Think Out Loud

Challenger Nathan Vasquez makes case for why he should be Multnomah County’s top prosecutor

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
April 28, 2024 8:54 p.m. Updated: May 6, 2024 7:22 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, April 29

Man in navy blue suit with pink tie and greying, slicked back hair

Senior deputy Multnomah County District Attorney Nathan Vasquez is hoping to unseat his current boss, District Attorney Mike Schmidt, in an election to be held in spring 2024.

Multnomah County District Attorney's Office


District Attorney Mike Schmidt is facing a challenge from one of his own senior deputy attorneys, Nathan Vazquez. Schmidt came into office as a reformer, with the goal of ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Vasquez says Schmidt has made Portland “unsafe and unrecognizable.” We talk to Vasquez about why he thinks he deserves the job.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Nathan Vasquez has been a prosecutor in Multnomah County for almost 25 years. In that time he’s been in charge of some high profile cases, including recent prosecutions of members of the Proud Boys. Vasquez is a senior deputy district attorney right now, but he wants voters to put him in charge of the office. He’s running against his boss, Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt, who we talked to on Friday. Nathan Vasquez joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Nathan Vasquez: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Miller: Almost 25 years as a prosecutor, it was basically your first job out of law school. Why did you want to be a prosecutor?

Vasquez: You know, this really fits with my overall upbringing in life, and that I had some really amazing examples as a young child. My grandfather was a community doctor, and he served the migrant population because he spoke Spanish, and I got to see him do that, and he was one that could never turn it off. So, it was a 24/7 thing, and when I would go visit on holidays and weekends, I would always see patients at his house. It really ingrained in me this idea of serving others. And he was very direct with me, he was very kind to me, and paid for my college, but told me that he expected me to pay it forward.

So going into the District Attorney’s office when I started as an intern, it all came together for me, and it just felt so natural to get into court every day, stand up for victims, fight for community safety that, really, for me, it was a culmination of that and brought it together.

Miller: I want to turn to questions about crime rates, something you’ve talked about a lot on the campaign trail. You’ve pointed out that the spike in violent crime in Multnomah County over the last few years is an example of why Mike Schmidt should not be re-elected.  But as you know, the increase right before the pandemic and the slight decrease in last year’s numbers, they both mirror national trends – not exactly, but the basic trends are there, all across the country.

What do you see as a connection between crime rates –in this case, in Multnomah County – and the actions of any particular District Attorney?

Vasquez: I’ve always viewed it as, there’s a question of, do you want to be an active participant in the issues that are facing our community, or do you want to be passive? And what I’ve seen in the last four years is that we, as a community, are sadly lagging behind a lot of other communities, in what we’ve seen in the turnaround. I think The Wall Street Journal recently did an article that showed that Portland was one of the only cities in the nation, of one of three, I think, that actually hasn’t seen the same drops in violent crimes such as homicide. And even if you compare us across the West Coast, we lag greatly behind even Seattle and San Francisco. You can take their homicides combined, and Portland has more homicides than them combined.

And what I see is, if you’re a District Attorney who is actively involved in that, and working with the community and with law enforcement, you should be out there helping to deal with these issues that are affecting our community. And I think it’s critical that we elect a leader that wants to do that.

Miller: In what way? Let’s say you had been DA over the last, almost four years, at a time when crime rates were rising nationwide, when there was a public defender shortage, there was still… let’s say, everything else is the same. The murder of George Floyd, the pandemic, Measure 110, all of that happened, but you were the DA. What are you saying you would have done differently that would have meant a lower murder rate in Portland or in Multnomah County as a whole, last year?

Vasquez: It is absolutely working at it from all levels. It is partnering up with the US Attorney’s office to deal with some of the violent crime issues. It’s working with police officers on a day-in, day-out basis, building the relationships and the coalitions to actually take on some of these areas. It’s also…

Miller: Take on what areas?

Vasquez: Gun violence in particular, because when we’re talking about the murder rates, a lot of what we’ve seen rising has been a spike in gun violence. And then it goes beyond that, though. If you have an active DA who is wanting to actually participate in this, you’re working out in the community.

We had an amazing program before, it was called the Community Peace Collaborative. That sadly went away, and we haven’t seen any of the leaders in our community step up to really push that and say, “Hey, we need to have the connection all the way through between law enforcement – those folks that are out there trying to mentor young individuals – and really bring that full combination, and really hit it at all levels.”

And we’ve seen, sadly, a lot of loopholes in our system when it comes to very particular things, like felons with firearms. And these are some cases that are really concerning because we do see homicides where people have… pending… a felon in possession of a firearm. So it is having that direct action, really having that background experience that I bring to the job, in and building at all levels. Again, it’s everything from the top – working with the US Attorney’s office – to the everyday officer on the street, to building coalitions with communities so that we can actually interrupt violence.

Miller: You have said that you consider yourself a progressive prosecutor. What do you mean when you use that label?

Vasquez: Here’s an everyday example: I train a lot of young attorneys and what I tell them is, look, one of my philosophies is “Get to zero.” And they look at me, and I always tell them very clearly, “Get to zero,” is not to send someone to prison, “Get to zero” is, how do we get that individual out of the criminal justice system and back to a productive, healthy life? And so I train them to look at all aspects of individuals that come under us, and say, “Hey, is it mental health, is it a substance abuse disorder issue?” How do we find the pathway to get them out of it? And I believe that’s when we talk about being progressive, what we want. We want to see people getting out of the criminal justice system and back into being productive and healthy.

Miller: Is what you’re talking about different from the norm? I mean, at this point, if that’s your definition of progressive prosecutors, would you say that most prosecutors around the country fit that category?

Vasquez: Most around the country? I mean, I think that’s always hard to quantify and look at…

Miller: In Oregon, say. I mean, just leave it to the 36 counties here. If that’s your definition of a progressive prosecutor, are the 35 other prosecutors in Oregon progressive at this point?

Vasquez:  I think there are certainly some that are very progressive. You know, I see different prosecutors taking different approaches but, is there a number that could put on it? No. Do I consider myself to be the same type of progressive prosecutors that are currently elected in Multnomah County? I don’t.

I see myself as someone who looks to bring very practical solutions to helping individuals out of the criminal justice system, and to serving victims.


Miller: When I’ve heard you talk in the past about your priorities and what drives you as a prosecutor, the word that comes up over and over and over is “victims.” And you mentioned it earlier today, in terms of early on, when you realized that this was a version of public service that really spoke to you. Is there a difference for you between seeking justice for victims, and seeking justice, period? Just seeking justice broadly for society, for the county. Are they the same thing?

Vasquez: I’ll start by saying, when I talk about that, I believe a prosecutor’s first and foremost role is to serve community safety, to serve the public. And in that we need to be very focused on victims and getting justice for the victims of crime. But overall, serving justice, that can very much include – how do we treat the individual offenders, or the individuals that come into the criminal justice system? How do we treat them? How do we hold them accountable and do it in a compassionate manner? Because the overall goal of justice in my vision is one of a healthy community. And it’s getting people that maybe have committed some of the smaller level crimes, it’s holding them accountable and making sure that they can get back to being healthy, productive members of our community.

Miller: You were a registered Republican until 2017. This is a non-partisan race. But partisan questions have crept into it in various ways. How do you think your political philosophy shapes the way you approach your job, or shapes the way you think about prosecutions?

Vasquez: To be clear, this comes from my opponent and it’s really his desperation to steer voters and people away from the real issues.

Miller: Well, I’m asking this out of true curiosity, about the way anybody’s personal politics affects a job, even if the job is a non-partisan one.

Vasquez: Well, first and foremost, I am a firm believer that when we talk about a prosecutor that you want leading this office, you want someone who’s going to fairly apply the facts to the law and make decisions about when a crime has been committed. That should really be the end of the analysis.

And like I said, my opponent tries very hard to paint me in some far right corner and that’s just simply not it. At best, I would describe myself as a moderate, and probably even more on the liberal side. I mean, I voted for Obama, I voted for Joe Biden, so these aren’t things that match up at all with that kind of idea that I have some political ax to grind. I am someone that, when I define myself, is very much defined around, I serve this community as a prosecutor because I believe in victims and I believe in bringing forth good, healthy community safety.

Miller: You were against Measure 110 when it was on the ballot. And you’ve basically said in recent months, I told you so, and the fact that I was against it and Mike Schmidt was not, is a point in my favor in terms of my judgment, is how you’ve put it.

Do you think that the new system we’re going to have, where drugs are recriminalized, but some good chunk of cannabis tax money is going to be going towards drug treatment – do you think that will be better than what we had pre-Measure 110?

Vasquez: Yes, I do. And I believe that this new amendment is a step in the right direction. And to be clear, I’ve always supported the idea of putting more funds and more attention towards treatment and treatment resources. That has always been something that I’ve been supportive of.

However, I did not support the decriminalization, because what I saw very clearly was, it was a situation where we’re putting up our hands, and just stepping back and saying, “Let’s see what happens,” without actually having all of the things in place necessary to get this done. And it left the individuals that were suffering on the streets in a terrible position and it really hurt our community in a lot of different ways. And as someone working on the inside, yeah, I could see that, the way it was written, the way it was proposed, it wasn’t gonna work.

Miller: The new system that we have now is not a question of someone’s judgment in the past, or lobbying for changes. I mean, drugs have been recriminalized with up to six months in lockup as a misdemeanor, as opposed to a year, which you were pushing for. But we now have a new regime, and you and Mike Schmidt both talk about efforts that try to divert people from jail if they will go into treatment.

What do you think would be different, in terms of the way either public drug use or possession are handled if you were DA, as opposed to Mike Schmidt?

Vasquez: It really starts with, we need an environment where individuals who are suffering from substance abuse disorder, when they walk out the door, there’s not five people trying to hand them fentanyl. And that means it starts by crushing the cartels that are in our community, actually doing the work of prosecuting drug dealers. That’s been lacking. So that’s step one.

Miller: You’re saying that you would focus more on high-level drug dealing prosecutions than Mike Schmidt would?

Vasquez: Oh, my plan is very specific, to be three different parts, and it’s one that I work out very clearly to build teams to hit at various levels. There’s a team that works at the street level, then there’s a team that works with people that overdose and die, and prosecuting those people that provide them with those drugs. And then the other team that I’m gonna build, is gonna be very much that combination of high level, working with the US Attorney’s office closely, so that we can very much target those individuals that are bringing in the drugs to our community and taking the money out of our community. I mean, you really have to hit it from both levels. So it’s a very directed plan.

But through it all, I always wanna be very direct and say a big part of my focus is yes, I wanna clean up the community in the sense of allowing those individuals that are suffering from substance abuse disorder that opportunity. And the other thing that I talk a lot about is the support network around them, and trying to provide them with all of the different components and tools to help them get to sobriety. And that’s a big focus of what I’m doing.

Miller: You’re asking Multnomah County residents to put you in charge of an office with an annual budget of something like $50 million, and close to 100 lawyers, in addition to many other people. What’s the largest office you have been in charge of, in terms of budget and personnel?

Vasquez: I currently run the Strategic Prosecution and Services Unit. There’s about 12 attorneys there. So I supervise that, I created it. And for years, I’ve managed employees in various capacities – by writing employee reviews, by sitting on hiring boards, I’ve done lots of different budgetary write-ups, different components of that. I went out in the community and fought to bring jobs to our office particularly. So, have I supervised people? Absolutely.

Miller: But a couple, or up to a dozen?

Vasquez: Yeah.

Miller: I bring this up because you argued that having more experience as a prosecutor gives you a better ability to manage the lawyers in the office. And as I think you noted, the DA has countered that being a District Attorney is about much more than overseeing prosecutions and running a really large office. It requires a level of bureaucratic expertise that he says you don’t have. I want to give you a chance directly to respond to that.

Vasquez: Well, if we just look over the past four years, I mean, he set the bar incredibly low for me, and when I come into office, it will literally be me trying not to trip over that bar because, just in comparing – he has multiple gender discrimination complaints, retaliation complaints. For me, I have lots of experience mentoring young attorneys. I have lots of experience writing budget proposals, supervising individuals’ caseloads. And through it all, this is one where the people that we’re gonna manage, they heard very clearly from me, and they heard very clearly from him and they chose and voted to endorse me. So I know that I will have the support of those attorneys in that office coming in and I’ll have the ideas and the vision to really carry it forward and bring public safety to our community.

Miller: Nathan Vasquez, thanks very much.

Vasquez:  Thank you.

Miller: Nathan Vasquez is running for Multnomah County District Attorney against the incumbent Mike Schmidt. You’ll find our earlier conversation with Mike Schmidt on our website.

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