Portland’s Democratic DA Candidate Drops Out After Sexual Conduct Accusations. That’s Really Bad for Maine Drug Policy.

    On October 30, Democratic candidate Jon Gale announced his resignation from the race for Cumberland County District Attorney, Maine’s most powerful prosecutor position. His resignation came in response to allegations of sexual misconduct that surfaced the day before, followed by calls from the Maine Democratic Party for him to withdraw from the race.

    Gale, a defense attorney, acknowledged in a statement that he had “made several decisions in my personal life that I regret,” including engaging in “extramarital affairs.” However, he denied former coworkers’ claims that he had left a job in 2004 amid a human resources investigation into sexual misconduct with multiple female colleagues. Gale stated that his decision to drop out of the race was due to “the toll this is taking” on his family (Gale, 51, is married and has two adult children).

    His resignation has serious consequences for Maine’s drug policy, which has been disastrous for a long time. While opioid-related overdoses have skyrocketed, Maine politicians have persisted in harmful, disproven and racist approaches to drugs.

    In 2016, Governor Paul LePage blamed the state’s heroin problem on “guys by the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty,” and then called people of color “the enemy.” Stephanie Anderson, the current Cumberland DA who is stepping down this year after 28 years in office, has used informants to achieve draconian prison sentences in drug stings, fought to keep a marijuana possession conviction after a police officer destroyed the evidence, and weaponized Greyhound buses to make other drug possession convictions. She falsely claimed that Question 1, a 2016 ballot measure which legalized recreational marijuana in the state, would have make cannabis legal for kids.

    In contrast, Gale, who would have likely won the race for DA in the Democratic-leaning county, has been supportive of safer consumption sites (sometimes referred to as “supervised injection facilities,” “safer injection sites,” or a variety of other terms). If elected, he would have joined a small group of district attorneys around the country who have embraced facts over fear on the issue. He had also said he would to expand diversion programs, and rely less on cash bail.

    Because district attorneys have an immense impact on criminal justice legislation, and Cumberland County is the most populous county in Maine, Gale’s election could have dramatically transformed the state’s drug policy.

    Now the opportunity has been squandered. And Maine’s drug policy could get even worse.

    Jonathan Sahrbeck, a current assistant prosecutor under Anderson, will now become the next Cumberland DA. Sahrbeck wants to use the justice system to push more people into forced abstinence. He has also issued a shocking, contradictory statement that “Narcan saves a life, but it doesn’t exactly help somebody.”

    It didn’t have to be this way. If the information about Gale’s past misconduct had come out during the primary, then Democratic runner-up Frayla Tarpinian—who, like Gale, had expressed support for safer consumption spaces, in addition to supporting the decriminalization of sex work—would likely have become the next Cumberland County District Attorney. 

    It is time for local party leadership to take district attorney races more seriously. If the Democrats care about ending the horrific injustice of our criminal justice system, they need to thoroughly vet their local DA candidates early on to avoid these tragic blunders.


    Photo: Jon Gale/youtube.

    • Rory Fleming

      Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney.

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