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