For weeks, the question has swirled around the race for Washington County district attorney: Would the typically sleepy contest attract big national money that’s had sway in similar races around the country?
Now it appears that money is on the way. Records show a new political action committee was filed with the state Tuesday. It lists Virginia-based political consultant Whitney Tymas at its helm.
The committee, the Oregon Law & Justice PAC, hasn’t recorded any contributions yet, but if recent history is any indication, that might not last for long.
Tymas, a former prosecutor, serves as treasurer of a national PAC with ties to liberal billionaire George Soros. In recent years, she has made a habit of setting up committees in states like Florida, Colorado and Arizona to spend millions of dollars supporting district attorney candidates.
It’s part of a nationwide effort to spark prison reform via prosecutors’ offices, which hold a huge amount of influence in which defendants are incarcerated. And Washington County is now in the crosshairs.
After roughly two decades in office, sitting Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann isn’t running for re-election. Hermann’s chosen successor is Kevin Barton, one of his top assistants.
Barton’s been on the ticket since last year, filing as a candidate on the first day he was allowed. He didn’t have any competition until March 6 — the last possible day to file as a candidate. That’s when Max Wall, a defense attorney and former Polk County deputy prosecutor, announced he’d be running.
“This is the first time that it’s been an open seat” in 20 years, Wall told OPB last month. “In America, we deserve elections with choices rather than coronations.”
Wall is running as a progressive reformer, saying he’ll prioritize drug and mental health treatment courts over incarceration in many cases. He’s also suggested Washington County has an overly punitive bias. As proof, he points to high-profile cases, such as a well-publicized situation where a material witness in a murder case was jailed for years to ensure he’d show up at trial.
State data suggests the county doesn’t have an incarceration rate higher than the state as a whole.
Wall’s also got the backing of the Safety and Justice PAC, a committee connected with the local group Partnership for Safety and Justice, which advocates for reforms to the criminal justice system.
“Washington County has an entrenched culture that is ripe for change,” said Shannon Wight, director of the Safety and Justice PAC. “Max Wall is a really interesting candidate. He brings a unique perspective to this position and one that is aligned with the priorities we bring.”
But Wall’s candidacy has also brought rumor and speculation.
“I had no less than six defense attorneys come up to me and tell me they had been recruited by George Soros or Soros agents,” Barton told an audience at a candidate forum last month. “All of them turned it down because they respect me. Mr. Wall was the final choice.”
As first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive, Barton and others say Tymas has visited Washington County in recent months to speak with potential candidates. Wall confirms he was one of them.
“She was one of the people I spoke with prior to filing, but at that point I’d already made the decision to run,” he said.
Barton, a long-time Washington County prosecutor, has made much of the possible outside support. At a recent candidate forum, he alluded to “dirty money” and “East Coast politics” entering the race, and said he was “in desperate need” of money.
“There’s out-of-state interests, out-of-county interests who want to parachute in and determine what happens in this election,” Barton said.
At the event, Wall insisted he had no reason to expect any of that.
“In terms of the rumors about money,” he said, “I can tell you that I haven’t been promised dollar one from anyone. I’ve seen and heard some of these rumors and they are not true.”
Currently, Barton’s got a big fundraising advantage, having collected more than $70,500 compared to Wall’s $16,221. Barton also has the overwhelming support of elected and criminal justice officials, including the entire Washington County Board of Commissioners, nine area police chiefs and 11 district attorneys.
But there’s support for Wall, too. OPB spoke with two people — both Barton supporters — who said they got calls from a polling firm about the Washington County district attorney race. Both men described the same basic questions and said the calls appeared to be supportive of Wall.
Liz Kaufman, Wall’s veteran campaign consultant, said she was “pretty sure” the polling was paid for by Tymas’s group. “They are likely to be the ones involved if there’s polling going on on behalf of criminal justice reform,” Kaufman said.
And yet there’s been lingering uncertainty whether Tymas will support Wall the way her group has supported DA candidates around the country. The Oregonian, citing an unnamed source, reported that a decision had been made not to put resources into Wall’s campaign.
Now, however, Tymas’s name is on a new political action committee. Tymas has ignored numerous requests to speak about her interest in the race and in one brief conversation refused to speak on the record.
When OPB asked Wall’s campaign about the new committee, it referred comment to the local Safety and Justice PAC, which sent along a statement.
“People and groups in Oregon and around the country are working to elect prosecutors that are responsive to the need for reform of our public safety system,” Wight, the PAC’s director, wrote. “The Safety and Justice PAC and the Law & Justice PAC share those values.”
If Tymas repeats her playbook from other cities, the Washington County race is about to heat up. According to a recent story in New York Magazine, she put money toward candidates in eight cities in 2016. Seven of them won.