Thursday, November 14, 2019

First impressions from Travis County DA debate

Until seeing the candidates debate at a Circle-C Democrats' forum the other night, Grits had wondered whether a reform candidate could really beat incumbent Travis County DA Margaret Moore in the upcoming Democratic primary. But now I can see the path.

The missus attended a second forum for District and County Attorney candidates, hosted by South Austin Democrats, the following night and came away with similar impressions.

I didn't take notes and wasn't there to formally cover the event, but here are my current thoughts on this local race, in no particular order.

1. Mad Margaret: Margaret Moore was all smiles working the room before the forum, but on the panel with the other candidates, she appeared sour and unhappy. The white-haired party volunteer sitting next to me leaned over at one point and giggled, "Margaret is mad."

2. Reform vs. Experience: Of the three candidates, Jose Garza comes most connected to the national #cjreform movement represented by DAs like Larry Krasner in Philly or Chesa Boudin in San Francisco (who beat an establishment-backed Dem over the weekend). But Garza's not as deeply experienced in the local justice system as either of those two. I like Jose, even though both he and Martinson would face steep learning curves on the job. OTOH, that may not be a bad thing, to the extent such "experience" leads candidates to naysay change, as Moore has largely done. And both appear prepared to surround themselves with qualified lieutenants if they win the job.

3. Martinson's Wheelhouse: To the extent the race centers around how the DA's office handles sexual assault cases - and if the firefighters' association has anything to say about it, it certainly will - it benefits Erin Martinson, who for 12 years ran the protective-order division at the Travis County Attorney's Office, more than it does Garza. Martinson did her best when she challenged Moore directly on these questions. She did a great job of threading the needle between improving responsiveness to victims and reducing mass incarceration, using examples from restorative-justice philosophy and practice and her own experience working directly with domestic-violence victims. This background gave her a lot of gravitas speaking to these questions.

4. Some backstory about Moore and reformers: Last year, Margaret Moore and County Attorney David Escamilla approached local #cjreform advocates seeking support to merge the District and County Attorneys offices. Advocates responded with a menu of reforms we'd like to see them enact. Both refused to seriously discuss them, insisting that only insiders understood what was really needed to change the system. (This theme has continued: "Insiders know the system," Moore told the Statesman the other day, "The general public doesn’t understand our system.") Recently Moore characterized that menu of reform ideas as "demands," but in reality they were merely a counterproposal: If she wanted support to merge the DA and CA offices under her solitary command, we sought more reform-minded changes in return. She declined, and her merger failed. It's not like anyone then began protesting on her doorstep. But everyone certainly noticed the choices she made and the priorities they evinced. In this, she is a great deal like Kim Ogg, elected as a progressive without having to demonstrate any actually progressive policies, then resentful when #cjreform advocates demand change. Both Ogg's and Moore's races to me evince a similar dynamic, mainly because of how scornfully establishment Democratic incumbents are reacting to the reform wing of their party.

5. Who disavows the death penalty? Moore was the only candidate of the three who refused to disavow seeking the death penalty under any circumstance, saying she would have sought it for the Austin bomber if he had lived. In a statewide general election, that would suffice; in an Austin Democratic primary, maybe not. The crowd murmured with disapproval at her answer while responding with approbation to her opponents' condemnation of capital punishment.

6. Another big split: Garza and Martinson both said they'd use their discretion to stop prosecuting low-level felony drug-possession cases altogether, which would be a more aggressive stance than other "progressive DAs" in Texas so far. Moore said she agreed in principle but that it was better to divert the cases to misdemeanors, for fear of what the Legislature might do. Garza later drew a big applause line by responding that the DA must do what's right and not shy away from their principles out of fear of what the governor might do.

7. Reform-minded Dems: Criminal-justice-reform philosophies are spreading among the Democratic grassroots, and audience members were knowledgeable and engaged in a way that was refreshing. In both this race and the County Attorney's forum, reform-minded messaging appeared to score the most points with the audience of likely Democratic primary voters.

8. Time for a change: Grits likes Margaret Moore well enough personally, and she was a big improvement over the booze-soaked bully she replaced as Travis County DA before her. But simply not being a mean-spirited drunk is insufficient to the current moment, however much a welcome improvement that was in 2016. Moore's professional career spans nearly precisely the generation that spawned mass incarceration; at root, she retains the values and attitudes that created it and doesn't appear likely to embrace reforms that could dismantle it.

When this race started, it seemed to come down to a battle between Garza and Martinson to make the runoff with Margaret Moore. Between Moore's angry showing at candidate's forums, the firefighter union's surprisingly harsh attacks, and the receptiveness of Dem primary voters in Travis County to #cjreform messages, I'm now wondering if it's possible the wounded incumbent might not even make a runoff?

1 comment:

Linda Curtis said...

Remember 2020 is the year that straight ticket voting disappears in Texas. We reformers need to be thinking about candidates running independent--unaffiliated -- in November. That gives the additional time to run a real grassroots reform effort.

In the least, this third option candidate can be a backup if your reformer doesn't make it in the primary.

Austin area voters are ready to vote independent but you gotta lead the horse to the water.

Linda Curtis, Independent Texans