Alameda County voters are being asked to do a rare thing in June: elect a new District Attorney. Nancy O’Malley, the current DA, is retiring and the upcoming election is the first time in decades that an incumbent DA, or a person appointed by a retiring DA, is not running for reelection.
This story first appeared on The Oaklandside.
The June primary pits two members of the DA’s office against a former prosecutor who worked in San Francisco and Oakland politics, and a civil rights attorney who ran unsuccessfully against O’Malley in 2018.
Here’s how the June 7 election works: voters get to pick their favorite candidate for DA. If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, then the top two candidates will appear on the Nov. 8, 2022, general election ballot in a runoff. But if someone does win more than 50% of the vote, they’re the next DA and there’s no runoff.
What does a District Attorney do?
The position holds great power. District attorneys are responsible for representing the people of California in criminal, civil, and juvenile cases. This means that they decide whether or not a person will face criminal charges after they’re arrested by a police department or the sheriff on suspicion of committing a crime. They also decide whether or not to investigate corporate crimes like fraud and pollution. They have the authority to set policies like whether or not to seek prison or jail sentences for people convicted of drug offenses or theft, or to divert these people into treatment programs or other alternatives. Broadly, as elected officials, DAs are responsible for seeking justice for the communities they represent.
The Alameda County District Attorney oversees an office with a budget of about $90 million and more than 300 lawyers, investigators, and other employees, and they advise the grand jury, which investigates local governments over allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse.
In 2019, the DA’s office reviewed approximately 40,800 cases and filed felony charges against about 7,500 people, according to the county’s budget.
The DA can investigate and bring civil actions to protect consumers and the environment. In recent years the Alameda DA’s office has joined other DAs in lawsuits against Apple for misrepresenting its products, and against Walmart over its improper disposal of hazardous waste.
The office’s Inspectors Division, which is comprised of nearly 70 sworn inspectors many of them former police officers, investigates arsons, hazmat incidents, and is a lead agency on sexual assault felonies and crimes involving public integrity such as voter fraud, public employee dishonesty, and in cases where law enforcement agencies have an investigative conflict of interest.
Notably, DA’s inspectors and prosecutors investigate fatal police shootings, and it is up to the District Attorney to decide whether or not to charge law enforcement officers for unjustified uses of force. For example, O’Malley declined to charge three California Highway Patrol officers who shot and killed Oakland resident Erik Salgado in 2020, according to the DA’s report released Monday. O’Malley has charged one law enforcement officer for a fatal shooting during her time in office: San Leandro Officer Jason Fletcher, who shot and killed Steven Taylor in 2020. And her predecessor, Thomas Orloff, tried and secured a manslaughter conviction against former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for killing Oscar Grant in 2009.
The DA’s office also provides support to crime victims and their families as well as witnesses, helping an estimated 16,000 in 2019. Those services include advocating for court-ordered victim restitution. The Alameda County Family Justice Center, which the DA manages, helps victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and elder adult abuse.
A break from tradition
California voters in 1986 approved amending the state constitution to require that all counties elect district attorneys, instead of appointing them. While the position of Alameda County DA has been elected for decades, there’s been a tradition in which the incumbent DA hands down the seat to his hand-picked successor.
Since the 1920s when Earl Warren, who would go on to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was District Attorney, there have been six other DA’s including O’Malley. As the first woman serving as the county’s top prosecutor, O’Malley took over in 2009, when Orloff announced he would retire before his term ended. Orloff picked O’Malley to succeed him, and the county Board of Supervisors voted to make this official. Prior to this, Orloff ran unopposed for the position since his boss, Jack Meehan retired in 1994 after serving since 1981.
When announcing she would retire at the end of her term, O’Malley vowed not to pick a successor, leaving the race wide open. Voters may know the name of one of the four candidates: Pamela Price, who ran against O’Malley in 2018. Price was part of a wave of reform-minded progressives seeking to unseat district attorneys. She won 42% of the vote.
That election revealed a divide among Alameda County voters. While O’Malley won precincts in the Tri-Valley, the Berkeley and Oakland hills, and southern Alameda County, Price won nearly every precinct in the rest of Berkeley and Oakland. Price comes to the 2022 race with experience as a criminal defense attorney and civil rights attorney for more than 30 years. She has not worked in a district attorney’s office.
The other three people vying to replace O’Malley have varying experience working in a district attorney’s office. Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley is a 32-year veteran of the Alameda DA’s Office who has worked misdemeanor and felony trial cases, was part of the prosecution team that tried the infamous Oakland police “Riders” case, and led the office’s juvenile division. Wiley is currently the No. 3 in the DA’s office and its first Black chief assistant district attorney. Wiley is endorsed by O’Malley.
The other internal candidate is Jimmie Wilson, a deputy district attorney with 18 years of experience working outside of the office’s administration handling homicide, gang, and sexual assault cases. Wilson has worked in courthouses throughout the county and as the DA office’s liaison to the Oakland Police Department’s Ceasefire program. Wilson has been more critical of O’Malley than Wiley, although both have distanced themselves some from their boss.
Seth Steward is a former prosecutor in San Francisco who currently serves as chief of staff to Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb. In San Francisco, Steward worked under District Attorneys Kamala Harris and George Gascon and handled felony jury trials as well as diversion programs helping people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Wiley has raised the most money so far, about $265,000, and Wilson, Price, and Steward have each raised between $100,000 and $200,000, an indicator that the race is hotly contested.