The last time Multnomah County saw a serious race for the job of district attorney was way back in the 1970s, so to say views on criminal justice have changed since then is an understatement.
And as more reformer district attorney candidates are getting elected across the country, the next person to take up the helm of this county’s top prosecutor will have the ability to shape what law enforcement looks like in the Portland region for years to come.
“This is an exciting time, because residents are getting a choice between two different perspectives on what a district attorney’s office should be looking to do.” said Alice Lundell, communications director at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a non-profit that provides legal services and advocates for criminal justice reform.
The two candidates vying for the position are Ethan Knight, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, and Mike Schmidt, the executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency that researches and develops new criminal justice policies.
Knight has emerged as the establishment candidate in the race. He has over 20 years of experience as a prosecutor, working in both the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s office.
He prosecuted Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 21-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia who received a 30-year prison sentence for planning to bomb Portland’s 2010 holiday tree lighting ceremony. The case was controversial because of the FBI’s role in forming the bombing plot.
Knight also led the largely unsuccessful prosecution of the men accused of organizing the 2016 armed takeover at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Experience, leadership and following the letter of law are the pillars of Knight’s campaign.
“I don't believe we need to tear the entire system down,” Knight said in a Portland City Club debate last month. “I think we can agree there are changes we need to make, but there's also a lot that we do well.”
Knight’s supporters are firmly grounded in the old guard of the criminal justice system. Endorsements have come from current District Attorney Rod Underhill, the Portland Police Association, the Portland Firefighters Association as well as a long list of current and former local attorneys.
Schmidt has taken up a more progressive stance on criminal justice. He’s a former high school teacher in New Orleans who moved into law after “seeing the school-to-prison pipeline firsthand.” Later as the head of the state’s criminal justice commission, Schmidt oversaw Oregon’s implementation of data-driven justice reinvestment programs.
Using data to rethink how Multnomah County prosecutors approach their work is core to his campaign.
“I prosecuted in that office from 2007 to 2013, and we never used data,” Schmidt said. “You really can't say that you want to improve criminal justice outcomes if you have no idea what the current outcomes you're getting are.”
Aligned with Schmidt are Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, all five Multnomah County Commissioners, several local criminal justice reform groups and prominent local labor groups like AFSCME.
The two candidates do agree on some changes: Both want to eliminate cash bail and add a more diverse staff, with different experiences and backgrounds, to the office.
Whether there’s an appetite for major reform from county residents depends on who you talk to.
Ed Jones, a retired circuit court judge who worked in Multnomah County’s criminal justice system for close to 40 years, said he doesn’t think the wave of reformers taking office across the county reflects what will happen here.
“I don't see this huge demand in the community for reform in the district attorney’s office,” Jones said. “That’s partly because of Rod Underhill.”
Underhill, who announced he would not seek reelection last year, has leaned toward more progressive policies during his tenure. His office has sought to reduce the state’s prison population by turning small amounts of some drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors and by declining to prosecute entirely some low-level drug offenses, such as cannabis possession.
But the office still suffers from many of the same issues that plague others across the country.
Reform advocates are quick to point out the racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice system, a lack of transparency and the need to build trust between communities of color and police and prosecutors.
Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann said the current system is not working for the vast East County area she represents.
“I feel like people in my district are disproportionately carrying the burden of some of these injustices,” Stegmann said.
Stegmann said many of her constituents suffer from minor criminal infractions, like multiple parking tickets, that bar them from getting jobs and housing. She is supporting Schmidt’s campaign because he vows to look at the root causes behind these offenses.
Besides wielding a huge amount of decision-making power over who to prosecute and what to charge in those cases, the winner of this contest will also become the new manager of the state’s largest district attorney office. This is no small job, Jones said.
“If I were interviewing people for this office I would start with, ‘How good are you at human resources? How good are you at budgets?’” Jones said. “My years in that office taught me that anything that makes you a good trial lawyer, makes you a bad administrator.”
Many watching this race expect the COVID-19 crisis to make these basic administrative tasks even harder when the new district attorney starts next year.
A statewide order from Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters in March halted all but a few essential in-person trials, hearings and court proceedings until at least June 1. These delays could cause a case backlog into 2021.
Both candidates say they are ready to take over the hamstrung district attorney's office.
Schmidt said his time heading up an agency at a state level gives him a managerial advantage.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Schmidt said. “But I’ve gained a lot of experience with the issues that are going to be necessary on day one to take over and just run an agency of this size.”
Knight said his years of working in the district attorney’s office give him a deep understanding of the inner workings of the county's court system, something that will be beneficial during times of crisis.
“I think now more than ever we need someone with knowledge of the system and the ability, on day one, to manage the kind of work that this office does,” he said.
Ballots hit the mail this week. They’re due May 19.