Commentary: DA’s Race Better Open Some Eyes

Johansson was Underfunded and Disadvantaged from the Start but Nearly Knocked Off Reisig

Yolo County released the final canvassing numbers yesterday afternoon.  They confirmed pretty much across the board the results from Election Day.  Gloria Partida finished first in the city council race with Dan Carson being elected as the other councilmember and Linda Deos finishing third.  Nishi passed with more than 60 percent of the vote (itself a stunning achievement).

But to me the biggest shocker was the district attorney’s race.  Dean Johansson did not win, but he did gain a few votes in the final tally to close the gap to 2337.  That comes to 52.9 percent to 47 percent – closer than the 2006 election even.  Who would have guessed that?  Certainly not me.

Jeff Reisig, as most know, has been a figure that has been controversial among some in the community since Day 1.  But since he was first elected he has never been challenged, and when he finally was this year, no one figured him to be particularly vulnerable.

Let’s look at some early comments.  In January, one regular reader: “I may be wrong but something tells me that Reisig has nothing to worry about. I think when you get to the bottom of it people will tend to vote for who they perceive as the law and order candidate.”

Several others proclaimed in variously colorful forms that the incumbent would win overwhelmingly.

In February, I asked in a commentary: “Can Johansson Beat Reisig?”

In that commentary, I pointed out that history ran against Dean Johansson and wrote: “This remains the case, despite the fact that on paper Yolo County would seem to be receptive to a more liberal, reform-minded district attorney.”

The history, despite the fact that Yolo County voted in opposition to Jeff Reisig on criminal justice reform, worked against Dean Johansson.

There have been two contested DA’s races in the last 40 years in Yolo County.  In 1984, Dave Henderson faced Bob Black.  On the surface that would seem to be a formidable match – after all, Bob Black became the surprise mayor of Davis as a student and then became a county supervisor.

But he couldn’t beat Dave Henderson – even in Davis, where he lost in a 51-49 split.  Mr. Henderson remained in the office until 2006 when his hand-picked successor Jeff Reisig fought a bitter race against fellow Deputy DA Pat Lenzi.  Ms. Lenzi managed to narrowly win in Davis and West Sacramento, but got blown out in Woodland.

The key to winning in Yolo County is that you have to win Davis by a large enough margin to offset the more conservative rest of the county.

Dean Johansson actually did what we thought he needed to do in Yolo County – he won 40 percent of the vote.  The problem was he only got 56 percent in Davis, and needed probably 65 to win it.

I concluded that February column by writing: “But can Mr. Johansson knock off the three-term incumbent?  It is definitely a long shot, but you never know.”

I was skeptical.  But what we saw was nothing short of remarkable.

Had the Soros folks donated at least $400,000 to Noah Phillips campaign…  Had they donated even $100,000 to Dean Johansson, who raised about $70,000, Mr. Johansson may very well have won.  As it was, he made it uncomfortably close.

There are those who dispute that, but the optics and body language say otherwise.  The Davis Police Officers Association pumped nearly $20,000 into the race.  You had the early attack on Mr. Johansson being fired, the middle attack over the police report and alleged child abuse, and the later attack on things like the pledge of allegiance.

Those were all first launched by third parties, but Jeff Reisig ended up owning them when he sent out his attack mailer.

None of that seemed to stick.  Where Dean Johansson’s campaign took off was with the energy of dozens of volunteers, including more than 50 people walking precincts and many more handling phone calls, signs, hosting parties and doing other forms of outreach.

They did some innovative low cost things like sending out handwritten postcards.

And the reports that we got from the field was that people were receptive to the message of change and angry at the DA over charging and other policy decisions.

In the end, that was enough to make it a very close race, but not swing the election toward the challenger.

Still, I think most people who supported Mr. Johansson are pleased by what occurred.

As Mr. Johansson told the Vanguard, “This isn’t about numbers, it’s about people.  That’s been the message from the very beginning.”

He continued, “What we did here, it was a victory.  It was a victory before any of this other stuff.  We motivated large groups of people that weren’t motivated before.”

He talked about people who signed up for the first time in their lives – to vote for him.

“That’s something that I wish could be put into some kind of quantitative analysis – how many people voted, that wouldn’t have voted before, because of this campaign?” he asked.  “That’s to me a success.”

Dean Johansson told me that he believes his campaign has already changed the way that DA Jeff Reisig and his office conduct themselves.

“I don’t care what type of window dressing they give to their system of doing things,” he said. “I’m there every day watching on the front lines. I’m a witness. I know how things go on and they’re nothing like they purport.

“That’s why the people that I resonate with – like in the West Sac and the Broderick area – people who actually see it first hand and know what lies look like, they know the reality,” he said. “I’ve watched the arraignment calendar. We get maybe one decline to file a day, maybe. On a good day maybe two.”

During the campaign one day, “I saw five or six in one day on the calendar after Reisig’s feeling the heat,” he said. He said that he and several people in the court looked on in disbelief asking “what’s going on” and “we all knew it was because of this campaign… They’re trying to say that they reject cases from law enforcement and they don’t.”

He doesn’t think they can go completely back to the way it was before.  I’m not so sure.  The piece that came out on Neighborhood Court, I think, is critical to understanding where the DA is likely to go.

First, he defended his work.  Reisig said in a recent op-ed: “Recently, there has been some misinformation that Neighborhood Court only handles noise complaints and other minor infractions.”

If you look at damage control, this is how they operate.  Their first response is to argue: the critics are wrong.

In the Eric Pape case, the first thing Chief Deputy DA Jonathan Raven, who often acts as spokesperson, did was defend their charging policies by noting that the injuries stemmed from an assault “which is felony conduct.”

But then they attempted to make changes even though they never admitted they were wrong to begin with.

In the Pape case, Mr. Raven said, “Nothing in my 23 years as a prosecutor has weighed more on me then the tragic loss of Eric Pape.  I have been going over and over in my head what the DA’s office and the whole criminal justice system could have done differently with this very challenging case.”

They did nothing wrong, they acted appropriately, but they are going to change.

In the case of Neighborhood Court, the program is great, but now they are going to be handling more misdemeanors and even some felonies.

The Davis Enterprise called Jeff Reisig a progressive prosecutor.  Never mind that he opposed all of the criminal justice reforms during his tenure as DA, never mind that he was only one of four DAs in the state to oppose the legalization of marijuana.  The other three were Anne Marie Schubert from Sacramento, Tony Rackauckas form Orange County, and Mike Ramos from San Bernardino County.

That is not progressive company.  In fact, that is not company you want to be in.  Ms. Schubert was challenged but ended up prevailing, Tony Rackauckas is embroiled in the jailhouse informant scandal, and Mike Ramos lost his reelection bid – and Jeff Reisig nearly lost his.

Most likely, we will not see progressive change in Yolo – you will see a few olive branches to the reformers, but, for the most part, Jeff Reisig is going to continue being what he has been for the last 12 years.

Was this the one real chance to knock him off, or a sign that he is in trouble?  One thing that is clear, in four years there is probably going to be a challenger who steps up and announces early.  Had Mr. Johansson had even a month more or received Soros money, Mr. Reisig might not have survived.

—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. Nora Oldwin

    There is a saying-  there are two wolves, the wolf of love, and the wolf of hatred. And, depending on which wolf you feed, that wolf will prosper and grow. Not only was the challenger- Dean- a kind human being, but the managers of his campaign act and acted from a place of deep love and compassion for all human beings in this race. The incumbent’s campaign was a horse of a different color, to mix metaphorical animals. I think the message – of humanity, of love-found traction with many voters. This has been (and still is) a very hopeful campaign. Thanks to Dean, and to the campaign managers as well: Natalie Wormeli and Will Kelly.

      1. Jeff M

        LOL.  Yes.  Nora sure nailed it!

        In terms of wolves vs sheep, Reisig is a wonderful family man with employees consistently loyal to him and complementary of his leadership style.  While Johansson has a record of punching his son.

        In the worldview of people voting for Johansson, criminals are victims and police are criminals.

        I believe Nora and others with her views must live in the upside-down world.

        1. Howard P

          Ah, yes… there is already talk of canonizing (or, lionizing?) the DA… either St Jeff or St Reisig… just need three verifiable miracles… and checking to see if he is actually “christian”… [note the lower case “C”]

          It pays (separating wolves from sheep, or sheep from goats) to be in a position to hold tight reins on one’s own “past” (allegations) from being made public…

        2. Howard P

          BTW, somewhat off topic… the song played by the British, at the surrender of Yorktown (effectively ending the Revolutionary War, ending ‘tyranny’, and the “Intolerable Acts”), was “The World Turned Upside Down”…

        3. Tia Will

          On the last day of tabling for Dean at the Davis Farmer’s Market, a young woman came up to me and asked a question no one else had asked me. She wanted to know if I felt that the smear campaign against Dean had had any impact. Since she was the only person in multiple venues who had asked me a single question or even alluded to the negative accusations, upon reflection, I had to think, probably not. If the claims against Dean had amounted to anything, surely “the law and order” DA at the time ( Jeff Reisig) would have appropriately charged him. He did not. I think most folks were able to see through this. I think the final vote suggests that impression was correct.

        4. David Greenwald

          “Reisig is a wonderful family man”

          Depends how you define that. Personally I have not been one to weigh in on such issues, as I view them irrelevant, but I do find it funny that you would choose to characterize him as such.

  2. Tia Will

    The Davis Enterprise called Jeff Reisig a progressive prosecutor”

    I had many interesting experiences during this campaign encountering a wide range of voters from those who were initially unaware that the office of DA was an elected position, to those who had no idea who the DA was let alone anything about his positions, to those few who had an exhaustive knowledge of cases and outcomes.

    What I found perhaps the most interesting was the fact that in order to win, Reisig’s campaign pulled off a clever trick. They convinced enough voters that Reisig was both “the law and order candidate” and a “progressive prosecutor”.  Hmmm…..which is the real Jeff Reisig?  If past advocacy record is any indication, it is certainly not the latter. This was purely for show to draw in enough Davis & moderate voters with his extremely reluctant “reforms” to make this stance look plausible.

    In the end, I am proud of the campaign Dean ran. He did not resort to smear tactics as did Reisig and supporters. He ran on the issues and the well being of the community as he sees it. I agree that with both more time, and more money, Dean would likely be the next DA. But the grass roots nature of his campaign, the manner in which the race was run, and the message were all strong and it was worth demonstrating another way forward is possible.

    1. Howard P

      Am 98% sure that the DE “endorsement” did not change the outcome… I say that as someone who voted against the incumbent (yeah, didn’t get to the point where I could vote FOR, the challenger, but gave him my vote, despite that)… please don’t be looking for conspirators that affected the outcome … pointless, and pretty sure Putin was not involved…

  3. Keith O

    Bottom line, Reisig won and Johannson lost.  Just like the Trump victory you progressives/liberals (whatever you’re calling yourselves these days) need to come to grips with it and move on.

    1. David Greenwald

      Except for one huge flaw in your comment: moving on means preparing for the next battle not conceding it. In this context, that means the next policy, the next case, the next trial, ultimately the next election.

      1. Jim Hoch


        My interest is an whether the challenge causes a change in policy or process at the DA’s office. Ultimately is Reisig susceptible to pressure?  What is your guess?

        1. Eric Gelber

          … the rest of Yolo County is nowhere as liberal as are Davis voters.

          True. But voter registration for the County as a whole is about 49% Democrat and 21% Republican. And Republicans are falling behind No Party Preference. So, the outcome of elections is more about voter turnout than liberal vs. conservative. I’d say the outlook for liberals/progressives is more hopeful than ominous.

        2. Jeff M

          Then apparently a lot of Democrats voted for Reisig.

          I stand by my point.  A Davis Democrat is a unique animal that is not likely to multiply into other parts of Yolo County.

          1. Don Shor

            not likely to multiply into other parts of Yolo County.

            They’re moving into southeast Woodland because that’s the only place they can find housing….

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