Nathan Vasquez, a senior deputy Multnomah County prosecutor, announced on Wednesday he’s running to unseat his current boss, District Attorney Mike Schmidt.
So far, Vasquez is the lone person to challenge Schmidt, who said he plans to run for reelection next year.
“We can have both safety and compassion in this community, but you need a practical prosecutor,” Vasquez said during an interview Wednesday morning. “You need someone with real experience to do that. Mike Schmidt, I can tell you, he has made Portland unsafe and unrecognizable.”
Schmidt said in a statement on Wednesday he was proud of his record.
“Voters elected me in 2020 because they knew our justice system needed major reform,” Schmidt said.
Vasquez is a career prosecutor and has worked in the office he’s now hoping to run since graduating in 2001 from Lewis and Clark Law School. The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported Vasquez’s official entry into the race.
Already, he’s hired Dean Nielsen as his campaign consultant. Vasquez said Nielsen has a “great track record.” The consultant helped Dan Ryan and Rene Gonzelez win seats on the Portland City Council. Gonzalez leaned into a law and order message to oust Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a vocal critic of the police.
Vasquez’s main policy critiques are of state laws that scrapped mandatory bail for certain charges and decriminalized hard drugs in small quantities. Both are policies that require action from the Legislature and governor to change.
Still, Vasquez said he wants to make changes, especially to Measure 110, the 2020 voter-approved ballot measure that legalized personal possession of hard drugs while using cannabis tax revenues to expand treatment.
If elected, Vasquez said he would not support bringing back criminal penalties for drug possession. Rather, he said judges should be able to mandate treatment.
“It would look like areas where you would have people in a care facility and sometimes that would be mandated by the court,” he said. “But it would be a care facility, not necessarily a prison or a jail, but more of a treatment center.”
Vasquez noted that no such facility exists and suggested a “care facility” could be built and paid for with Measure 110 dollars.
“It’s not a return to the war on drugs,” he said. “It’s what’s lacking currently in the system, which is having some accountability when someone’s not following through with treatment.”
Across the state, drug courts currently require people to complete treatment for substance use disorder or risk prison or jail time.
Vasquez also criticized Senate Bill 48, which eliminated certain mandatory cash bail levels for certain crimes. Instead, the 2021 law requires individualized assessments conducted by pretrial release officers when making decisions about bail and pretrial release conditions.
In contrast, Schmidt has been a supporter of Measure 110. He implemented the measure weeks before the law went into effect.
“Past punitive drug policies and laws resulted in over-policing of diverse communities, heavy reliance on correctional facilities and a failure to promote public safety and health,” Schmidt said in a statement at the time.
His office also testified in support of Senate Bill 48.
Schmidt won the election in 2020, staking out a position as a progressive prosecutor who has been vocal about the inequities of the criminal justice system, particularly in communities of color and for the economically disadvantaged. Schmidt and like-minded elected prosecutors have also advocated for changes like doing away with mandatory minimum sentences and cash bail. They have also sought police accountability.
Schmidt took over amid Portland’s protests, where after just one week on the job he announced he would not prosecute hundreds of protesters charged with misdemeanors.
He’s since been blamed for a rise in crime, something cities across the country experienced during the pandemic. Gun violence has surged in the city of Portland with a record number of homicides last year.
The Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency, released a report last month analyzing FBI data that showed the rise in crime during the pandemic across most of Oregon’s largest cities – including Portland – is abating.
So far, Schmidt has raised more than $26,000, according to campaign finance records with the Secretary of State. He plans to make an official announcement later this summer.
“Our office has added more prosecutors and focused our limited resources on violent crime,” Schmidt’s statement read on Wednesday. “We’ve launched new initiatives to tackle organized retail theft and auto theft and have forged new partnerships to focus on gun violence prevention. And we’re making our prosecution data more transparent and accessible to the public. That’s my record, and I’m going to continue working to make Multnomah County a safe place for everyone.”
Vasquez declined to say how much money he’s raised so far, but said “Today has been a big day.”
On Wednesday, the Portland Firefighters Union endorsed Vasquez.
“What we see on the streets when we respond during emergencies or driving around in a fire engine from call to call, is that Portlanders are struggling,” said Isaac McLennan, president of the Portland Fire Association. “A lot of us live in this community too.”
Vasquez said he told Schmidt he planned to run and acknowledged the awkward office dynamics of challenging his current boss from the inside.
“I wouldn’t say it’s comfortable,” he said.