Prosecutor Kevin Barton will take the helm of the Washington County District Attorney’s Office next year, after overcoming a forceful challenge from opponent Max Wall in the most expensive DA race Oregon’s ever seen.
Early returns Tuesday showed Barton with 69 percent of votes, to Wall’s 30 percent. He secured the victory despite a fundraising disadvantage, but with the majority of Portland-area justice officials pushing his candidacy.
"What it says is ultimately, voters like jurors, can find the truth," Barton said Tuesday night. "I'm honored and I truly am humbled to have the opportunity to lead."
Together the candidates raised nearly $900,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, an unheard-of sum for a DA’s race in Oregon.
Barton’s win amounts to a rarity in a national push for criminal justice reform. Time and again throughout the country, infusions of big money have helped reform candidates win races against more established prosecutors. Wall’s effort fell short despite at least $389,000 in support from a political operative with ties to billionaire George Soros.
"The outside money was something I had really never quite anticipated that it would get to the point that it did. I knew there was a concern about George Soros funding DA races ... But to have him do that here in Washington County, my home, it was really something where I felt a special obligation to stand up and say no," said Barton.
In recent weeks, Barton recorded nearly $150,000 in donations from Portland businessman Henry Swigert and $100,000 from Nike founder Phil Knight.
Those big donations are unprecedented for an Oregon DA’s race, which are rarely contested to begin with. But with current Washington County DA Bob Hermann not running again, and national figures eyeing Oregon’s second most populous county, the race ramped up quickly.
But the contest was more than a battle of competing war chests. Wall, a former deputy prosecutor in Polk County who currently works as a defense attorney, made the pitch to voters that he would create a more approachable, compassionate prosecutor’s office. He didn’t shy away from painting Washington County as problematic, touching on high-profile incidents like the decision to jail a witness in a murder case for years. He secured the support of some local bigwigs, including House Speaker Tina Kotek and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson.
In a statement Tuesday night conceding the race, Wall wished Barton well.
“I entered this race 10 weeks ago to start a debate about how to keep our communities safe, use our taxpayer dollars more wisely, and do justice the right way. And to ensure our District Attorney goes through an election, not a coronation," Wall said. “Our campaign created real public discussion on alternative sentencing, dealing with our overcrowded jail, and ensuring prosecutors have a smart and fair approach to criminal justice."
Barton presented himself as the experienced insider, respected by his peers and knowledgeable about the upper echelons of a DA’s office. He repeatedly insinuated Wall didn’t have a track record of handling serious criminal cases and accused his opponent of being dishonest about the money he was collecting. Barton, who was Hermann’s chosen successor, had endorsements from a large swath of county and law enforcement officials.
Up until early March, Barton looked like he’d cruise to office uncontested. But on March 6 — the last possible day — Wall filed as a candidate.
The ACLU of Oregon has advocated for more competitive DA races.
“Six months ago, very few people would have predicted this race would be contested," the ACLU of Oregon's David Rogers said in a statement. "Voters and potential reform candidates are beginning think about district attorney elections as a strategy to impact system change. DA incumbents and their chosen successors can no longer take elections for granted."
In the statement Rogers said Washington County is known for "it's its overly-punitive justice system" and said he hoped Barton would pursue reforms that save taxpayer money, keep the community safety and treat everyone fairly.