A seismic DA election in Portland is a huge win for progressive criminal justice reform

A seismic DA election in Portland is a huge win for progressive criminal justice reform
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid

With the election of Mike Schmidt as Multnomah County District Attorney confirmed on May 19, a new era should be dawning in Portland, Oregon. Succeeding Rod Underhill, a Democrat who staunchly supported the death penalty and other harsh outlier practices, Schmidt promised to never seek the death penalty, oppose Oregon’s harsh Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and create a community oversight board.


Nationally, Schmidt was able to garner support from Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC, as well as R&B superstar John Legend. The latter tweeted out candidate report cards created by Oregon DA For The People, a local grassroots coalition of civil rights groups and concerned residents that had long been pushing for a progressive top prosecutor.

Ethan Knight, a former federal prosecutor running as the more conservative candidate, earned a D. Schmidt received a solid B.

This election was a major turnaround for Oregon, which has been described as having “one of the worst criminal justice systems in the country.” Multnomah County is the largest county in the state. Just two years ago, Max Wall ran as a reform-minded prosecutor candidate with George Soros-affiliated Super PAC money in Washington County, Oregon’s second-most populous. Wall got crushed, receiving only 31 percent compared to Kevin Barton’s 69 percent.

What is most surprising about Schmidt’s win is how overwhelming his victory was on multiple fronts. Progressive prosecutor candidates mostly tend to eke out wins on narrow margins, unless they receive big sums from Soros. Soros was absent in this race. Nonetheless, Schmidt annihilated Knight at the polls, obtaining 76 percent of the vote.

Not only that, but the Oregonian’s editorial board endorsed Schmidt over Knight, despite the “tough-on-crime” bent of its crime reporting. Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who has been targeted by high-profile criminal justice reformers due to her apathy toward decarceration, also backed Schmidt.

This was arguably the first prosecutor election in which truly sweeping criminal justice reform was demonstrated as popularwithout an asterisk.

The national significance of this race is hard to gauge, considering Multnomah County has long enjoyed a progressive reputation (whether or not this is deserved). Another caveat is that prosecutors who run on very progressive platforms do not always fully deliver on their promises, and that scrutiny will be required of what Schmidt actually does in office.

However, Schmidt’s victory is an important indicator that very liberal counties should be able to bring in relatively progressive prosecutors, given the right candidate. In the past, these types of candidates simply did not run.

Residents of Ann Arbor, Michigan get to test this theory in August, as Eli Savit is running for Washtenaw County prosecutor. Brian Mackie, the long-term incumbent, is retiring as top prosecutor after serving for almost30 years.

Mackie had regressive views on criminal justice, such as defending Michigan’s practice of automatically sending 17-year-olds into adult court as a strictly legislative decision, while ignoring his prosecutorial discretion. Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill to end that practice last year.

Among Savit’s progressive promises is to “prioritize rehabilitation for young people, and make every effort to ensure that families stay together”or, in short, to treat kids like kids.

It may shock some that this was not already the status quo in a place like Washtenaw County. But there simply was not a feasible opportunity for anything else, until nowjust as the case was in Portland. Us DA watchers will eagerly wait to see if Schmidt’s victory becomes a trend.

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.  

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