After three decades as Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle announced in mid-December that he would not run again, retiring from the post he has held since 1977. Over the years, Earle became a venerated Austin icon with a national reputation, not only for his dogged handling of public corruption cases – most recently his ongoing prosecution of former Republican Rep. Tom DeLay and his Texans for a Republican Majority PAC – but also for his interest in alternatives to incarceration and in community and restorative justice programs targeting the root causes of crime. His legacy is long, and his shoes are large, making the campaign to take over his office one of the most important races, locally and statewide, this year.
Not only will the new DA manage the operations of a felony criminal justice system in a major urban center, but the winning candidate – effectively selected by the March 4 Democratic primary – must also be ready to become the state watchdog over cases of public corruption, as the face of and muscle behind the Public Integrity Unit. Under Texas law, the Travis Co. DA is the only prosecutor vested with the authority to investigate cases of public corruption involving state officials and agencies. In the absence of any statewide Democratic officials, Earle is now routinely described as "the most powerful Democrat in Texas," and many Republicans and some Democrats have bristled at his prosecutorial reach. There have been several legislative attempts, thus far unsuccessful, to move the power to prosecute public corruption from the Travis Co. DA's office to that of the attorney general. In that context, this primary race has unusual importance beyond county borders – and powerful interests at the Capitol and across the state will take a direct and potentially influential interest in the outcome.
In short, being the DA in Travis Co. is a pretty daunting job. Yet four of Earle's assistant district attorneys have declared themselves ready and willing to take it on: Rosemary Lehmberg, Earle's first assistant; Gary Cobb, currently in the office's grand jury division; Mindy Montford, who works in the trial division; and Rick Reed, currently assigned to the PIU. All four are Democrats; with no Republican having filed, whoever gets the most votes in the March 4 Democratic primary (pending a run-off) will emerge the presumptive new district attorney.
What follows is a working introduction to the careers and qualifications of the four candidates. Next week, Part 2: A closer look.
The longest-serving veteran in the race to replace Earle is Rosemary Lehmberg, who has worked there for 31 years – some six months longer than Earle himself. During her tenure, Lehmberg has headed up every major division within the office – including time as chief over trial courts and over the Public Integrity Unit. Since 1997 she has served as Earle's first assistant; as his right hand, Lehmberg handles the "day-to-day business" of the office, she says, which includes managing its personnel and $13.5 million budget. Like Earle, Lehmberg is a proponent of programs that provide alternatives to incarceration – in the annals of Lehmberg lore is the story of how she advocated for the use of a "sentencing circle" (a community approach to meting out justice based on Native American tradition) for a defendant caught with a set of golf clubs he'd stolen from her garage. Lehmberg says that while she is "oriented to the ... courtroom," she believes it's important to make sure the office has resources dedicated to these kinds of alternate programs for use in "appropriate cases" that can be redirected from regular court dockets. For example, she says the office has "got to get a handle on our drug cases – a third of the cases on our docket are felony drug cases. We need drug courts" and must advocate for the addition of more "drug beds" – access to treatment for nonviolent offenders.
Lehmberg is presumably the early front-runner, in part because of her institutional knowledge, which leaves her best positioned to provide a smooth and cohesive transfer of leadership. She says she has the "experience and motivation" and can provide the "steady leadership that we need right now." In mid-January, she received a glowing endorsement from Earle, who said she "has had a greater role in the success of the Travis County district attorney's office than any other single person." Lehmberg says her "biggest priority" as DA would be in leading (and expanding, if possible) the PIU, because it is "important to protect our authority as guardians over the state Capitol," in an effort to "make sure we have just a little less government for sale."
To Gary Cobb, a 17-year veteran county prosecutor, the work of the PIU is important – but not necessarily more so than the nuts-and-bolts prosecutions the office handles every day. "Crime is crime, whether you're dealing with white-collar crime or 'hood crime,'" he says. "It shouldn't matter." Still, he has no doubt that he'd have the backbone to face the pressure inherent with investigating and potentially prosecuting state lawmakers. He has often been personally assigned "tough cases," he says, precisely because he handles them well. Cobb also favors finding alternates to incarceration, especially for nonviolent drug offenders (for whom, he says, imprisonment too often ensures only that the "user comes out as a criminal"), as a means to free the docket so the office can focus on prosecuting violent offenses.
Cobb is the only minority candidate in the race, and believes he has more "of a feeling for how the community wants prosecutors" to handle cases. "The community wants cases [pursued on] violent offenders," he said. "In state-jail felonies, lower-level drug cases ... they want us to stop putting people in prison. They don't want more black and brown men on parole – it messes up their lives."
Cobb says he doesn't think that under Earle the office has done enough to implement alternative programs. He says the office needs to "focus on following through on good goals; I see a lot of good goals – we never really keep going until we get to that good goal." He concludes, "If you think that in 30 years ... this has become the best [DA] office in Texas, then Rosemary deserves the job," he said. "I understand the promise of what that office can do."
Montford identifies herself as the candidate of "real change." Like Cobb, she suspects that if Lehmberg is victorious, not much would change in the daily operation of the office. Montford wants more. "My energy is huge. I've got great ideas that we need to explore," she said. "I am the only person that is talking about ways to change the office. Others talk in broad strokes about these things; I say, 1, 2, 3, 4." Indeed, Montford has been most specific regarding a handful of things she'd like to see happen – including the institution of a 24-hour intake office at the county's central booking facility. This would streamline the docket, she says, eliminating excess jail time – in some cases for inmates charged with crimes the office simply can't prosecute (if, for example, police lacked probable cause for the initial arrest). Montford would also like to create an expedited "rocket" docket in family-violence cases, to cut down on the number of cases where witnesses disappear or decide not to press charges against their abuser.
Montford also says she'd like more public transparency; she'd like to institute monthly meetings with media, "to let them know what is happening" in the office and believes the office needs a policy that outlines "six or 10 things" a prosecutor is required to present to each grand jury, as a means to demystifying this otherwise secretive process. "What I think is, you can [then] tell the community, 'You can't be there, but at least you can trust the process.'"
At 37, Montford is the youngest and least-experienced candidate, but she sees that as a potential advantage, calling "the words I hate the most – 'that's the way we've always done it.'" Her relative youth prompts the question of whether she yet has what it takes to handle such a large office – especially to execute the office's role as public-corruption watchdog, despite the inevitable counterattacks and political pressure.
Montford grew up in politics – her father, John Montford, was himself Lubbock County district attorney and a Democratic state senator from 1983-1996. Since 2001, he has been a senior vice president and lobbyist at AT&T (formerly SBC Communications). Mindy began her Democratic activism as a University of Texas student. She's the only union member (AFSCME) in the race and was endorsed by Austin's Central Labor Council. She says she believes the work of the PIU is the most important work of the DA. "People often say that those [public-corruption cases] are the 'victimless crimes.' I say, 'Are you kidding me?'" she said. "Democracy crumbles if someone is not there to watch it." She has been endorsed by powerful Democratic political figures (former Govs. Mark White and Dolph Briscoe) and was able to raise considerable funds very quickly to kick-start her campaign, giving her the strongest early media presence.
Reed says he understands exactly what it takes to be a public watchdog: Four years ago, Earle tapped him as one of a handful of assistants put to work on the PIU cases against DeLay and TRMPAC. Reed has worked on the investigation of the cases and presentation to the grand jury, and he says he's not afraid to pursue such cases to the end. In fact, he says his philosophy of prosecution is about doing the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing. Like Montford, Reed grew up with politics – his father, Dick Reed, was a two-term state rep. from Dallas who was among the fabled "Dirty 30" who battled the House leadership. In the mid-Eighties, working as a young lawyer under then Dallas Co. DA Henry Wade, he said he learned how not to be a prosecutor: In Wade's office, he said, moving up the food chain was based solely on the number of convictions notched in your belt. "The focus was on winning and not so much doing the right thing," he said. "Early on, I took the position that that might be the basis of promotion, but I had to live with myself and was going to focus on doing what was right."
Reed worked in Dallas Co. for 12 years before running for DA himself; he lost. He moved to Austin and the Travis Co. DA's office in 1998. In all, he has worked under three DAs – giving him the most perspective, he says. Here, no one knows any way but the Earle way, and that's a problem, he says. In Travis Co. he sees a "culture of indecision – a fear of making a mistake. ... So the tendency is to empanel [a committee] to make ... decisions" – like when to seek the death penalty. That is "not only a waste of time, and not necessarily making better quality decisions ... and delaying resolution of ... cases." Reed says every prosecutor must take personal responsibility for his or her cases.
Reed is the only candidate in the race who has promised that, if elected, he would institute a moratorium on seeking the death penalty. (The anti-death-penalty Texas Moratorium Network and former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire, among others, have challenged the DA candidates to make this promise; although capital cases have long been rare in Travis Co., Cobb, Montford, and Lehmberg say they will not categorically rule out capital prosecutions.) Says Reed, "For a number of reasons, I think that we've reached a point in time as a society that we need to realize it is an [outmoded] form of punishment and not justified."
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