Here is a preliminary preview of some of the year’s stakes.
The next DA of Queens: One of 2019’s headline stories is sure to be the election for the next DA of Queens. Longtime incumbent Richard Brown is a staunch opponent of prosecutorial accountability and of steps like conviction review units, The Appeal reported in August. If he retires, or if he loses to one of the three other candidates who are already running—Borough President Melinda Katz, New York City Council member Rory Lancman, and retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak—it would overhaul the approach to criminal justice in one of the nation’s biggest counties. Katz, Lancman, and Lasak are emphasizing reform commitments to varying degrees. The Political Report will flesh out the contrasts between them in the months ahead.
Challenges bubbling in Virginia: Virginia’s 95 counties are all voting for their commonwealth’s attorney. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported on three counties where challengers are running by calling for prosecutorial reform (all three are Democrats): Parisa Tafti in Arlington County (against Democratic incumbent Theo Stamos), Steve Descano in Fairfax County (against Democratic incumbent Raymond Morrogh), and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County (against Republican incumbent Jim Plowman). Of the three, Tafti, a former public defender, may be the most systematically critical toward the status quo. “I want to dismantle the mass incarceration machine and replace it with policies that pursue justice, increase accountability, prevent crime, prioritize serious crimes, and protect civil rights,” she wrote in the Twitter thread announcing her candidacy.
What allies for Krasner? Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner, who ran on a far-reaching platform, to be its DA in 2017. Now Pennsylvania’s second-biggest county, home to Pittsburgh, heads to the polls as well: Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala has faced no opponent since 1999, but that changes this year. Turahn Jenkins, the county’s chief deputy public defender, is running against Zappala in the Democratic primary. The Appeal has repeatedly reported on large racial disparities in Allegheny County’s criminal justice system, for instance in decisions made by Zappala’s office regarding marijuana prosecutions and regarding which minors are prosecuted as adults.
Dozens of other Pennsylvania counties hold DA elections, including Northampton County, where longtime DA John Morganelli is retiring. One of 2019’s big questions is whether Krasner gains like-minded allies; Jenkins told The Appeal: Political Report in December that he might emulate Krasner in quitting the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which he said was “partly responsible for many of the issues that plague our criminal justice.”
Will Doug Evans face electoral accountability? Listeners to the podcast “In the Dark” (produced by American Public Media) will recognize the name Doug Evans, the DA of Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit court district. (The district covers Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster, and Winston counties.) The podcast’s second season is devoted to the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who has been tried six separate times by Evans over the same murder allegations. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by Flowers concerning the high rate at which Evans’s team struck Black people from the juror pool. And that’s just one of the issues surrounding Evans’s conduct that the season investigates.
Evans, a Democrat who has been in office since 1991, is up for re-election this year. He has faced no opponent since 2003. Will that streak be broken now that he is under such a microscope? The deadline for a candidate to jump into this election, and in Mississippi’s 21 other DA elections, is March 1.
Will 287(g) shrink further? As of November, 78 jurisdictions had 287(g) contracts with ICE, a partnership that deputizes local law enforcement to act like federal immigrants agents. Three have since quit as a direct result of the 2018 elections. Will more follow after 2019? Six counties with 287(g) contracts hold elections this year. ICE has partnered directly with sheriff’s offices in five: Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville); East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Monmouth County, New Jersey; Rensselaer County, New York; and Culpeper County, Virginia. If new sheriffs opposed to 287(g) were elected in these jurisdictions this year, they would be able to terminate the contracts. (Monmouth County may no longer be part of the program by then because of a new directive by the state’s attorney general.) Jurisdiction is more complex in Virginia’s Prince William County, but the fate of 287(g) rests in large part on who wins the positions currently occupied by Sheriff Glendell Hill and by Corey Stewart, the chairperson of the Board of County Supervisors.
All of these counties currently have GOP sheriffs; Stewart is a Republican too, and a prominent one at that. And yet President Trump received under 50 percent of the vote in four (Duval, East Baton Rouge, Rensselaer, and Prince William), making them vulnerable at least on paper to a change in leadership. But the clock is already ticking in Duval County, where Democrat Tony Cummings is challenging Republican Sheriff Michael Williams in the March election. The deadline for new candidates to qualify by paying a fee is Jan. 11. When I inquired about Cummings’s views on 287(g), his campaign said that he would consider reviewing and ending the agreement if he found that it is violating the rights of citizens. The campaign’s response also conveyed a broader openness to cooperating with ICE in ways that Cummings would consider lawful.
Other prosecutorial and sheriff elections: Other major elections to which I will return include the San Francisco DA race, which is open since incumbent George Gascon announced in October that he would not seek re-election (the deadline for candidates is not until August), the Bronx and Nassau DA races in New York, and sheriff elections in all but one Louisiana parish.
Other state/local elections: Prosecutors and sheriffs are of course not the only public officials who impact law enforcement practices. There will be many other state and local elections of interest in 2019. Chicago has an open race for mayor, after activists protesting the city’s policing and prosecutorial practices contributed to Rahm Emanuel’s retirement. In Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards will seek a second term (his Republican challengers are still unknown), and the fate of the reforms that the state has adopted in recent years to reduce its incarceration rate hang in the balance. In Kentucky, which is the state with the highest share of disenfranchised Black residents, Republican Governor Matt Bevin brought the rights-restoration process to a near standstill after he won in 2015; he is now up for re-election.
You can find a standalone version of this story here.