Progressives Score New Wins in Prosecutor Elections, Adding to the Movement’s Breadth

“Maybe we do teach the liberal bastions how things can be done by these country bumpkins over here,” said one winning candidate.

Daniel Nichanian | August 5, 2020

Eli Savit won the Democratic primary for prosecutor in Washtenaw County

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Meet the civil rights attorney, the former public defender, and the Bernie Sanders-endorsed lawyer who are set to become prosecutors in Michigan, Arizona, and Colorado. “Maybe we do teach the liberal bastions how things can be done by these country bumpkins over here,” said one.

The circle of progressives elected to prosecutors’ offices on platforms of cutting incarceration will gain three new members come 2021, due to elections and related events over the past week.

In Pima County (Tucson), Arizona, and Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Michigan, longtime chief prosecutors with punitive records retired this year, triggering competitive three-way Democratic primaries to replace them. And in both counties, the most progressive candidate prevailed on Tuesday. Although this only secures them the nomination, Laura Conover and Eli Savit are each set to win office in November since no one has filed to run against them.

“This is a movement,” Savit told The Appeal: Political Report on Wednesday. “For decades in this country, the only way you could have won a county prosecutor race was to be tough on crime. I never would have even thought of the possibility of running on a decarceral platform but for the success of these progressive prosecutors across the country.”

In Colorado’s San Luis Valley (the 12th Judicial District), Alonzo Payne rode an endorsement from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to clinch the Democratic nomination in a June primary, ousting a sitting district attorney. But he had to wait until last week to find out that no one filed to run against him in the general election.

Now virtually certain to be DA, Payne is eager to use the office to advocate for broad progressive goals like Medicare for All. He says expanding public services and fighting poverty are indispensable to ending mass incarceration.

“The state shouldn’t be viewed as only a criminal justice system, but it should be viewed as a lever for economic justice,” he told the Political Report. “It's all interconnected, it's all tied together. If you don't have a good house, you don't have electricity, my guess is you're involved in the criminal justice system.”

Conover, Payne, and Savit join a slate of other progressives who have already won prosecutor’s offices this year, most notably in Portland, Oregon. Still other showdowns loom in November, including in Los Angeles and Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona.

Reform-minded prosecutors also defended their turf on Tuesday. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Wyandotte County DA Mark Dupree, two Black prosecutors under attack by police unions, beat back challengers.

But the story this week was the new counties that voted in progressive candidates.

“This is an alliance nationwide, but it has to be one county at a time and I’m so excited the movement is growing,” Savit said.

Initially associated with the nation’s biggest cities, successful efforts to overhaul the criminal legal system through the ballot box have spread to suburban and rural jurisdictions.

Payne is determined to make the most of this. “I want San Francisco and Boulder to say, how the hell did he do that in the [San Luis] Valley?,” he said. “We can get it done because we agree that people should be treated fairly regardless of their socioeconomic status, and maybe we do teach the liberal bastions how things can be done by these country bumpkins over here.” He added, “And if you're looking for a fishbowl to put some practices in place, I'm gonna be the first person to offer ourselves up as that experiment.”

Eli Savit: Washtenaw County, Michigan

On paper, a candidate friendly to criminal justice reform may seem par for the course in this left-leaning jurisdiction that includes Ann Arbor, but Savit insists that a “tough on crime” mentality has reigned in the prosecutor’s office, fueling racial inequalities. “Washtenaw County has a reputation of being one of the most progressive counties in Michigan, and we always vote Democratic,” he said, “but if you scratch the surface of our justice system, you see some of the most pronounced inequalities in our state.”

All three candidates touted criminal justice reform during the campaign, but meaningful policy differences emerged in their answers to policy questions from the Political Report.

Savit, for one, was the only candidate to rule out seeking a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a minor, a sentence banned in 23 states and Washington D.C. but not Michigan.

He also committed to not request financial conditions for pretrial release. “I categorically oppose cash bail and will not seek it in any case,” he said. “One's wealth must never play a role in their detention.”

Savit has also said he would “generally” decline to prosecute cases relating to addiction; that's in contrast to seeking convictions and incarceration, or else pursuing diversion programs that still involve charging people for substance use. But in a follow-up, he did not provide a commitment as to the exact circumstances this “generally” covers, only stating that “pre-charge deflection is my priority.”

Savit, finally, argues for abolishing felony disenfranchisement to enable all adult citizens to vote, including from prison.

“There's no reason not to do so,” he said. “Folks that are serving time are quite literally under the control of the State. They deserve to have their voices heard. And there is no plausible justification for denying the franchise to those who are serving time. It's not a public-safety risk, it doesn't offer a deterrent to crime, and it doesn't promote rehabilitation.”

Savit’s two opponents shared this position—rare unanimity on this issue in a DA election, though a growing number of prosecutors, let alone other public officials, are now embracing this view.

Payne, the incoming Colorado DA, agrees as well. “A person is a person and a vote is a vote, and every person should have a vote,” he said.

Alonzo Payne: San Luis Valley, Colorado

In talking to Payne about his goals as a DA, it is immediately apparent he is eying a big picture in which mass incarceration cannot be fixed without economic programs that target poverty.

“The biggest thing out there is poverty, people are broke” he said when asked what about the criminal legal system made him run. “I'm looking forward to providing some sort of justice to the people that I've grown up with.”

That perspective shaped all of his answers, for instance on bail reform. “You're not going to run anywhere [if you are released pretrial],” he said of the arguments that imposing bonds is needed due to flight risk. “Good Lord, you barely have enough to pay your electricity bill.”

The 12th District includes a set of small rural counties in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a region that faces major economic difficulties and high rates of poverty.

After he received Sanders’s endorsement, Payne says, he was submerged by “more donations that I knew I would be able to use during a campaign,” and he is now looking to donate leftover funds to Move Mountain, a local nonprofit.

He makes the case that the staple proposals of Sanders’s presidential platform, such as universal health care—“I mean, you can go beyond Bernie, and basic income,” he added—are necessary to “solve those social issues that brought [individuals] to the criminal justice system. If you're not looking at the seeds that cause the problem, you're always gonna have wheat.”

Laura Conover: Pima County, Arizona

Conover, a former public defender and criminal defense attorney, secured the Democratic nomination on Tuesday in Pima County, Arizona’s second most populous jurisdiction. Here again, no one else is running in the fall.

Conover and Jonathan Mosher, a longtime deputy prosecutor who was her main opponent, both touted their support for reform during the campaign. But Meg O’Connor reported last week on a series of discrepancies between Mosher's record and campaign positions. Moreover, Mosher ran with the support of Barbara LaWall, the incumbent Democratic prosecutor. Over her 24 years in office, LaWall pursued punitive policies toward drug offenses and sought the death penalty.

Conover’s win marks a break from LaWall’s politics. She has pledged to never seek the death penalty, which would be a significant turnaround from LaWall’s approach. Conover was an organizer with the the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty in the 1990s.

Conover has also said she would decline to prosecute cases of marijuana possession, and she indicated that she wished to reduce the prosecution of “low-level, victimless” offenses, such as drug paraphernalia or sex work.

But when pressed by the Political Report, Conover declined to offer a firm commitment that she would not charge such offenses, as a growing number of victorious progressive candidates have done, only saying she would “deprioritize” them. Similarly, she said she would move away from some of LaWall's charging and sentencing practices that trigger harsh sentences, but did not express a categorical policy against them, signaling they may still be used.

The biggest change may be in the politics Conover brings to statewide debates; She has committed to fight for statutory changes that would reduce incarceration, whereas LaWall steadfastly lobbied against sentencing reform in the state legislature and helped sink even bipartisan reforms.

Conover also leaned into her defense background and past experience as an advocate to make the case that she was the most credible candidate for advancing criminal justice reform. “They need a person from outside to shift that culture,” she told the Political Report last week.

None of Conover, Payne, and Savit have worked in a prosecutor’s office before.

Explore our coverage of other DA elections nationwide.