    Summary: The 95-year-old League of Women Voters isn’t quite what it seems. It has long enjoyed an enviable reputation as a nonideological, nonpartisan, good-government group, but contrary to popular belief, it supports Democratic candidates for public office and left-wing policies.


    1. Ken A

      Just like the Daughters of the American Revolution is a group with mostly Republican women with right of center views the League of Women Voters is a group with mostly Democrat women with left of center views.

      At a DAR Forum a question might be “What are you going to do to protect us from illegal invaders” and the LWV form the question will be “What are you going to do to help dreamers stay in the US”…

      P.S.  Like Howard I would love to see the Sierra Club Questions (and also find out if each candidate got the same questions since over the years I have seen one candidate asked “why do you continue to allow your corporate donors to get away with polluting rivers” and the other candidate is asked “tell us how you plan to continue your work to improve river water quality after getting elected”…

  3. John Hobbs

    “… since over the years I have seen one candidate asked “why do you continue to allow your corporate donors to get away with polluting rivers” and the other candidate is asked “tell us how you plan to continue your work to improve river water quality after getting elected”…”

    Any documentation or just pull that one out…?

    1. Ken A

      I don’t remember every “gotcha” question, but a classic is:

      “Have you ever committed adultery?”

      That has been thrown at many politicians over the years from Gary Hart, to Mitt Romney…

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