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Soros' Bid to Overhaul Criminal Justice System Hits a Wall in Calif
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Soros' Bid to Overhaul Criminal Justice System Hits a Wall in Calif

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – June 5, 2018

George Soros has spent millions of dollars trying elect district attorneys who agree with his brand of criminal justice reform. The billionaire has had tremendous success over several years.

But some of his candidates have suffered blowout losses in recent elections including Tuesday in San Diego and elsewhere in California. The question is are these mere speed bumps or is the political pendulum swinging against Soros and his progressive coalition?

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan won in a landslide over Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright in what may have been the marquee establishment vs. Soros matchup.

In Sacramento County, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert defeated Noah Phillips, a deputy prosecutor who had Soros’ backing, by a few touch downs.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley overwhelmed civil rights attorney Pamela Price, also backed by Soros’ forces.

In Contra Costa County, the roles were reversed. Appointed District Attorney Diana Becton, a former judge, was backed by the Soros coalition against veteran prosecutor Paul Graves. Like the DAs in other counties, Graves had backing from police and deputy district attorney groups and some of the local political establishment. Becton won by an eight-point margin.

Big outside money poured in to those four races, while lesser amounts were targeted for candidates in San Bernardino, Riverside, Stanislaus, Yolo and Marin counties.

With variations, Soros-backed candidates share a general platform: establish independent reviews of shootings by police officers, reduce incarcerations for minor crimes through diversion programs, lower or get rid of cash bail for low-level crimes.

The political lines aren’t always crystal clear. O’Malley, for example, has said she was perplexed at the opposition because she has pursued some of the reforms they support and had backing from Democrats and progressives, including Sen. Kamala Harris.

Since 2014, Soros has spent more than $16 million in 17 county races in other states, according to the Los Angeles Times. Soros-backed candidates won 13 of those contests, the newspaper said.

Soros is an 87-year-old Hungarian-born U.S. citizen who for years has funded liberal, pro-democracy and criminal justice reform efforts around the world. He accumulated great wealth through investing, though he has been harshly criticized for some of his financial moves that nearly upended economies of entire nations.

While his money has changed the dynamics in local district attorney races, he’s not out there on his own. Various like-minded groups — such as activist Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC and the Color of Change PAC — have joined forces, along with other organizations. Bay-area philanthropists also have gotten involved, including Cari Tuna, the wife of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and Lauren Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

This reform movement had recent setbacks with their candidates losing in Jefferson County, Colo., last year and in Oregon’s Washington County on May 15.

In the latter, prosecutor Kevin Barton defeated defense attorney Max Wall. Barton had much of the establishment behind him and Wall had big outside funding from a committee run by a Soros political consultant. Barton would have spent far and away a record amount of money for that race — $427,000 — were it not for the $820,000 spent on Wall’s behalf.

“It’s a disgusting amount of money,” Barton said in an interview this week. Despite being outspent by nearly 2 to 1, Barton won in a landslide, with around 67 percent of the vote.

(In San Diego, the total raised for Stephan — including independent expenditures and her campaign — was about $1.5 million; the total for Jones-Wright was around $2.5 million as of May 31, according to inewsource. Stephan was leading by nearly 30 points Tuesday night with more than 60 percent of precincts reporting.)

Barton was cautious when asked why he thought he won, but he mentioned a few possible reasons: experience of the candidates, Wall running on a generic reform agenda, and the outside spending.

“People early on realized there was something unusual about this race,” he said.

Barton also said he had heard big outside spending was coming even though it happened late. Wall didn’t announce his candidacy until just before the filing deadline. That helped Barton prepare, if not match the dollars. Similarly, San Diego DA Stephan’s campaign had indications that Soros money was coming this way long ago.

That’s different than in some of the earlier races elsewhere in the country, where the Soros impact caught some establishment candidates by surprise.

Further, both California and Oregon have moved ahead of others in making criminal justice changes, such as creating diversion programs aimed at keep low-level offenders out of jail. Candidates like Jones-Wright say those efforts have not gone far enough.

Still, Barton said much of the campaign debate was focused on concerns about the criminal justice system. How people are treated by the system and police accountability have become universal issues, he said. They were part of the San Diego campaign as well.

“People are absolutely focused on what’s going on around them,” he said. “. . . These same issues are on all Americans’ minds and rightly so.”

Soros and his tactics have strong critics, but there’s no denying he has changed the conversation. Everybody still wants dangerous criminals locked up. But there’s a lot more being discussed in district attorney campaigns these days than the traditional talk about about conviction rates and being tough on crime.

 

Author: The San Diego Union-Tribune