The “Progressive Prosecutor” Movement Spreads, But Unevenly

August 19, 2020

It is hard for prosecutors to let go of the prosecutorial identity, as seen by the numerous US politicians and pundits who use the refrain “as a former prosecutor” to lend themselves a veneer of additional authority, especially in an era where President Trump has seen many of his associates head to federal prison. But what happens when a city lets go of its prosecutor and her legacy? That prosecutor becomes a kind of ghost.

Earlier this month, Jonathan Mosher was defeated by Laura Conover in the Democratic primary race to become top prosecutor in Pima County (Tucson), Arizona. With no Republican opponent, the job is Conover’s.

The significance of Mosher is that he was the protege of long-term Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, who is retiring. It looks like LaWall, a once-defining local personality, will become another historical footnote of a Tucson that is getting much more liberal and diverse.

In 1996, when LaWall became the first woman DA in county history, it was also only the second time in modern political history that Pima County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate (Bill Clinton). The political change ended up sticking, and today the area is known for progressive stars like Raúl Grijalva, who endorsed Bernie Sanders for President in 2016. But criminal justice was a different story, with LaWall proudly bringing a frontier-style harshness to the job.

During Mosher’s campaign, he told audiences he was a “progressive,” but this failed to square with his serving as LaWall’s second in command. Neither did some of his former media statements, like comparing drunk driving to shooting a rifle into a crowd of people, help.

The way Mosher campaigned seemed to be a clever appropriation of the rhetoric popularized in big liberal cities by people like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner. More voters than ever want to hear about how prosecutor candidates will take a more holistic approach, addressing issues like root causes of crime with measured compassion, not performative lock-’em-up bravado. However, candidates’ eagerness to oblige makes it harder for voters to tell who is legitimately supportive of criminal justice reform concepts like lowering incarceration rates.

Likely coming as a shock to many local political insiders, Conover, a relatively unknown federal public defender, took the seat with 57 percent of the vote. Mosher received an embarrassing 37 percent. Conover campaigned on ending mass incarceration in the region while keeping residents safe—and educating voters about how the LaWall administration charged drug offenses as felonies more often than any other offense.

Conover joins a new cast of forward-thinking prosecutors in sizable districts this year.

Unlike many other reform-minded prosecutor candidates who have won in recent years, Conover was also victorious without relying on big outside money from George Soros-affiliated Super PACs.

Conover’s election represents a sea change in criminal justice mores for the county, but could also have major implications for legislation in the eighth most incarcerated state in the country. Outgoing Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall often threw her political muscle around in Arizona’s capital, particularly to sound exaggerated alarm bells whenever a proposal to reduce criminalization and incarceration reached the debate floor.

She sided, for example, with conservative Republican Bill Montgomery, formerly Maricopa County Attorney and now an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, to demonize a ballot initiative that could have legalized marijuana use for adults in 2016. And she even threatened a lawsuit against the ACLU for merely discussing how she lobbied in favor of new mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

With LaWall out, Conover has a real chance to be a similarly effective legislative advocate, but in the opposite direction.

Conover joins a new cast of forward-thinking prosecutors in sizable districts this year. Both Multnomah County (Portland), Oregon and Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Michigan have elected new prosecutors—Mike Schmidt and Eli Savit, respectively—who campaigned on making their local justice systems less retributive and more humane. In Chicago and St. Louis, reform prosecutors Kim Foxx and Kimberly Gardner were able to retain their seats, despite a deluge of critical local press and racist ire. And Monique Worrell, who previously served as the Chief Legal Officer of the REFORM Alliance, will succeed Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala, building on rather than tearing down her predecessor’s bold, reform-minded legacy.

However, residents of Hawaii, where the absence of national funding interests was sorely felt, were not so lucky. In the top-two primary held on August 8, Honolulu County voters selected Steve Alm and Megan Kau, two conservative career prosecutors, over assistant public defender Jacquie Esser, who ran in the Krasnerian mold.

That is a shame, because Honolulu has one of the most squalid justice systems in the United States. The former police chief, Louis Kealoha, awaits sentencing for corruption crimes, and recently-removed top prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has been under federal investigation for over a year. A large portion of Hawaii’s prisoners are sent to the Arizona desert thousands of miles from home and family, due to extreme overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

Similarly, voters in Miami, Florida squandered a chance for a new top prosecutor on August 18, after 27 years of Katherine Fernandez Rundle as State Attorney. Melba Pearson, a former deputy in Rundle’s office who went on to become the Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida, focused on criminal justice reform and a lack of law enforcement accountability during Rundle’s tenure. Local politicos speculated, with good reason, that Rundle benefited from the “open” status of the primary, whereby Republicans and Independents, not just registered Democratic voters, were able to weigh in on the prosecutor election in this liberal district.


Image via PublicDomainPictures.net/Public Domain

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. He was also a communications specialist for the National Network for Safe Communications, a research center at City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney. He lives in Philadelphia.

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