District Attorney Summer Stephan appears at the US Grant Hotel on election night. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle.

It was not always clear the district attorney race would turn into one of 2018’s most-watched.

Summer Stephan got to run in her first election as an incumbent after Bonnie Dumanis resigned the seat and installed her chief deputy as her successor. And as a Republican, Stephan would have the advantage of a conservative-leaning June electorate.

And then the national criminal justice reform movement came to San Diego. Democrat Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a public defender and member of the city’s gang commission, stepped into the race. She became San Diego’s first candidate unapologetically running on a reform platform in a region with a long history of tough-on-crime district attorneys.

The stark contrast between Stephan, a career prosecutor, and Jones-Wright, a career public defender, caught the public’s attention. It didn’t hurt that Jones-Wright got over $1 million from national groups and independent committees supporting her.

Jones-Wright also ran a campaign aimed directly at younger and minority voters who were receptive to her message. She hosted Facebook town halls that garnered tens of thousands of views. She went on firebrand liberal podcasts like Chapo Trap House.

The race went national, with liberal websites like The Intercept going all in for Jones-Wright, and conservative ones like Breitbart warning of liberal billionaire George Soros’s attempt to buy the San Diego district attorney’s office.

Yet in the end, it wasn’t close. Stephan won by nearly 30 points. The largest group supporting Jones-Wright pulled some of its ads within a week of Election Day, foreshadowing Stephan’s landside win.

Either San Diego had no interest in a candidate pledging to end mass incarceration, prosecute officers for fatal shootings, combat racial profiling, swear off the death penalty and view sex workers as voluntary, or the structural barriers boosting Stephan were simply too high to begin with. Jones-Wright lost decidedly, as did all the other Democrats running against incumbents in countywide races — and reform-minded DA candidates across the state did poorly, too.

Political professionals have been talking about San Diego’s shifting demographics for years. But in this race, it was clear San Diego has not changed much. It elected a career prosecutor to be its top prosecutor, not the public defender promising bottom-up reforms.

After taking her victory lap in Golden Hall Tuesday night, Stephan said she warmed up to campaigning – especially asking people for money, which she previously told me had made her throw up when she first started – when she stopped thinking about how it affected her, and focused instead on the office and victims of crime.

“People who were never interested in politics are tracking only this race, because I think I’ve explained maybe clearer than has been explained before how important the DA’s office is,” she said.

But she also wasn’t ready to stop talking about Soros.

Stephan had been the chair of the National District Attorney Association, Women Prosecutors section. There, she said, she watched good district attorneys lose to reformist candidates who received the same backing of national criminal justice groups, including Soros. She viewed the race from the beginning as one where she’d eventually face a well-funded opposition.

“I think it’s that preparation and that understanding that might have saved this race,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised by her platform. It was word for word what was being said around the nation, but I didn’t think it fit San Diego at all.”

Stephan herself benefited from over $300,000 in support from outside groups, and her campaign raised more than twice as much as Jones-Wright’s.

Stephan’s campaign consultant, Jason Roe, explained his strategy for combating the money. He set out to poison Soros’s investment, holding press conferences decrying the intervention from a non-San Diegan and putting up an explosive website declaring that Soros and Jones-Wright were threats to San Diego.

The goal, he said, was to penetrate voters’ consciousness enough that the television ads would backfire. Instead of seeing an ad for Jones-Wright, they’d tune in to the disclosure afterward. It would turn the investment into an anchor.

The strategy either worked, or it didn’t matter, because Stephan’s structural advantages made it an unwinnable race for Jones-Wright.

But over the course of the campaign, Stephan took steps toward Jones-Wright, making promises that appealed to the criminal justice movement.

She promised, for instance, to commission a new third-party body to review all officer-involved shootings.

Tuesday night, Stephan said she’s “opened the door” to having the federal Department of Justice conduct independent investigations into all officer-involved shootings “just to have another set of eyes.” She said she has also met with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to let him know that his department is “always welcome to look at the cases.”

And she reiterated, as she said on the campaign trail, that she’s also exploring starting a task force, like the office uses on other topics, for officer-involved shootings.

“I want to explore with the police chief, sheriff and community to have a task force that looks at officer-involved shootings, so that it doesn’t look like the same agency with the officer involved is investigating itself,” she said.

She also said she’s pursuing bail reform and launching a program to give non-violent, first-time offenders a clean slate.

But Stephan was uninterested in crediting the heated campaign, or her opponent, with pulling her toward that idea. In fact, she rejected it outright.

“With all due respect, these ideas have come from the neighborhoods and communities; they have not come from political rhetoric,” she said. “They’ve come from me working with these neighborhoods for many years. It’s something that I’ve done for many years. Our office is considered one of the most progressive, innovative offices in the country, and that is why this didn’t resonate. We are already at the forefront of a lot of changes.”

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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