Is the “Progressive Prosecutor” Movement on Its Last Legs?

    Once upon a time, Milwaukee elected Frank Zeidler, the last socialist mayor of a major American city. His last term ended in 1960. As famously noted in Wayne’s World, he was actually one of three socialists the city historically elected to the seat. But history—even if some argue that parts of what such mayors accomplished later became mainstream—is what it is.

    In fact, in 2019, Milwaukee was rated the worst city for Black people to live. That has much to do with decisions by the city’s contemporary leaders, including Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, who still refuses to stop prosecuting marijuana possession unlike his peer “progressive prosecutors.”

    Luckily enough for Chisholm and many others who suffer by comparison, the number of progressive prosecutors—identified particularly as those elected post-2014 with the help of George Soros-affiliated Super PACs seeking to remold the profession—has stopped growing.

    On May 17, two candidates—Brian Decker in Washington County (suburban Portland), Oregon and Damon Chetson in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, whose platforms included elements of decarceration, drug policy reform and death penalty abolition—were electorally defeated. That was despite major problems in the administrations of the incumbents they were challenging.

    The movement is now firmly on defense, if not life support.

    In Washington County, District Attorney Kevin Barton has opposed drug decriminalization and described defunding the police as a “mistake.” He has long wanted to criminalize violent video games, despite this being unconstitutional and far from mainstream public opinion. One of his top deputies, Bracken McKey, has infamously suggested that marijuana is associated with people beating their wives and neglecting their kids.

    In Wake County, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has repeatedly tried to shove capital punishment down local jurors’ throats, even though they have time and time again rejected it. After her office was forced to exonerate not one but two innocent Black men convicted of serious felonies, Freeman gave an impassioned defense of the prosecutor who obtained both convictions at trial.

    No matter: Both Barton and Freeman secured comfortable election victories.

    Numerous incumbent luminaries of the progressive prosecutor movement, such as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, are meanwhile under heavy fire. The movement is now firmly on defense, if not life support.

    The broader political picture is that the momentum we saw for sweeping reform of the criminal-legal system in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests seems to have been well and truly stalled by right-wing exploitation of rising rates of violent crime (rates that still remain far below historic highs). Never mind that the fear of crime that conservatives love to stoke is not assuaged by higher incarceration rates.

    There are of course nuances as to why the latest races may have turned out the way they did. Unlike in the recent past, Soros did not give millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to political unknowns running on a progressive platform for top local prosecutor seats. After giving $1 million to then-Manhattan DA candidate Alvin Bragg last year, Soros gave a comparatively measly $20,000 to Decker in Oregon. In North Carolina, Chetson got nothing.

    Candidate selection has proven a major issue, in part because very few people want the stress of being a district attorney. It is a thankless job, and one that marks attorneys for professional retaliation if they lose.

    And in the case of Damon Chetson, until very recently, he was a registered Republican, even if he also has a past of opposing the drug war. It is unsurprising that Soros would not spend money on him. And Soros money is all-but-essential to secure wins for reform candidates—a fact that underlines, as I have previously written, the argument for public financing for prosecutor campaigns.

    The stigma against Republicans turned alleged progressives is not entirely irrational, either, especially with the impending repeal of Roe v. Wade. When I worked on Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) DA Spencer Merriweather’s re-election campaign in 2018, part of my motivation was to prevent “progressive” challenger Toussaint Romain, also a recent former Republican, from getting elected.

    While many fellow public defenders supported Romain, I could not get past the fact that Romain, a graduate of Regent University’s hyper-conservative law school, called obtaining an acquittal for a man who attempted to incite violence against doctors who perform abortions a “a win for the Kingdom; a win for this alum; a win for my Calling; a win for us!”

    San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin is almost certain to be recalled, and Los Angeles DA George Gascón faces a similar fate.

    Did the so-called progressive prosecutor movement fail to do due diligence? Unfortunately, this is a pattern of such instances. In another 2018 race, the propped-up “progressive” who challenged California’s most influential conservative prosecutor, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert, was outed for sending racist, misogynistic emails at work. Another so-called progressive who found his home in the movement was 2019 Pittsburgh DA candidate Turahn Jenkins, a public defender whose campaign tanked after it came out that he spewed anti-LGBTQ rhetoric at his church

    The one brighter spot for progressives in a May 17 primary was that Durham DA Satana Deberry kept her seat. But compared to other progressive DAs, Deberry barely qualifies. When she first ran for DA in 2018, she, like Milwaukee’s Chisholm, refused to promise any decriminalization policies, for even the most trifling of nonviolent misdemeanors.

    With San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin almost certain to be recalled, and Los Angeles DA George Gascón facing a similar fate, the progressive DA movement is in dire straits.

    Perhaps progressive prosecutors will one day be remembered similarly to Milwaukee’s socialist mayors: politicians ahead of their time, some of whose policies would later be mainstreamed. Is that the best supporters of criminal justice reform, unswayed by rampant media alarmism, can hope for?



    Photograph by Domesticat via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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