If we had predicted that Dean Johansson would finish Election Day trailing 54-46 and by just 2037 votes, we would likely have been accused of drinking the Kool-Aid. But that just serves to illustrate just how improbable the run he made against incumbent Jeff Reisig was.
In an exclusive interview with the Vanguard on Wednesday, Mr. Johansson broke down several times, overcome with emotion from his efforts to change the criminal justice system in Yolo County.
“This isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. That’s been the message from the very beginning,” Mr. Johansson told the Vanguard. “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 life 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 believes that 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 hope the people of Yolo see him for what he is,” he said. “This has blown the candy-coated veneer off of the system that is inherently flawed and brutal.
“This has forced people to wake up from their comas,” he said.
He said that during jury selection, they asked prospective jurors what they thought about the protest taking place outside. “It’s not a protest,” he explained. “It’s an election.”
But he said, “That’s the kind of effect it’s had on the psyche of the people of Yolo, it’s causing them to ask questions. And that is the success of this campaign.”
Supervisor Don Saylor told the Vanguard, “Dean came from nowhere on the political scene and, in a short period of time, established himself as a credible candidate and built a vast network of volunteers.”
The key, he said, is “his message resonated with a lot of people. He changed the conversation on criminal justice policy in Yolo County.
“I think the conversation will continue even though the election has passed,” Supervisor Saylor said.
Don Saylor feels that getting to 46 percent of the vote against a sitting incumbent “is pretty significant.”
The belief early one was “the only way a challenger of an incumbent DA would have any chance is if there was some sort of an active scandal of some kind. In this instance, there should be a focus if not a scandal, certainly a significant policy discussion, about what we’re doing.
“The fact that Dean got as many votes as he did in the current count is pretty significant,” he said.
Don Saylor pointed out that this comes at an interesting time, as they are considering the next version of the community corrections plan, which could become an access point for the Board of Supervisors and the community to push for change.
One interesting tidbit is that the grant that has been funding the Neighborhood Court program is likely to go away and thus the program would lack funding. While DA Jeff Reisig has touted this as a way to avoid recidivism and divert from the criminal justice system, people like Dean Johansson and Supervisor Saylor argue that the program is underutilized and focuses mainly on actions that would not be charged as crimes in other jurisdictions.
Don Saylor pointed out that a low recidivism rate “is not that meaningful if you’re dealing with offenses that people are not likely to commit again anyway.” For example, public urination: “if you just leave them alone, they’re probably not going to make a habit of peeing on the street. They did it one time and most people are probably going to be embarrassed by that.”
The low recidivism rate, he said, “is not compelling on the surface.” Can the Board push for new policies when the DA is independent and directly elected? That has to come through the funding, and the fact that the Neighborhood Court money is about to dry up due to the Trump administration cracking down on Sanctuary Jurisdictions might given them leverage that they ordinarily lack.
In the meantime, the question is what happens now. One person told the Vanguard the next campaign, day one, was Wednesday.
For Dean Johansson, he is going to wait and see what happens in the next day or two. He will go back to work on Thursday, sitting in court, “doing my job.”
He said he had no plans for running again.
“I was surrounded by human wreckage, the carnage of the system that’s broken. It’s currently mean and generation destroying.” He said, “I’ve done it for 20 something years. I’ve served my tour of duty. I’m ready to move on to something else.”
Breaking down, he said, “I’m honored to have worked for these volunteers. This campaign was run by these volunteers.
“That’s where the leadership rests, I was glad to follow their lead and to have been a part of the movement,” he said. “I was just watching it go on – like everyone else.”
The final message from Dean Johansson: “I started off saying this is not about me, it’s about we. We’re all in this together.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting