Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rick Reed top choice in Travis County DA's race

As primary day approaches, I wanted to tell readers in Austin and Travis County - especially since several people have asked me, including three today! - that I'm voting for Rick Reed to replace Ronnie Earle as the Travis County District Attorney. (I meant to post this last weekend, but came down ill; I apologize to Reed for my tardiness.) If you haven't seen it, here's his TV spot, or you can watch a candidate forum online.

There are four candidates in the Democratic primary for Travis DA, and the winner will get the job since there's no Republican candidate. Of the four, to me, the choice came quickly down to Reed and Rosemary Lehmberg, Earle's long-time first assistant.

Odds are, the race is really for second, to see who winds up going head to head against Rosemary in the runoff. She's got a big TV buy running and the endorsement of the incumbent, with whom locals including this writer have been fairly happy over the years. After all, Austin has the lowest crime rate of any big city in Texas, and you have to give the DA at least some credit for that, not to mention his chief of operations, which is essentially Lehmberg's job.

The problem to me is that by electing Lehmberg, voters would be sending a message that endorses the status quo. I think we can do better than we're doing, but she's been calling the shots on a day to day basis as long as I've been aware of local criminal justice politics.

I respect Rosemary a lot, and she's a terrific candidate; I'll be proud to have her as DA if she wins. But there are things Travis County is not doing well on her watch. Black Austinites are incarcerated for drug crimes at 31 times the rate of whites, though drug use is roughly the same among the two groups. Ronnie Earle and his first assistant, charged to "seek justice," shouldn't need a study from D.C. to learn that Dallas has a 9-1 ratio, by comparison, or that in Denton County it's 3-1. That's an embarrassing statistic, and I think it's a result of choices by police and prosecutors, not a real representation of crime trends.

Blacks are imprisoned disproportionately for drugs everywhere, but there's no good reason it should be three times as bad in Austin as in Dallas. Among the candidates, only Reed had a partial solution: Eliminating "consent searches" for Class C misdemeanors, an idea I've long supported.

Similarly, Travis County has the highest percentage of low-level pretrial detainees of any large Texas county, but the jail is overstuffed. That can only be the fault of the prosecutors and judges handling the cases, another reason I hesitate to endorse the status quo. While all four candidates say they're committed to pretrial diversion, it's fair to say that Rosemary has been in charge for a while, and could have done a lot more than she has before now.

Reed wants to institute an "open file" policy, allowing defendants and their counsel full access to prosecution files, even putting the information password-protected online, following the model in Tarrant County - to let both prosecutors and defense attorneys access it paper free with less hassle. That's been needed for years, and other counties have done it already: I'd like for that change to be made.

Finally, Reed's most prominent stance has been against the death penalty; he's said that if elected he won't implement it as DA, either in ongoing cases (Travis has five people on death row) or in new murders. I had a chance to talk to Reed face to face about this, and he said that he might believe in the death penalty theoretically, but because we know sometimes Travis prosecutors make mistakes in extremely serious cases, and just as importantly, because it diverts so many dollars and office resources from pretrial diversion, drug courts, and other prosecutorial strategies the community supports, he decided to simply oppose capital punishment altogether and let the chips fall where they may.

I basically agree with that stance; as I've written in the past: "It's not that I don't think there are bad folks out there who 'need killin', I just don't trust the government's ability to distinguish between them and the rest of us."

A commenter earlier declared that Reed's death penalty stance might make him a "one-term wonder." I don't know why that would be true if he did his job well, but even if it is, the switch to an open file policy likely couldn't and wouldn't be reversed. That alone to me would be worth the vote.

Otherwise, Reed is perfectly competent to run the agency, which IMO is the minimum threshold for the job; I certainly hope that if he doesn't get it, Rosemary does. Of the other two candidates, Gary Cobb still seemed a little green to me in his answers to questions at two candidate forums; I'd like to see him try again with just a little more seasoning.

Mindy Montford is the only natural politician in the group (her father's a former state senator, her ex-husband a city councilmember), while the other three are "lawyer's lawyers." But for DA, I WANT a lawyer's lawyer. The political skills she brings to the table are important, but she might be running for the wrong job. (I'd have voted for her, as I plan to for Brian Thompson, against Dawnna Dukes, for example - though I don't know all her positions, she'd probably be better in the Lege than running the DA's office.)

Of these four candidates, in this time and place, Reed is the right choice and I'm voting for him. I said earlier Austin is lucky (particularly by comparison with Harris County) to have such a fine crop of DA candidates. It's true, but Rick Reed is the best choice of the lot.


Anonymous said...

Rick is well respected among his peers. As is Gary Cobb. Both are line trial lawyers who would change alot that needs changing and would be an honest da. Even though the DP may be flawed, I think the DA has to follow the law and consider all punishments.

Mindy is respected as well and is a seasoned trial attorney but lets face it, Gary and Rick have nearly twice the experience and they don't come with the contributor baggage that Mindy has. Or the political connections.

Nothing against Rose, because she has the experience and the trial cred but there are those who don't think Earle's reign was all that great. Austin should have had open files 20 or more years ago. And she seems to be short on answers as to what needs changing for a 30 year veteran.

So you're endorsing Rick. The Statesman endorses Gary. The Chron is endorsing Rose. Who is endorsing Mindy?

It is nice to have so many fine, qualified candidates w/o the baggage of the four republican horsemen of Harris County.

May the best candidate win!

Anonymous said...

The Daily Texan also endorsed Rick Reed. I don't know what their circulation is, but I expect it is 20,000 to 30,000 a day, so their endorsement should get Reed some votes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Even though the DP may be flawed, I think the DA has to follow the law and consider all punishments."

I certainly think he's considered it!

The DA's Association had a string on this question, and I agree with the prosecutor from Golidad who argued:

"there is nothing unethical about anything these candidates have said. A prosecutor is not obliged to seek the maximum sentence in any case, and he can have a policy to that effect. I think the candidates are to be commended for being so frank with the public."

I'm afraid he hasn't been on TV enough compared to the others, but I think he's the best candidate. In any event, with four strong contenders I expect a runoff.

Anonymous said...

Agreed mostly with the thread on the DP and with you, but never is a long, long time.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

On the politics of "never":

In Travis, if they catch you with a crack pipe you get a Class C paraphernalia charge. In Harris, they send it to a clogged crime lab to scrape residue (while you wait in jail, for those who can't make bond) then charge you with possession of less than a gram, a state jail felony.

I'm 100% comfortable with a prosecutor saying as a policy they would "never" make the SJF case on pipe scrapings, even though it's done by Chuck Rosenthal's minions all the time, and is the "tuffer" stance.

Similarly, if the policy is to always go for LWOP (which is no small punishment, IMO worse than a death sentence) and avoid millions in extra legal costs and decades-long tribulations for involved families, I think it's fine.

We'll know for sure Tuesday night whether this debate matters. Vote people! :)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I would also add, one "never" I will endorse is that a prosecutor should "never" send an innocent person to death row, and it's happened quite a few times.

If Charles Chatman had gotten the death penalty in Dallas 27 years ago, the injustice couldn't have been (even belatedly, inadequately) rectified.

Can the other candidates say they'll "never" seek the death penalty regarding an actually innocent person? After Christopher Ochoa and the Yogurt Shop mess (where a detective once famously held a gun to the suspect's head during questioning), I don't believe they can in good conscience. Even Cobb admitted, the system makes mistakes. So let's not make irrevocable ones.

As If It Really Matters said...

Last time I checked Montford was endorsed by the Austin Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, University Democrats (University of Texas), the Travis County Sheriffs' Law Enforcement Association, and a host of individuals including the only two living Democratic former Texas governors to name a few.

Travis County is fortunate to have a fine selection of candidates for District Attorney; all of whom have excellent minds and experience. To dismiss any of them would be a mistake.

Anonymous said...

This is all crazy talk.

How many times a year does the Austin DA have to decide whether to seek death? 3? 5? Out of how many cases? 20,000? 40,000? This is out of whack people!

I'm much more interested in a potential DA's policies on issues that will affect the entire community -- drug treatment, rehabilitation, sexual assault, family violence, etc. Mr. Reed may be good on those issues, too, but all I read from him is (1) death penalty and (2) DeLay (again, a once-in-a-lifetime case).

If you vote for a candidate based on one issue -- especially an issue that involves less than 1/10th of 1% of that person's job -- you are being foolish! That's like choosing Hillary over Barack solely because she promises to protect the golden-cheeked warbler (or some other minor issue).

Please look at the rest of the issues, people!

Hooman Hedayati said...

Daily Texan has a circulation of 50,000.

Hooman Hedayati said...

AFL-CIO endorsed Montford very early before the candidates had a chance to campaign in public. So after Rick Reed decided to strongly oppose the death penalty it was too late for them to change their endorsement.

Anonymous said...

I have looked at other issues and Rick Reed has the most progressive stances on all of them. His election would bring real progress to the Texas criminal justice system.

elvez1975 said...

To clarify again the DA case loads in Travis County:

12 people charged with Capital Murder versus around 6590 other felony cases.

Anonymous said...

The round of endorsements from organizations that occurred mostly in mid January were too premature for a race that had only begun in late December. Very few people knew much about the candidates in January. In other races, the candidates had been on the campaign trail for months.

If the endorsements were being made now, many of them would be different and Reed would get more of them because his stands on the issues match the progressive values of voters in Travis County.

Anonymous said...

Those 6590 other non-death penalty cases will have more resources available to handle them, if so much time and money is not spent on seeking the death penalty in those few cases where it has been sought in the past in Travis County.

Anonymous said...

Mindy is absolutely the totally hottest candidate. No doubt about it. Hot Hot Hot.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"To dismiss any of them would be a mistake"

I agree and I hope I haven't done that. I've said a few times it's a fine crop of candidates.

"Mindy is absolutely the totally hottest candidate."

Yup, if that were the criteria she'd win hands down. If years of experience were the criteria, Rosemary would win hands down. The intangibles, though, and the most credible message of "change," IMO go to Reed.

Hmmmm ... speaking of "hot" candidates, the now-defunct blog Underneath their Robes some years ago had a contest for who were the "hottest" federal judges, male and female - maybe we need to do something like that for TX. It'd have to be the judiciary; unless Mindy wins, most of the TX DAs are ugly as homemade sin. :)

Anonymous said...

Whoever said Rick Reed is a one-issue wonder hasn't been receiving his issues e-mails (which are also posted on his Web site). The other candidates send out fundraising e-mails and "walk we me" e-mails. Among other specifics, Rick Reed addresses the Public
Integrity Unit
, drug
diversion court
, and capital
. His Web site's newsroom is filled with meaty, smart information. I like Mindy and Gary, but they lack the depth of experience Rosemary and Rick have. Personally, however, Rosemary is vindictive and can't make decisions except over the simple stuff. It's been extremely frustrating at the court house. Justice in Travis County will be better served by Risk Reed.

Deb said...

"The problem to me is that by electing Lehmberg, voters would be sending a message that endorses the status quo. "

Glad to see you've come around! (From what you told me several weeks ago your pref. was)...and glad to think watching our DA Candidates Forum helped sway you towards Rick. -Deb from CenTexACLU

Video of that forum here.