Pima County, AZ – After 40 years of the prosecutor’s office in Pima County being under the same leadership, Laura Conover overwhelmingly defeated the hand-picked replacement of 24-year sitting DA Barba LaWall—out-distancing her nearest opponent, the head of the homicides investigation unit, by a 57-36 margin. By virtue of the fact that no Republican has filed, Laura Conover is effectively elected as the next County Attorney of Pima County.
Just since May, she is the latest in a string of wins for progressive prosecutors—Mike Schmidt in Portland, Jose Garza in Austin, Mimi Rocah in Westchester, NY, Eli Savit in Michigan, and Kim Gardner in St. Louis.
“Absent some kind of write-in campaign,” she told the Vanguard on Wednesday. “I hope to earn one vote—so long as I secure one vote.”
Laura Conover explained that voter turnout in her county went up despite COVID, in part because Arizona has been on the cutting edge of mail-in ballot voting.
“The numbers were quite higher than the last two election cycles, despite COVID,” Conover said. “Voting by mail does work.”
In Southern Arizona, Conover said, “I think the big picture was criminal justice reform because all three of the primary candidates had significant reform elements in their platform and were trying to run as reform candidates.”
The election in her view hinged on the question of “who was the real reform candidate.” As well as, “Who would actually be able to enact real criminal justice reform?”
Pima County has more than one million voters, and she believes this election shows, “The majority of voters in this county (were) calling for criminal justice reform.” She said, “It was a great night for the movement.”
Like other areas of the country, Conover said things changed after May 25 and the death of George Floyd.
“Moods shifted, demands shifted, there were three emergency press conferences in Tuscon,” she said “including the most important local press conference in my lifetime in over 40 years.”
There were issues involving George Floyd’s death but also their own in-custody death.
“It was extremely present here in the race,” she said. Her chief opponent as a result attempted to push much further into the reform arena with his campaign, “which as the head of homicide was just very hard to do.”
The April 21 death of Carlos Ingram-Lopez preceded George Floyd, it made national news, led the police chief to offer his resignation, and caused a councilmember to point out: “Shootings and chokeholds are not the only forms of violence.”
A video released showed the man running around a dark garage before officers handcuffed him, and he can be heard thrashing, asking for water numerous times and whimpering as he lay face-down on the ground. An internal investigation report from the department recommended that the three men who responded be removed from duty.
Laura Conover told the Vanguard, “I think what we learned is had our own mental health team been able to respond, the situation could have turned out quite differently.
She added, “It’s really a full display of why you need mental health units, why you need a full completement unit so that medical professionals are present and you can respond to a health crisis if that’s what you have on your hands.”
She didn’t go as far as some. “The call for help definitely called for a law enforcement response,” she said. “We would have benefited from medical personnel on scene.”
She saw it as a restraint issue where he probably suffered a heart attack fueled by drug usage.
“It was horrifying,” she said. “It was a horrifying loss of life that we all watched on TV. It was tragic and sad. A terrible way to learn the ultimate lesson on life in that way.”
Laura Conover now has three months before she is officially elected. She explained she has a three-part plan. First, she is planning to build the first fraud unit that the office has had in 20 years.
“That began the very next morning—Wednesday morning right after the election,” she said. Jack Chin, the law professor at UC Davis who originally came from University of Arizona in Tuscon when he was in Pima County, had run white collar and fraud units previously and he will be granted a sabbatical to help set up the fraud unit.
A big issue looming in Arizona in the fall is the Second Chances Act.
She called it, “The most important piece of criminal justice reform to ever arrive in a meaningful way in our state in decades.”
Finally she has begun building a transition team.
“This is the sunset of a 40-year administration,” she said. There has only been one administration that has run the entire system there her entire life in Tuscon. “This is a whole generational type of shift. That’s going to take a serious transition team.”
She wants to bring to the office “a sense of excitement as we bring reform in in a meaningful way.”
Conover was surprised to see the margin of victory. She was a first time candidate. The outgoing prosecutor, well-respected, “had chosen her head of homicide and thrown all of her weight behind her.”
In addition, the business community and the head of the Republican party “went all in for my opponent.”
“The stakes were really high,” she said. “We were definitely viewed as a deep underdog.”
But “my coalition was really broad across this massive, diverse county. That the true fundamentals of criminal justice reform were coming out.”
She said that “the progressive left was deeply invested” and so too was the small business community and even the Chamber of Commerce. She said, “This shows why criminal justice reform is the powerful philosophy that it is.”
So once again, we see another progressive reform prosecutor candidate face a tough adversary and prevail.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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