A public safety forum late last month featuring the candidates for district attorney ended up being perhaps the fiercest public dispute I have moderated.
Summer Stephan, the appointed district attorney, was once shy about the race, soft-spoken and somewhat awkward. She said she vomited trying to muster the will to ask people for money and attend events.
That Stephan is gone. She is so animated about the idea of losing to Genevieve Jones-Wright, a public defender, she opened with a reference to herself as a “modern day abolitionist” who had helped make San Diego safe with blood, sweat and tears.
She’s become so alarmed by the possibility that Jones-Wright may win that it occurred to me to ask her if she even thinks district attorney should be an elected position.
“It is what it is,” she said. Should it be, though?
“I mean I … I actually don’t think so, because it’s not political. It’s about actually knowing victims’ rights. Understanding the job. Prosecuting cases. My opponent has never even prosecuted a misdemeanor, never mind a rape or a murder,” she said.
We are watching one of the most interesting discussions about the role of an elected office since 2004, when Mike Aguirre upended our understanding of the San Diego city attorney’s power. To this day, we can still see the effects of his redefinition of what the city attorney could do. Just like now, the incumbent was so alarmed by his predecessor he publicly announced he didn’t think the job should be an elected position.
The stakes are much higher here. The district attorney oversees 1,000 employees who prosecute almost all alleged criminals in the county. Only misdemeanors within the city of San Diego are handled by another office, the city attorney’s office.
Stephan promises to continue incremental criminal justice reform. Jones-Wright promises a new interpretation of the office’s role. For example, Jones-Wright wants to expand the definition of victims beyond those who suffered the consequences of a criminal act but also those who are profiled by police, victims of police shootings and people she said have not gotten the same care from the district attorney’s office as more privileged people.
“When I talk about victim care, you never heard me say that certain victims would not be regarded as victims anymore. I believe that she is coming from a very narrow view of what victims are, and I believe that the net should actually be cast more widely,” Jones-Wright said.
The debate highlighted that Stephan has settled on two very different arguments about Jones-Wright.
The first is that Jones-Wright is unprepared to be district attorney. She has not paid her dues. She has not prosecuted a case. When Jones-Wright responded that the attack was an unspoken nod to her age and race, Stephan noted that she promoted a deputy of hers, who is black, and said that man has risen through the ranks at the DA’s office.
“He then earned the right to become a chief deputy district attorney because he had proven leadership skills,” Stephan said. To the U-T editorial board, Stephan said Jones-Wright was pulling some kind of “Kardashian effect” trying to leap ahead of people like Stephan and not wait her turn.
Jones-Wright took offense.
“It is utterly appalling that another professional woman who professes to stand with women would compare another professional woman to a person who leaked sex tape,” Jones-Wright said.
That’s the experience debate.
The other argument Stephan makes about her opponent is that Jones-Wright is the “antiDA” – as in the anti-Christ. She used “antiDA” in a tweet and defended it in the debate. She’s since adopted “anti-prosecutor.”
Were Jones-Wright to win, this argument goes, she would be a kind of criminal advocate. She’s anti-law enforcement, Stephan says – and because the DA’s office itself has historically considered itself part of law enforcement, it’s a dramatic recasting of an office that Stephan believes would result in victims being underserved, and police feeling attacked.
Stephan said Jones-Wright, for example, is part of a movement to legalize sex work. And since Stephan believes there are virtually no voluntary sex workers, it’s de facto a criminal venture with one aim:
“So pimps and traffickers can take over and make money with impunity without the protection of government, without the protection of law enforcement. She is not aligned with the Democratic Party. She’s an extreme radical,” Stephan said.
This was part of a discussion at the debate about national legislation — that Jones-Wright opposed — to ban Backpage.com, a move most representatives in Congress supported. Sex workers have complained, though, that online platforms like it provided a way to vet clients and kept them from working on the streets.
Jones-Wright has not come out and said, however, that sex work should be legalized.
“I’m not going to give my opinion on whether [it] should be legal or not as of this moment. Prostitution is against the law in the state of California, and I’ll leave it at that,” Jones-Wright said at the debate.
For her part, Jones-Wright argues the office has been so entwined with law enforcement that it’s been unable or unwilling to independently identify when police officers have themselves crossed the line and isn’t capable, on its current track, of radically realigning the factors that have led to overcrowded prisons and racial inequality.
Stephan recently announced she would consider having an independent task force review police-involved shootings. That’s something Jones-Wright took credit for in the debate.
Stephan’s two arguments against Jones-Wright are either contradictory, or the perfect trap. If Jones-Wright were fully qualified for the job, she would still not be a good choice on account of being the anti-DA. And if she weren’t the anti-DA, she would still not be fully qualified. She has not paid her dues.
There legally are no such dues to pay, though. To the extent that there are qualifications for the role, both candidates have met them and will appear on the ballot. As frustrating as it may be for Stephan, she has to make her case not to a boss who can promote her but to voters.
It seems like she’s now very eager to do that.