California voters appeared to reject liberal challengers in three closely watched district attorney races, delivering a sharp defeat to a national network that is attempting to reshape the criminal justice system by electing liberal prosecutors.
Incumbent district attorneys in Sacramento, San Diego and Alameda counties led by large margins, according to unofficial results posted Wednesday by county elections offices. A fourth contested race, in Contra Costa County, appeared headed to a runoff in November if results remain the same.
The elections, typically local affairs, garnered national attention this year after a consortium of wealthy liberal donors, headlined by New York billionaire George Soros, pumped millions of dollars into the races.
In Sacramento County, Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, a prominent conservative voice in statewide politics, declared victory with 64% of the vote. Her Soros-backed challenger has yet to concede. In San Diego County, incumbent Summer Stephan won nearly two-thirds of the vote, according to the county elections office. In Alameda County, longtime Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley looked to have comfortably avoided a runoff with 60% of the vote.
Early returns in Contra Costa County, the only race where Soros backed an incumbent, showed Dist. Atty. Diana Becton with 49.6%. A candidate must win more than 50% to avoid a runoff in the November general election. It’s unclear how many ballots remained to be counted.
If the results become official, it would mark the consortium’s most significant loss in district attorney races.
Since 2014, Soros has spent more than $16 million in more than a dozen races outside California. His favored candidates racked up high-profile victories in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states.
In California, he spent more than $2.7 million. The money from Soros and others helped challengers match or surpass the millions of dollars — mostly from police, prosecutors and local business groups — flowing to incumbents unaccustomed to such organized liberal opposition.
In Sacramento County, the liberal coalition threw its support behind Noah Phillips, a career prosecutor who challenged Schubert, his boss.
The divisive race exposed deep rifts in the community. Phillips focused on anger over police shootings, particularly the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot in March as officers searched for a burglary suspect. The killing sparked weeks of protests in the capital, prompting Schubert to erect a fence around the district attorney’s office.
The race took another twist in April, when Schubert announced the capture of a suspect in the infamous Golden State Killer case. Her campaign capitalized on the arrest, rolling out ads that told voters, “She protects us.”
In San Diego County, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a deputy public defender, made campaign promises that included the creation of a police accountability unit.
When Soros announced support for Jones-Wright, Stephan launched a website calling her “the anti-law enforcement candidate.”
The race remained contentious until the end. On Friday, families in two high-profile local homicides held opposing news conference, one siding with Stephan, the other criticizing her.
In the Bay Area’s Contra Costa County, Soros and others supported Becton, a longtime judge recently appointed district attorney after her predecessor stepped down amid a political corruption scandal. Becton’s two opponents were Paul Graves, an experienced prosecutor from the office, and a local defense attorney who previously worked as a prosecutor in Hawaii.
The consortium’s intervention fueled criticism that outsiders were interfering in local campaigns they knew little about. Some candidates complained they were targeted despite their support for liberal justice policies.
“It’s a big-money, outside money approach where they didn’t even interview candidates,” said James Fisfis, a consultant to Graves, who pledged not to prosecute cases in which police conducted a search or made an arrest based solely on a suspect’s racial profile. “The whole thing is just strange to us.”
In another divisive race, Alameda County saw the liberal coalition throw its resources behind Pamela Price, a civil rights lawyer, in her bid to unseat O’Malley, a longtime incumbent who had the support of some of the state’s key Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein.
Many of the players funding the liberal candidates joined forces in California four years ago to pass Proposition 47, which turned drug use and most theft convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.
The new strategy targeting district attorney elections highlighted the enormous influence elected prosecutors wield within local criminal justice systems, deciding what charges to prioritize for prosecution and when to seek rehabilitation or lengthy incarceration for criminals. By supporting the election of like-minded district attorneys, the consortium hoped to secure many of the sentencing and bail policies they have struggled to realize through laws or ballot initiatives.
District attorney elections in California have historically been won by candidates who talk tough on crime and have support from local police. But the Soros-backed candidates pledged to reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before trial.
“It’s a big shift from what used to be the dynamic,” said Stanford Law professor David Sklansky. “If issues were discussed at all, the competition was to see who could be the toughest on crime. I think what’s significant, whether or not these candidates do well, is they’ve changed the conversation.”
The campaigns alarmed many in law enforcement, who warned of a slippery slope if prosecutors pick and choose which laws to enforce.
“They’re basically promising in advance to violate their oath of office,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the union that represents L.A. County prosecutors. “It is not the job of an elected district attorney to decide what laws to uphold. The district attorney’s job is to implement the law.”
Regardless of the outcomes, liberal activists say the spending gave voice to community concerns, particular for people of color.
“Win or lose, these campaigns have been a success because they elevated the voices of voters,” said Anne Irwin, a former San Francisco public defender who started a nonprofit advocacy organization that helped a network of donors identify candidates to support. “The elections reminded the D.A.s that these are not tenured positions. They have to answer to the communities that elect them.”
For voters, the contentious, high-dollar races may become the new norm. Organizers say the campaigns are just the start of a long-term strategy. In future elections, the consortium plans to mobilize the networks of volunteers and voters built during past campaigns.
“These candidates will continue to be reform messengers in their communities,” Irwin said. “We’ll continue to educate voters about the power of their district attorney, and we’ll get ready for 2020 and 2022.”
The Marshall Project receives funding from the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations and other organizations that support efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Under terms of its funding, the Marshall Project has sole editorial control of its news reporting.