There is an elephant in the room for some on the left who count criminal justice reform among their priorities. Many of the same people who demand campaign finance reform to get big money out of politics fail to acknowledge how George Soros’s super PACs enabled the current “progressive prosecutor” phenomenon.
This is understandable. Soros funds liberal and progressive causes*, and is one of only a few billionaires who actively supports decarceration efforts. He is also a target of vile anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, and smears from Republican Party leaders.
But, as I argue in a lengthy analysis in the newest issue of the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, progressives must acknowledge the extent to which the movement has relied on Soros. The work of reform prosecutors is very positive, but the way their elections have been funded creates serious weaknesses.
The most urgent is that the current Democratic trifecta in Washington, DC is already moving to clamp down on unlimited, secretive spending by super PACs. That could spell game over for district attorneys like Larry Krasner and their supporters—unless state legislatures start passing bills now to create the public financing options for prosecutor elections that we badly need.
Pogressive DAs are a constant target of delegitimization efforts, and Soros’s money presents a major angle of attack. Bad prosecutors who lose take the opportunity to signal that they are not being held accountable by their constituents, but by one billionaire. Attacks on Soros funding come also from the media, from other elected officials, and even from the courts.
The irony is that most Soros-backed DAs’ reforms have been surprisingly mainstream—like seeking life without parole instead of the death penalty, or diverting people caught with small amounts of marijuana. It seems that reactions to Soros’s involvement are often behind the intense blowback.
The Aramis Ayala debacle is illustrative. As recently as 2014, DA candidates in major metro areas used to raise around $100,000 to $200,000 to be competitive. During the 2016 Democratic primary, Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala received $1.4 million from a Soros PAC, which represented 96.4 percent of her funds. Ayala then defeated the incumbent, a centrist who raised over twice that amount through standard donors like real estate companies, local attorneys, and small local businesses, with 57 percent of the vote.
Despite not addressing the issue during her campaign, Ayala made an announcement in February 2017 that she would never seek the death penalty in office. Rick Scott, the Republican Governor, sued to stop her, then the state DA association filed a brief asking the Florida Supreme Court to force Ayala’s hand by restricting prosecutorial discretion, the main source of a DA’s power. Ayala lost the case, then announced she would not run for a second term due to her opposition to capital punishment.
Another notably under-fire Soros-backed prosecutor is DA Krasner, who endures constant reputational assault.
She was essentially bullied out of office, despite DAs of both parties across the country essentially abolishing the death penalty by never seeking it. Many of the most conservative DAs do not seek the death penalty because it is extraordinarily expensive. The difference is that Soros did not fund those other DAs.
Another notably under-fire Soros-backed prosecutor is DA Krasner, who received $1.4 million from Soros in 2017 and endures constant reputational assault. However, it is from a robust, bipartisan coalition of haters.
After former Philadelphia US Attorney Bill McSwain, a prominent Republican, claimed Krasner’s lack of support for police triggered a mass shooting of local officers, not one local paper noted that the shooter was the US Attorney’s own informant. While a couple of out-of-state, activist news sites addressed the issue, the lack of accurate local coverage significantly lessens the chances that much of Philadelphia’s populace knows the truth. And AG Shapiro, a Democrat who will likely be the state’s next governor, had his office lobby Philadelphia’s biggest newspaper to trash Krasner and his administration.
Some reform DAs, largely lambasted during their first terms, are even relying on Soros for re-election. After receiving $333,000 in 2016, Kim Foxx was bolstered by $2 million from Soros for her successful re-election bid in 2020. After Foxx dropped charges against actor Jussie Smollett, who allegedly fabricated a hate crime against himself, the Chicago police union and 30 area police chiefs demanded her resignation.
And St. Louis, Missouri Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner received tens of thousands of dollars in 2016, then over $100,000 in 2020. The biggest local paper’s editorial board called for Gardner to resign or even lose her law license, claiming she exhibited “incompetence and alleged illegality” during her attempt to prosecute former Governor Eric Greitens, a Republican.
The first prosecutor to get elected as part of the new reform wave was Scott Colom in 2015. Previously a political unknown, he received a huge amount of money from a Soros PAC: approximately $400,000 for a rural Mississippi district of about 200,000 people. When asked about his loss to Colom, the incumbent, Forrest Allgood, said that his challenger “had ads on in the World Series. You know what that costs? I couldn’t compete.”
The problem is not that Colom, a moderate reformer, won. Allgood was a dreadful prosecutor, having convicted several people, including a 13-year-old boy, of murder, only for them to be exonerated later. Legally speaking, Allgood committed prosecutorial misconduct several times, but was never disciplined by the state bar.
The problem is that Allgood was able to blame his downfall on a single liberal billionaire. That means others like him—and there are a lot—see Soros as their only realistic threat. If they stay out of his radar and keep a low profile, they will be able to keep persecuting people with impunity. A critical mass of voters will never learn of their misdeeds.
Instead, we need a system that organically fosters robust election challenges to incumbent prosecutors from many quarters.
In 2018 in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, one of the most liberal counties in the nation, Donna Patalano challenged a well-funded incumbent, DA Marian Ryan, from the left.
DA Ryan claims she is “progressive,” despite trying to bully a coroner into framing an Irish nanny for murdering a baby. Ryan, who is deeply skeptical of the notions that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) contribute to crime, pledged to retry drug cases from the notorious Annie Dookhan drug-lab scandal, and runs an office marred by repeat prosecutorial misconduct.
Meanwhile, Patalano was the Boston DA office’s Chief of Professional Integrity and Ethics and was endorsed by the Boston Globe. She also pledged to create a Juvenile and Emerging Adult Bureau for defendants under 25 years old, because she believes in science. (The human brain does not fully mature until approximately that age.)
Despite Patalano’s comparative lack of funds, and zero Soros support, she only lost to Ryan by six percentage points. This is tragic, when what Patalano wanted to do in office was essentially what DA Ryan has tricked her voters into thinking she does.
A similar story is found in Las Vegas. Also in 2018, Robert Langford ran as a progressive Democrat opposing incumbent DA Steve Wolfson, a conservative Democrat in a county that overwhelmingly wanted Bernie Sanders for president in 2020. Wolfson’s office has been repeatedly lambasted as unethical and racist by state courts. Wolfson also seeks the death penalty more than virtually any other DA nationally, and had the gall to turn his office into a propagandistic reality TV show.
Unlike Patalano in Massachusetts, Langford was not even a strong candidate. While Langford made a strong moral appeal for decarceration, he was once slammed by a Harvard Law School institute for being a prolific death penalty attorney who spent very little time on his client’s cases. Even so, and despite raising almost no money, Langford received over 44 percent of the vote in 2018. It is easy to imagine that a slightly better, or better-funded, candidate would have ended the Wolfson era.
Soros gave Cabán what was a trifling amount by the standards of New York City races.
But it was former Queens DA candidate Tiffany Cabán, briefly seen as the next great hope of the American left, who got the shortest shrift of all. So progressive that she made Larry Krasner look like Jeff Sessions, she pledged to decriminalize sex work, to stop prosecuting all drug possession cases, and to seek shorter, more proportional sentences for certain violent crimes.
Cabán also raised more money, approximately $500,000, than virtually all other progressive DA candidates to date, and had more individual donors than any other candidate in the 2019 Queens DA primary. She originally was declared the winner of the race, but lost by 55 voters after a contentious recount.
Soros gave Cabán what was a trifling amount by the standards of New York City races: $70,000, or $2 per vote. That same season, he gave over $600,000 to Parisa Dehghani-Tafti so she could become the next prosecutor of Arlington County, Virginia—a jurisdiction with about an eighth of the population of Queens. Dehghani-Tafti won her race, but only after getting over $39 per vote from Soros.
Cabán should have been the obvious priority, as a candidate who would have truly revolutionized criminal justice for two million people. By contrast, the only enforceable decarceration promise Dehghani-Tafti made during her campaign was not charging marijuana cases, and even that was technically illegal in her state until a new law was passed in 2020.
Within the current system, Soros funding for reform candidates has been overwhelmingly welcome. But as we have seen, for reasons both structural and decision-related, progressives cannot count on Soros PACs to usher in a criminal justice revolution.
Instead, progressives must organize around a new strategy, like asking their legislators to support public financing in DA races.
It would benefit democracy at the expense of the richest donors.
How could this work? Preferably, it would be a “match” program, whereby state funds are granted to match the contributions of small, individual donors. In New York City, where Cabán lost, several elections, including county-wide races like Borough President, are already financed according to this method.
If this occurred, it would benefit democracy at the expense of the richest donors of all political persuasions.
It would also make it likely that progressive DAs would be elected more often, would face less resistance when elected, and would be able to implement more change. It would end the reliance on huge financial contributions that can tilt races in places with smaller, often more conservative, populations, but see that places with larger, more progressive populations would get the prosecutors that fairer elections would produce.
Ultimately, the only sustainable victories are ones that are not seen as “bought.” Public financing should be the goal, if our objective is to sustainably and permanently curb incarceration in the United States.
*The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received a restricted grant from the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, to support film development and promotions.
Photo by Tim Sullivan from StockSnap