Here are 4 key upcoming races that could bring big progressive gains before the 2020 election
by Rory Fleming
Tiffany Cabán, a highly progressive, 31-year-old queer Latina public defender, stunned the world last week when she edged out a victory in the Queens district attorney Democratic primary.* Voters there can now expect a top prosecutor who will never prosecute recreational drug use and consensual sex work.
Since Queens has a little over two million residents, the outcome is almost as if New Mexico just adopted Portugal’s decriminalized drug policy in one swoop.
And it needn’t end there. For people who want to see the fight against the drug war brought to its enforcers before the 2020 presidential election, there are a number of other key district attorney races being fought in the run-up to elections in November of this year. Here are four of them.
1. San Francisco
San Francisco’s 2019 DA race has a good bit in common with the Queens one. Another big cosmopolitan city (population: 883,305), it’s seeing competition between four Democrats—most of whom may not seem too different from one another at first glance.
The establishment candidate, Suzy Loftus, has worked in presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s San Francisco DA and California AG administrations, and even has a day named after her. Loftus was a member of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s transition team, when Breed put out a homelessness abatement plan including drug sweeps and coerced drug treatment. She also promised more interagency cooperation, which has previously looked like calling for more beat cops and defending the former Police Chief, Greg Suhr, while he was embroiled in his department’s racist text message scandal. Substantively, Loftus seems to want to crack down harder on property crime.
The other four candidates, including Leif Dautch, Nancy Tung and Chesa Boudin, have an uphill battle. Chesa Boudin has both the most ambitious reform platform of them all and a compelling back-story. Boudin is the son of members of the Weather Underground, a militant leftist group of the 1960s and ‘70s. When he was a year old, his parents participated in an armored car heist that resulted in a dead security guard and two dead police officers.
Boudin sees his life story as granting a human seriousness regarding DA job duties, as most prosecutors come from privilege and do not have firsthand experience with the crass, unfeeling justice system. On the issues, he wants to make sure the phrase “victims rights” is not mistaken for “harsher sentences”; end cash bail and generally pare down pretrial detention; and create an Immigration Unit to protect immigrants and prosecute ICE.
2. Lehigh County
In Lehigh County, Pennsylvania (population: 368,100) incumbent District Attorney James B. “Jim” Martin, a Republican, faces off against Democrat challenger Jim Moreno in November 2019. DA Martin is a career prosecutor, having been the DA since 1998 with few challengers. Martin has been moderate on some issues, like not regularly using the state’s onerous drug-induced homicide law. On the other hand, he is trying to destroy Bethlehem, PA’s new marijuana discrimination ordinance.
While neither campaign has yet hit its stride, there’s a lot to poke and prod incumbent Martin about over his long tenure—especially when it comes to his attitudes to women and girls. In a 2008 sexting situation where a photo of a minor girl’s breasts was nonconsensually sent around her whole school, Martin shrugged, “She’s a victim and she’s not a victim.” Martin also balked when a judge threw out a prostitution case he brought that year because the police paid an informant with taxpayer dollars to have sex with sex workers four times.
3. Loudoun County
In Loudoun County, Virginia (population: 406,850), Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittmann (R) is attempting to take the mantle from incumbent Jim Plowman, her boss who is becoming a judge. In 2015, Plowman prided himself on reversing course from the administration before him, during which he claimed“prosecutors dropped more felony cases, plea bargained more felony cases and tried fewer criminal cases.” Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff’s seminal work, Locked In, expertly explains how this shift helped create mass incarceration.
While Wittmann has mostly kept her campaign communications within the bounds of her experience, like getting convictions in serious sexual assault cases, there are issues she will have to answer on the campaign trail. One is that the county drug court reopened only in April 2019, and was shuttered for seven years prior to that.
The other is that her Democratic challenger, Buta Biberaj, is an experienced attorney and former judge who wants to bring the office into the 21st century. For her, this means not prosecuting marijuana offenses, curbing civil asset forfeiture and ending cash bail. For context, Hillary Clinton handily defeated Donald Trump in Loudoun County in 2016, and a comfortable win for the Democratic candidate for Virginia Governor followed in 2017.
4. Monroe County
Finally, in Monroe County, New York (population: 742,474), incumbent Sandra Doorley, a Republican, faces Shani Curry Mitchell—a Democrat and Doorley’s former employee—in the race to become the top prosecutor in Rochester.
Doorley embodies the mainstream American “victims rights” movement, which New Yorker columnist Jill Lepore recently described as a marriage of one branch of feminism with the carceral conservative cause. A district attorney with a draconian record, Doorley recently said she will not prosecute marijuana possession anymore—but only after major pushing on the issue from her opponent.
Mitchell moved to Rochester about a decade ago, after working for many years as the senior assistant district attorney in the Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia, DA’s office. While Doorley wrote to newspapers to try to scare people into keeping New York criminal procedure laws that—by often only letting defense attorneys view the evidence against their clients right before trial—were less fair than Texas’s, Mitchell contradicted her old boss’s tirade, saying the reforms were “desperately needed.” They were then passed.
Mitchell’s website states that she would not overcharge offenses, while taking into account that the “overprosecution of the poor, people of color, and people with mental health disorders has taken a grave toll on our communities.”
Monroe County leans Democrat in statewide and national races, but its local legislative seats are dominated by Republicans. Its county executive is also a Republican. Suffice to say, it should be close.
* The author briefly worked for Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens district attorney in early 2019.