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Progressive Winner in Portland D.A. Race Expects ‘Shock Waves’ in Oregon’s Punitive System

“Multnomah County has just embraced the most progressive DA platform that this state has ever seen,” said Mike Schmidt, who credited grassroots organizers for his win.

Mike Schmidt, the winner of the Multnomah County DA election

“Multnomah County has just embraced the most progressive DA platform that this state has ever seen,” said Mike Schmidt, crediting grassroots efforts.

It may be the widest election win yet for progressives in a contested prosecutor’s race. Mike Schmidt, who ran on a criminal justice reform platform, was elected district attorney on Tuesday in Multnomah County, which is home to Portland, some of its suburbs, and more than 800,000 residents. He had more than 75 percent of the vote in results available on Wednesday. 

“His election is evidence of the grassroots efforts that educated the community about the powers of the DA and the harms inflicted by the criminal legal system,” Madeline Carroll, an organizer with Oregon DA for the People, a local advocacy group, told me in an email. “Hundreds of community members contributed to this milestone.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Schmidt too credited grassroots organizers. “Multnomah County has just embraced the most progressive DA platform that this state has ever seen,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling of validation for the things I’ve been working on, and I think of validation for so many people in the community who’ve worked on these issues and said those things for longer than I have.”

He pointed to his 50 percentage point margin as evidence of the “breadth” of the coalition around reform. When he talked to labor groups during the campaign, he recounted, they pressed him to talk about “the systems, and how race has played into the criminal justice system, the school to prison pipeline. You merge that with the activist groups that have been working on these issues, with groups that have been standing with immigrants in our communities, everybody brought similar goals but different takes on it.”

This margin is all the more remarkable in the context of Oregon’s punitive prosecutorial culture, of a DA association that has fought recent reforms, and of a prison population that has kept rising, bucking national trends. Oregon is one of only six states where incarceration reached a new peak in 2018, according to a new analysis by the Sentencing Project.

Schmidt has blamed Oregon’s harsh mandatory minimum schemes, which were codified by a 1994 ballot initiative, for stalling decarceral efforts. “You literally cannot get Oregon’s prison population reduced by 50 percent without getting rid of mandatory sentencing,” he said in April in a Q&A with the Political Report, referring to a goal some decarceration advocates have set. And in arguing that the legislature should repeal mandatory minimums, he presented the change as a way to chip away at DAs’ tremendous power. “When sentences become mandatory,” he said, “whoever makes the charging decision essentially makes the sentencing decision.”

He also expressed support for other statewide reforms, including an end to cash bail, a ballot initiative that would decriminalize the personal possession of most drugs, and voting rights for all. He is among a growing list of candidates who are winning DA races after stating their view that incarcerated people should retain the right to vote, a significant turnaround in the issue’s national politics that matches what law enforcement officials say in Maine and Vermont

Schmidt works as executive director of the Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency, and is also a former prosecutor. He was endorsed by Governor Kate Brown and by prominent county-level officials such as County Chair Deborah Kafoury. His opponent, Ethan Knight, is an assistant U.S. attorney who ran with endorsements from retiring DA Rod Underhill and also from the local police and prosecutors’ association. 

In its comprehensive voter guide, Oregon DA for the People faulted Schmidt for not having specific proposals for how he would use his discretion as DA to decriminalize or decline to prosecute certain offenses. Although Schmidt has stated general support for lessening the reflex to use prosecution to solve societal problems, he has mostly emphasized a desire to use so-called problem-solving courts, which many reformers stress are insufficient.

“We believe that reform needs to include shrinking the power of the criminal legal system and shifting resources to other, community-led systems that keep people out of the criminal legal system altogether,” Carroll told me. “We want separate tools that address the root causes of health and safety issues in Oregon communities, like health care (including behavioral health), housing, food insecurity, and addiction. We don’t want the DA to have power over those tools.” Multnomah voters also took a step to set up such a tool on Tuesday, voting to increase taxes on the wealthiest to raise $2.5 billion dollars and fund services for homeless people.

Asked about this concern regarding his platform on Wednesday, Schmidt said he was “absolutely committed” to reducing the volume of prosecutions and asking “how we can handle” certain behaviors “outside the system and get results.” The backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to jumpstart this conversation and look at what types of cases should be handled “in a restorative justice way” or “in a community-based setting,” he said. He added that doing these shifts now “out of necessity” could set a new normal later, when the pandemic recedes.

Carroll said her group “will be watching [Schmidt] closely” to “hold him accountable to what he said he would do,” and also “continue to push and educate him on those issues on which we still are not aligned.”

One in 5 Oregonians live in Multnomah County, so Schmidt could have some influence in setting a different tone as to how prosecutors weigh in on statewide legislative proposals. He told me, referring to the Oregon District Attorneys Association, that one reason he ran was to push for measures that are “on the opposite side of a lot of ODAA positions.” 

Schmidt gained a potential ally elsewhere in Oregon on Tuesday. 

In Wasco County, a small jurisdiction two hours east of Portland, DA Eric Nisley was ousted in the wake of a scandal involving sexual harassment and lying to the bar association. Ever since he was appointed DA in 1998, Nisley had never faced an opponent, managing to get through five elections unopposed.  He finally drew a challenger this year, in his 22nd on the job—and lost to him by more than 40 percentage points.

The winner, Matthew Ellis, is a career criminal defense attorney. He did not respond to a request for comment on his views. His website lays out reform-minded goals toward low-level offenses (though with soft language that does not allude to an aspiration to shrink the system) and calls for ending cash bail. He speaks favorably of the 2019 youth justice law that made it harder for DAs to prosecute minors as adults last year. He has also said he wants to help ensure that immigrants are shielded from ICE; DAs don’t tend to be at the frontlines of ICE cooperation, but this campaign stance is notable in a county that voted for President Trump in 2016.

Elsewhere, though, Tuesday’s elections brought little change. Voters were electing their DAs in 20 other Oregon counties, but 13 of these races featured an incumbent running unopposed. Lane County (home to Eugene) was the only other county with more than 50,000 residents to feature a contested race. DA Patricia Perlow, a leading foe of the 2019 death penalty and youth justice reforms, easily won re-election. Her challenger, an attorney and police officer, centered his claim that the system lacks “fairness” on complaints from the county’s smaller towns that their “prosecution rates are drastically lower” than Eugene’s. 

Moreover, a longstanding pattern once again stymied electoral change this year, as I reported in April: Deputy DAs keep getting appointed DA shortly before a county’s election and then get to face voters for the first time as incumbents, an enviable advantage that was in full force this year.

Schmidt pointed to Multnomah and Wasco counties to argue that voters reject ”tough on crime” politics when offered a choice. Wasco is “not what you would consider to be a progressive bastion,” he stressed, and added of Portland’s race: “It’s not even just that I won but the mandate with which this community said these are the policies that they expect to see. … These results are going to send shock waves through our criminal justice system.”

Explore our coverage of 2020 DA elections throughout the country.