Washington County DA's race brings national trend home
In any other year, the race for Washington County's district attorney would likely play out the way it has for years: Quietly, and with little fanfare.
That's not the case this year, where two challengers are running to fill the role of the county's top prosecutor, shaking up a race which hasn't seen more than one name on the ballot in decades.
Kevin Barton, a longtime prosecutor in Washington County, is running to fill the seat of his boss, Bob Hermann, who is retiring this year after more than two decades in office.
He's challenged by Beaverton attorney Max Wall, who has said the county should be doing more to keep people out of prison, focusing more on treatment.
District attorneys are hugely influential figures in how the county's criminal justice system functions. As the top prosecutor in the county, they are responsible for determining what crimes alleged criminals are charged with, if they are charged at all.
Meet the candidates
Barton spent years working his way through the ranks as a county prosecutor, eventually taking the role of chief deputy district attorney, overseeing the department and handling the county's juvenile and child sex abuse units.
Wall, a 40-year-old Beaverton defense lawyer, has also spent time as a prosecutor. He worked as a deputy district attorney in Polk County for eight years before going into private practice.
Barton has amassed a sizable number of endorsements in the race, including Hermann, Sheriff Pat Garrett and every police chief, county commissioner and police officer's association in the county. The mayors of Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin have endorsed him, as well as several area state legislators and sitting district attorneys across the state.
Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts, meanwhile, has endorsed Wall, as has the Safety and Justice Action Fund, an Oregon political action group which advocates for public safety reform. That group is the political arm of Partnership for Safety and Justice, a Portland nonprofit.
Partnership for Safety and Justice has been heavily involved in criminal justice reforms across Oregon, lobbying to reduce the sentences of repeat property crime offenders and working to reduce the number of prison beds set aside for people convicted of drug crimes.
Shannon Wight, deputy director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said her organization is focused on reforming Oregon's criminal justice system, focusing less on incarceration and more on mental health and drug programs.
Wight said there are more effective ways to keep the public safe than locking people behind bars. Prison, she said, is often an ineffective tool to address long-term problems.
Washington County operates both mental and drug court programs, but Wight said district attorneys in the county have focused their attention more on prison time than treatment.
"Those programs don't just work because they exist," she said. "All the stakeholders have to ensure the right people get there and get the services to get the intended outcome. What we're looking for is a greater outcome."
'Prosecutors are front and center'
Barton has claimed groups like Safety and Justice Action Fund have quietly paid for parts of Wall's campaign and has accused Wall of being in the pocket of out-of-state groups more focused on changing national public opinion than addressing issues in Washington County.
"I just see smoke," Barton told the Tribune last month.
Some of Barton's allegations were profiled in a recent investigation by The Oregonian newspaper, which quoted several local attorneys who claimed they had been approached by national political consultants and Portland-area political groups to run against Barton, in order to bring more progressive reforms to the Washington County District Attorney's Office.
There is nothing illegal or improper about political groups backing candidates financially, according to Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Forest Grove. The trend has been growing for years, first with judges' races and now, more and more commonly, with district attorney elections.
"There is a growing phenomenon of interest groups who want to get people they think will be friendly into the political system," Moore said. "The way to get around it is to have appointed DAs and judges, instead of elected ones, but that's a conversation we've been having for the past hundred years."
Wall said he has received no commitments from any outside group to fund the campaign.
"I've been calling family and friends raising money," Wall said. "My little brother built my website, but I understand that might be (Barton's) narrative, or his strategy to win."
Speaking before the Washington County Public Affairs Forum last month, Wall denounced rumors that political groups are working with his campaign.
"I haven't been promised dollar one from anyone," Wall said. "I've seen and heard these rumors and they are not true. My responsibility as DA would be to the voters of Washington County."
Involvement by political groups into district attorney races are becoming more common across the country.
Campaigns for more progressive district attorneys launched in a dozen races across the country in 2016, many with the backing of various national political groups, including George Soros — a New York-based billionaire investor and political activist who backed several reform-minded candidates in the 2016 election.
Perhaps the most high-profile upset came in Philadelphia last November, when Soros-backed civil rights attorney Larry Krasner defeated a former prosecutor to become district attorney for the sixth-largest city in the country.
Wight said neither her organization nor the political group is behind the polls or other issues Barton has claimed.
"At this point, we have endorsed Max and are still working out how to support his campaign," Wight said.
But Wight said she isn't surprised others are getting involved. Voters are keyed into issues in a way they haven't been before, she said, after a string of high profile shootings by police officers across the nation.
"People are looking at who the decision makers in our system are, and prosecutors are front and center with who gets charged," she said. "That includes police officers as well. People want to see people be held accountable, whether that's law enforcement or citizens on the street."
In recent weeks, Patrick Altiere, a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, and Dan Thenell, a Tigard attorney and former prosecutor, said they were called at home by a polling company doing research into the race. Neither Wall nor Wight said their groups have paid for the poll.
Altiere, who previously worked as a pollster before becoming a deputy, said the poll seemed to be testing messages for future attack ads against Barton, referencing the case of Benito Vasquez-Hernandez, a Hillsboro man held in jail for more than two years as a material witness after he refused to cooperate with a murder investigation. The poll also focused on prosecutors' decision not to charge former Hillsboro Assistant City Manager Steve Greagor with child sex abuse charges in 2014, after police say he communicated with an underage person on a dating website. Prosecutors at the time said there wasn't enough evidence to bring the case to trial.
"It struck me as weird," added Altiere, who serves as the president of the Washington County Police Officers Association, which is supporting Barton.
Moore said it isn't uncommon for political groups with deep pockets to help contribute polling and other expensive parts of a campaign, though they aren't supposed to coordinate with candidates.
Wall told the Tribune he isn't aware of any political groups or organizations working on his behalf, but didn't discount the possibility that some groups may be funding opposition research or polling about the race without his knowledge.
"If it's being done, obviously they are people interested in the campaign or supporting the efforts that we want," Wall said. "They may well be doing that, but I don't know."
Barton has claimed Wall's supporters are paying for more than just polling. Wall's campaign is working with prominent Portland political strategist Liz Kaufman, a seasoned consultant who has worked on multiple high-profile campaigns across the state, including Charlie Hales' 2012 run for Portland mayor and the ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana.
In a conversation with the Tribune on March 24, Wall said he wasn't sure who was paying for Kaufman to work with his campaign.
"Honestly, I don't know," Wall said. "I'm caught up doing my own grassroots fundraising. I do know that we have the endorsement of Safety and Justice. What I'm focused on is my own grassroots fundraising. It could be an in-kind contribution. I don't know."
Wall clarified that statement later that afternoon in a follow-up email, saying Kaufman is paid through his coffers, but that she had not yet invoiced the campaign.
"We're still in the early stages of the campaign," he wrote in an email.
Wall's campaign manager, Sami Alloy, reiterated that fact to the Tribune on Monday. She declined to talk specifics about Kauffman's pay, saying those details had not yet been worked out by the campaign, but maintained that she was not funded by outside groups.
Wight, with the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said she wouldn't be surprised if groups from all over the country started paying attention to Washington County's race. Voters are more excited about criminal justice reform today than ever before, she said.
"There is a national interest in these issues," she said. "The exciting thing about this isn't that there's outside money coming in, but that it could be happening in this particular district attorney's race. That's new, and it's based on a ground swell in criminal justice reform and district attorney's races across the country."
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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