Point Austin: About That D.A. Race ...
Point Austin dissents from the Chronicle Editorial Board’s view of the incumbent
"It's silly season" – Travis County Democratic primary time – a period that combines the deadly earnest with the completely absurd, never entirely free of foolishness. At the Chronicle, our Editorial Board (a seasonal collaboration of publisher, editor-in-chief, News editor, and News staff) consults on endorsements. Some we find easy, some (reflecting good candidates) are quite difficult, but we try our best in anticipation of voters who have to make the same tough choices.
Usually we can come to a consensus choice, but not always. This year my colleagues and I couldn't agree on the choice for Travis County District Attorney – or rather, I couldn't agree with the endorsement of José Garza over incumbent Margaret Moore. I think Garza's a fine person who has done good work with the Workers Defense Project, and attorney Erin Martinson has been a fierce advocate for victims of crime. I do question whether either of the challengers has sufficient experience to assume management and leadership of the D.A.'s Office – a high-pressure law firm with more than 200 attorneys and staff members – but if either should win, we'll find out.
My particular objection is to the way this campaign has portrayed the incumbent (and by extension the entire D.A.'s Office), creating a caricature of Moore as personally responsible for all the legion of troubles that bedevil the criminal justice system, not just in Travis County but across the U.S. Her opponents have used that caricature as a punching bag for every problem we haven't yet solved as a community, while going out of their way to ignore or denigrate the progress Moore has indeed made since assuming office in 2017. National groups with virtually no knowledge of local circumstances have pontificated on the race, and even Elizabeth Warren (bless her heart) has put in a word.
When Moore resumed a lengthy public career to become D.A., she was effectively rescuing and stabilizing an office that had fallen into disarray and disrespect in the last years of the Rosemary Lehmberg administration, with collateral problems involving the Austin Police Department DNA lab. Since that time, she has made tangible progress on all fronts debated on the campaign trail, with the main substantive charge against her being "not fast enough," one that implicitly assumes the D.A. has a magic reforming wand she's refusing to use out of sheer cussedness.
Yet in three years, she's accomplished important initiatives, including:
• Based in part on research she commissioned concerning racial inequities, she moved to reduce thousands of minor drug possession cases from "state jail felonies" to misdemeanors, while promoting diversion programs to move more cases into public health care instead of law enforcement;
• She created new Adult Sexual Assault and Family Violence Units, while increasing prosecutions – and convictions – in these cases over the office's previous levels;
• She established a Civil Rights Division and Civil Rights Advisory Council, enabling conviction integrity review as well as the public review of all police shooting incidents, thereby expanding public involvement and transparency instead of conventional grand jury secrecy (that her opponents want to return to the grand jury process is frankly baffling – the logic appears to be: Moore did it, so it must be bad);
• Most recently, she has successfully collaborated with all stakeholders to officially reduce the use of cash bail in misdemeanor cases and is moving toward a similar process on felonies. It's too soon to judge that change – but it exemplifies Moore's nuts-and-bolts approach to progress, rather than brandishing slogans.
Also worth recalling: Moore personally reviewed the entire case history in the notoriously unjust Keller daycare prosecution and took the unprecedented step of officially exonerating Fran and Dan Keller, something her predecessor refused to do.
Work in Progress
There's always more to be debated, and since reporters retain a professional skepticism about all prosecutors, no matter who becomes D.A., the Chronicle will continue to consider them suspects until proven otherwise. I hope the D.A.'s Office will not have to undergo another chaotic sea change next year – when the myriad social problems we relentlessly shovel onto law enforcement, prosecutors, criminal defense, and courts will continue to resist quick and easy solutions. But I believe Moore has done her level best to officially address her share of those problems, and that based on her documented progress, she deserves the chance to continue her good work.