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National groups are flooding local prosecutors with money

PORTLAND, Maine – A local District Attorney’s race in Maine didn’t draw much attention until a political action committee linked to a well-funded liberal donor of international renown suddenly took an interest.

A super PAC funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist and target of conspiracy theories, dropped $300,000 on behalf of the challenger, dwarfing the combined $70,000 both candidates had raised by then.

The cash injection — a staggering sum for a local Maine race — shows how national groups are trying to influence district attorney contests across the country. The releases highlight a largely under-the-radar jostling for control of an office some see as at the forefront of the criminal justice reform movement.

Left-leaning groups have stepped in to fund candidates who support these reforms, while conservatives are pushing back, fearing crime in America’s cities is spiraling out of control.

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Whitney Tymas, president of the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which supports progressive candidates for district attorneys, said political money is needed to bring about change in an office that is predominantly white and male and in which most incumbents are unopposed for re-election line up

“It takes real money to hit that moment,” said Tymas, who heads political action committees that fund races in Maine and several other states.

In Maine, a Soros-backed super PAC forwarded the $300,000 windfall to Tyma’s political action committee, which has been sending out mailings ahead of Tuesday’s attack by incumbent Jonathan Sahrbeck, a Democrat. She has also sent out flyers in favor of Democratic challenger Jacqueline Sartoris.

Sahrbeck urged his opponent to denounce the ads, calling the amount of spending in the county, which includes Maine’s most populous city, Portland, “outrageous.”

“The people of Cumberland County should be disgusted by this attempt to buy this race,” he said in a statement.

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Issues are not limited to Maine.

Money also flowed into this week’s recall election gave the boot to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a democrat. Boudin’s critics said, among other things, that he failed to prosecute repeat offenders.

Boudin’s supporters raised more than $3 million, with the money coming from the ACLU and Real Justice, a political action committee that has supported more than 50 progressives running for US prosecutors over the past five years.

Opponents had raised at least $7 million, the majority of which came from an organization fueled by large donations from individuals, including more than $500,000 each from San Francisco investors Jean-Pierre Conte and William Oberndorf .

Elected on a platform to reduce incarceration, Boudin had instituted policies against seeking cash bail and against not convicting juveniles as adults. While many crime numbers have fallen since he took office less than three years ago, the city has been rocked by a spate of attacks on Asian Americans, retail store robberies and open drug use on the streets.

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Although there’s no indication Soros’ money played a significant role in the San Francisco recall, the billionaire has spent significant sums in other states.

In Arkansas, about $321,000 flowed from Soros through a PAC in a failed attempt to help Alicia Walton beat Will Jones in a race for prosecutor in a judicial district that includes Little Rock, the state capital. Special interest money has been cut both ways in the race to fill a vacant seat as two Republican billionaires spent $316,000 to back Jones.

The external money funded direct mail advertising to voters. One of the Soros-backed group misleadingly implied that Jones was an anti-victim, using part of a quote from his argument to the jury when he tried a man for rape. The jury convicted the man in the 2008 case.

Fair Courts America, the super PAC supporting Jones, sent out a mailer calling Walton “soft on crime” and criticizing her work as a public defender.

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Soros-funded groups have also engaged in at least two other local prosecution races. In Northern California’s Contra Costa County, the California Justice & Public Safety PAC spent at least $950,000 to help District Attorney Diana Benton fend off challenger Mary Knox in this week’s Democratic primary, according to an Associated Press campaign finance analysis . The group paid for television commercials to promote Benton and criticize Knox, who was supported by more than $200,000 in independent spending from a group funded primarily by police organizations.

In Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines, the Justice and Public Safety PAC spent at least $136,000 on Kimberly Graham when she defeated two other Democrats running for district attorney in the first filing show this week. The seat is open for the first time in more than 30 years.

Soros has donated billions of dollars over the years in support of liberal and anti-authoritarian causes. The Hungarian-American has been the subject of conspiracy theories propagated by right-wing groups, as well as anti-Semitic attacks.

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Earlier this year, he gave Democracy PAC II more than $125 million for midterm elections and said in a statement that he is seeking a “long-term investment” in races across the country.

Races for local prosecutors have gained attention because these offices are often at the center of debates about law enforcement reform and problems in the criminal justice system, which incarcerate poor and people of color more often.

A study released this month by the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina Law School showed that money and tenure play important roles in local district attorneys’ races in 45 states where they are elected.

Incumbents typically don’t face a challenger, and 38% of them have won contested elections even when the challenger raised more money, the study found. Challengers only won 20% of the time they lost the fundraising fight. The study focused on individual fundraising, not independent spending on a candidate’s behalf.

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“It takes a lot of money for a challenger to break through and have a shot at winning,” said Carissa Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project.

The stakes are high in the Maine primary.

Since both district attorney candidates are running as Democrats and there are no other candidates, the race will effectively be decided during Tuesday’s primary.

Sartoris, an assistant district attorney in another county, told the AP that the outside donations show the importance of the job — and acknowledge that she’s the “only lifelong Democrat” in the race.

She said she represents democratic values ​​by trying to tackle underreported crimes like sexual assault and hate crimes and helping those struggling with addictions. She vowed to “finally take questions about racial differences in charges and convictions seriously.”

Sahrbeck said he has worked on practical reforms in some of these areas, organizing training to examine implicit bias, racism, racial justice and inclusion.

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Although he is registered as a Democrat, an attack notice noted that he won the previous district attorney race as an independent.

Sahrbeck said the community would be much better served if the $300,000 associated with Soros were spent on tackling homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.

Sartoris said she cannot accept responsibility for independent spending over which she has no control.

“I’m responsible for my campaign,” she said. “He’s responsible for his.”

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DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/10/national-groups-flooding-local-prosecutor-races-with-money/ National groups are flooding local prosecutors with money

Sarah Y. Kim

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