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Progressive prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, seeks to fend off tough-on-crime challenger in DA race

PORTLAND, Ore. — (AP) — In Oregon's Multnomah County, home to Portland, the progressive district attorney who took office during the social justice movement of 2020 is being challenged by a candidate vowing to be tough on crime, highlighting the growing pressure on liberal prosecutors across the U.S. amid voter concerns over public drug use and disorder.

District Attorney Mike Schmidt's term began as the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked nightly protests in Portland and a larger national conversation about criminal justice reform. But in the past four years, progressive DAs and candidates in liberal bastions ranging from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle have faced setbacks as frustrations over public safety and homelessness have risen.

Now, political experts are looking to Portland to see whether such issues could spur a similar shift in the city’s electorate. Schmidt is being challenged by one of his own deputies, Nathan Vasquez, a prosecutor in that office for over 20 years.

“Beginning in about 2020, you see this rise of the progressive prosecutor,” said Todd Lochner, associate professor in Lewis & Clark College's department of political science. “But some of those candidates were essentially replaced or recalled, and I think what’s going on now in the DA’s race has something to do with this backlash to what is perceived, correctly or incorrectly, as prosecutors who are not as zealous in convicting people as some might prefer.”

Generally, progressive district attorneys such as Schmidt support finding alternatives to imprisonment and refraining from prosecuting low-level crimes to reduce incarceration rates and address social inequities in the criminal justice system.

Shortly after taking office in summer 2020, as racial justice demonstrations gripped Portland, Schmidt announced that his office wouldn’t prosecute protesters unless they were arrested for deliberate property damage, theft, or the use or threat of force against another person. Interfering with a police officer, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass were cited as examples of cases his office would decline.

Schmidt also decided that any charge of resisting arrest or assaulting a public safety officer would be “subjected to the highest level of scrutiny.”

During his term, he also created a unit in his office tasked with reviewing prison sentences and wrongful convictions.

Vasquez, endorsed by several police groups, denounced the protester policy, as well as Schmidt's past support of Measure 110, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2020 that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs.

Amid one of the nation's largest spikes in overdose fatalities, state lawmakers this year ended up rolling back the first-in-the-nation law and restoring criminal penalties for so-called "personal use" possession. Schmidt supported reinstating the penalties.

“This race is a test of the voters’ tolerance coming out of the challenges of Measure 110 and the protests,” said Paul Manson, a research assistant professor at Portland State University's Center for Public Service. “Is there an appetite that’s gone after years of some of these challenges?”

Voter support for progressive prosecutors has been tested elsewhere in the U.S.

Pamela Price, the district attorney in California's Alameda County, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, is facing a recall in November — two years after San Francisco voters ousted progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin.

Seattle voters in 2021 elected Republican Ann Davison as city attorney over Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who called for abolishing jails and police.

But in other major cities, efforts to recall progressive prosecutors have faltered.

Two attempts to recall Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, who was elected in 2020, failed to make it to the ballot.

The state House in Pennsylvania voted to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2022. However, a state court ruled that the impeachment articles didn't meet the constitutionally required standard, a decision that's currently on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the state Senate voted to indefinitely postpone the trial.

Krasner and Gascon are still in their roles.

In an April poll, substantial shares of Portland voters said that homelessness or issues related to drug use and addiction were among the most important problems facing the city. Encampments and public drug use have become increasingly visible, particularly in the downtown.

Safety, crime, or lack of police presence was also among the most frequently cited problems, despite provisional FBI statistics showing that U.S. violent crime decreased last year, continuing a downward trend after a pandemic-era spike. Homicides in Portland hit a record 96 in 2022, but decreased to 74 in 2023, and shootings fell by nearly 22% over the same period, a Portland police spokesperson said in an email.

“Generally speaking, tough on crime sells well,” said Lochner. “Most voters routinely say that crime is important to them. We know that homelessness is a very important issue. And I would expect that if people perceive those problems are not materially getting better, then they would vote for the challenger under the premise that, well, let’s just let someone else give it a try.”

Schmidt and Vasquez are the only two candidates in Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary. The winner will be elected if they get more than 50% of the vote, which is likely because the only other option is to write in a candidate.

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This story has been updated to correct that a Pennsylvania state court, and not the state Supreme Court, ruled on the constitutionality of the impeachment articles against Philadelphia’s district attorney; also corrects the homicide totals in Portland in 2022 and 2023 and the spelling of Todd Lochner's last name.

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