San Diego DA Says She Won’t Take Law Enforcement Donations — But They’re Still Fueling Her Campaign
Immediately after a heated debate last Thursday that focused on police accountability, the criminalization of homelessness, and the use of gang databases, interim San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan spoke to a handful of reporters in a room not far from the stage at the Chula Vista library. There, she fielded several questions about the impact that campaign contributions have had on the race, amid reports that a PAC funded by George Soros, a billionaire pushing for criminal justice reform nationwide, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of her opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright.
During the contentious campaign, Stephan has been positioned — and often touted herself — as “law enforcement’s choice.” But, she insisted to the reporters that night, her campaign hadn’t received any financial benefits from that support.
“Police unions have not given me campaign donations and I don’t accept campaign donations from my own team,” Stephan said, responding to a question from The Appeal. “Because I want to be very ethical when I promote them or do anything. Nor have I accepted donations from victims’ groups that we have contracts with.”
And while it’s true that Stephan’s campaign itself hasn’t accepted donations from law enforcement unions, The Appeal has found that political action committees associated with local law enforcement groups have already spent at least $313,000 to support Stephan, and almost $5,000 on negative advertisements against her opponent.
The PAC that has given the greatest amount of support to Stephan, San Diegans Against Crime, is associated with her own office. Sponsored by the San Diego Deputy District Attorneys Association, the group is comprised mostly of her own staff members (the La Mesa Police Officers Association PAC recently contributed $5,000 to it as well). The PAC has spent over $277,000 on Stephan’s re-election campaign on signs, television commercials, mailers, and polling. In contrast, Stephan’s own campaign has so far only spent just over $214,000 in 2018, according to its last filing.
Other spending in support of Stephan from law enforcement includes $12,700 from the San Diego Police Officers Association PAC, and the Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC, which has already spent $23,630.
Stephan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In San Diego County, individual donations to campaigns are capped at $800. Political parties can only contribute $51,850 to campaigns for county-wide offices. But the amount that political action committees can spend on local elections is unlimited, making those PACs, which both campaigns have taken advantage of, an easy way for groups like law enforcement unions or criminal justice reform groups to make a major impact on the race.
Law enforcement unions’ spending on district attorney campaigns has come under scrutiny across California in the lead-up to the June 5 election, especially because prosecutors who accept donations, or have received the support of law enforcement PACs, have repeatedly declined to press charges against officers who shoot unarmed civilians or engage in other forms of misconduct.
In Alameda County, incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley accepted $10,000 from the Fremont police union this past November while her office was investigating three members of the union for their roles in two separate fatal shootings. By February, all three officers were cleared of wrongdoing. In Sacramento, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has received $420,000 in campaign contributions over the course of her three campaigns, according to The Intercept, including $13,000 in campaign donations from two local law enforcement unions just days after Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Sacramento police officers in his grandparents’ backyard.
San Diego has had its own recent spate of police shootings. At an early March press conference, Stephan announced that she had cleared four separate sheriff’s deputies of criminal charges in the killings of four civilians in separate incidents in 2017. Ten days after that, the San Diego Deputy Sheriff’s Association spent over $10,000 in support of Stephan.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s campaign, which has focused on ending cash bail and increasing police accountability, has received $600,000 in support so far from a PAC funded by Soros.
Whether campaign donations from law enforcement truly impact the conduct of a district attorney is an open question, explained Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina and director of that school’s Prosecutors and Politics Project. But the perception of what that money is trying to achieve cuts both ways when it comes to campaigns.
“In some counties, incumbent DAs are facing criticism for accepting money from law enforcement unions when those incumbent DAs have to make decisions about whether to charge officers involved in use-of-force cases, and some challengers have been criticized for taking money from groups outside of their jurisdiction,” Hessick said. “The controversy in San Diego is playing out in counties across the country.”
The Appeal is an editorially independent project of Tides Advocacy and does not receive funding from any Soros-funded PAC or Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Tides Advocacy sponsors numerous other projects, however, some of which do receive funding from the Open Society Policy Center.