Feb 16, 2024 - News

Catching up with District Attorney José Garza

 Travis County District Attorney José Garza

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, who is facing a Democratic challenger in the primary election. Photo: Win O'Neal, CCR Studios, courtesy José Garza Campaign

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, who was elected in 2020 as one of a wave nationally of progressive prosecutors, is facing a Democratic challenger in the March 5 primary election.

What's happening: We talked with Garza about the challenges and opportunities of the office — and about criticisms levied by his opponent, local attorney Jeremy Sylestine.

Why it matters: The Travis County DA, with the power to prosecute felony offenses, sets the tone on criminal justice priorities for our community.

Of note: We ran our interview with Sylestine in yesterday's newsletter.

By the numbers: Garza, who has the endorsement of Austin's Democratic clubs and labor groups, has $158,000 on hand for his campaign, per a Feb. 5 Travis County campaign finance report, the latest filing available.

  • Major contributors to the Garza campaign since last July include attorney Mickey Klein ($10,000) and progressive California-based philanthropist Liz Simons ($25,000).

The intrigue: Sylestine had $215,000 on hand, per his Feb. 5 filing.

Background: Garza, who grew up in San Antonio, has worked as a federal public defender, immigrant rights activist, and leader of the nonprofit Workers Defense Project.

How do you think progressive values are congruent with public safety?

"One of the biggest challenges facing public safety is the crisis of gun violence. Progressive values say we should have reasonable reforms regarding access to firearms and getting guns out of people who pose a danger. What we've seen from statewide leadership on this issue is at best indifference, at worst policy that has led to a proliferation of firearms on the street.
"Progressive values say we should be treating substance use as the public health disorder crisis it is. It's not a challenge we're going to prosecute our way out of. People who profit from death in our community should be held accountable, but the failed war on drugs does nothing to stem drug use, nothing to stem mass incarceration."

How much of a hindrance are Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature to your work?

"They don't impact our work at all. Our focus is to take steps to improve the safety of our community, to make our community more just. Their focus is to play politics with public safety. There is no overlap."

Your opponent says your approach to violent crime and domestic abuse cases is weak and that the lack of jury trials means you have little trust in the community. How do you respond?

"I'm proud of our record, navigating the DA's office out of the deadliest pandemic our nation has seen in a century. As my opponent is aware, Travis County criminal district courts were closed for jury trials from March 2020 to March 2022."
"We've been prioritizing crimes of violence and are proud of our trial record on that score. …. When it comes to domestic violence, one of our highest priorities is to address root causes in the home. The plurality of violence in the home is transitioned intergenerationally, so in partnership with Austin Police Department, Travis County sheriff's office, Pflugerville and Manor police departments, through restorative justice efforts and counseling programs, we've been rolling up our sleeves to address that."

He also accuses you of "politicized prosecution" of police officers.

"We made a simple change when I took office to ensure that all use of force incidents that result in death and serious bodily injury will get reviewed by a Travis County grand jury. I have an enormous amount of faith in the principle that the people get the final word."

Will you now prosecute abortion and low-level marijuana offenses given a new state law allowing for the removal of district attorneys who fail to enforce criminal codes?

"We review every case that comes into our office and make a determination based on facts, evidence, and our legal obligation to seek just outcomes."

What has surprised you most about the job?

"​​I just never cease to be amazed and grateful for the way our community stands up and shows up and demands the changes they sought just over three years ago. There were people who talked about the moment we were in in 2020 as fleeting, as a fad, let's see if it sticks. … There's been a lot written about if the progressive prosecutor movement was durable. But what we see is that it's the future of our criminal justice in our community, and communities continue to elect prosecutors who are seeking the reforms our system needs with the balance of public safety.
"I'm really proud of what we've done so far, and our work is not done."
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