Point Austin: Heat and Light
Baird vs. Lehmberg off to a blazing start
Unless you're a Republican presidential candidate – or working for one – you're unlikely to be too excited just yet about spring 2012 elections. But beyond the constitutional amendment and Travis County bond proposals on the Nov. 8 ballot (early voting in progress!), the March primaries loom, with several of the local Democratic races just beginning to engage.
One of the hottest promises to be the race for Travis County district attorney, where incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg is facing an aggressive challenge from retired judge (and longtime prosecutorial gadfly) Charlie Baird. In theory, Lehmberg should have an easy run as the first female incumbent, who won her 2008 race easily, and as a long-time prosecutor (since 1976) endorsed by virtually all of the heavy hitters among local Democrats. But as a former Court of Criminal Appeals judge who has always been a formidable campaigner – and one whose unapologetically liberal opinions strike chords among many Dem voters – Baird shouldn't be underestimated.
The tenor of the race got a heated preview at Tuesday's Central Texas Democratic Candidate Forum, at which Baird came out swinging hard and Lehmberg – a trifle less aggressively – often responded in kind. Baird described some current policies of the D.A.'s Office as reflecting either Lehmberg's "ignorance or apathy," and Lehmberg sounded a refrain that Baird "too often talks about things he doesn't know anything about."
It didn't get much friendlier throughout the debate, which featured long opening statements and then a handful of audience questions as moderator Chuck Herring tried gamely but mostly in vain to enforce time limits on the debaters, neither of whom is accustomed to hanging fire in a shootout. Baird persistently attacked from the left, insisting that Lehmberg's office has failed in its "moral imperative" to provide adequate and equitable justice, and Lehmberg defended her record and her office as both effective and developing ongoing initiatives to protect public safety more effectively, fairly, and honestly.
Baird began by declaring that there is a "dire need for change" at the D.A.'s Office and that his campaign would rest primarily on two related issues: 1) reforming the current arrest intake system so that prosecutors are on duty 24-7 to review arrests, determine whether felony charges (the D.A.'s jurisdiction) are applicable, and recommend reasonable bail amounts; 2) aggressively addressing the disproportionate effect the criminal justice system has on racial minorities, under which, for example, black men are seven times more likely than whites to be subject to arrest and incarceration. "Black parents are seven times more likely than white parents to have a child in prison," he said, and that situation "is not only unacceptable; it is immoral." Baird said he had "dedicated his life to the belief that we have a moral obligation to help the less fortunate," adding, "It is why I am a Democrat" and that the D.A.'s race represents a "very clear choice" for those who agree.
Lehmberg made little attempt to match Baird's rhetorical thunder, choosing instead to emphasize her record of protecting citizens against "violent crime and property crime" and pointing to particular programs that in effect responded to Baird's charges. She described the work of the D.A.'s Children's Advocacy Center (now the Center for Child Protection), its environmental law enforcement, and her work with the Innocence Project, with the county's drug courts, and on reforming eyewitness identification procedures. She won applause by reminding the partisan audience of the Public Integrity Unit's conviction of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and she said her continuing dedication is "not just to convict, but to see that justice is done." Addressing specifically Baird's call for "24-7 intake," Lehmberg said her prosecutors are already available around the clock, that she is computerizing that system, and Baird's criticisms are once again "not up-to-date."
Bending Toward Justice
There was much more in this vein, as Baird charged more broadly that Lehmberg fails to acknowledge the racial "ripple effect" of the criminal justice system (e.g., on Latino families ripped apart by deportation). "Either she is ignorant of these effects," charged Baird, "or she just doesn't care." Lehmberg replied in part that Baird's own practices (e.g., in his appointment of grand juries) reflected white domination of the justice system, and she pointed to her staff recruitment and public school initiatives as attempts to create more equity. Baird cited his own efforts – parenting classes, jobs programs – in the same direction.
Both candidates landed effective blows, although it was surprising to see how heated the campaign has immediately become, albeit between candidates hardly known as shrinking violets. The harsh tone may partly reflect former District Judge Baird's history of skirmishes with local prosecutors, who complained to the Statesman that his rulings unreasonably favored criminal defendants and who occasionally bristled at his courtroom admonitions.
Baird undoubtedly remains a longshot, and it will be interesting to see if his campaign at least forces Lehmberg and her supporters to consider whether long-established D.A. practices sufficiently reflect the progressive reputation the office has long enjoyed under Ronnie Earle and his successor. Baird closed by emphasizing that his is a "very, very serious campaign," not to be pre-judged on issues of "personality or gender" or similar standards. It would be a shame if his instinctive pugnacity (or Lehmberg's defensiveness) comes to overshadow the serious nature of his experienced and sobering judgment of the Texas and Travis County criminal justice system. It should be designed so that it "doesn't work just for the rich, but so that it works for everybody."
The District Attorney's Office did not alone create the often imbalanced and inequitable system of criminal justice under which we all live, and under which many of us suffer disproportionately. But the D.A.'s Office bears a major institutional responsibility to work proactively to undo those imbalances and inequities. We can only hope this latest campaign will generate sufficient light as well as heat to move us all toward greater justice.