May 10, 2024 - News

Multnomah County DA candidates on camping ban and pandemic impacts

Two middle aged white men smiling

Mike Schmidt (left) and Nathan Vasquez have made the Multnomah County district attorney race interesting by focusing on crime and drugs. Illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Courtesy of Mike for DA and Kitta Bodner

Voter concerns over crime and drug use have catapulted the nonpartisan Multnomah County district attorney's race into the political spotlight four years after incumbent Mike Schmidt won a landslide victory by promising criminal justice reform.

Why it matters: Schmidt now faces one of his employees, prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, who has challenged his boss' policies on ending cash bail and rate of prosecuting misdemeanors.

Catch up quick: Schmidt has long been the target of advocacy group People for Portland's billboards criticizing his performance as a prosecutor — though he has defended his record on crime and touted his work rolling back key components of Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

  • Vasquez has won endorsements from several law enforcement unions.
  • Respondents to an OregonLive poll in late April favored Vasquez (50%) over Schmidt (31%), with 19% undecided.

Axios emailed questions to both Schmidt and Vasquez ahead of the May 21 election and edited their responses for brevity.

Would you support jail time for repeat offenders of a Portland camping ban?

Schmidt: He said his office would apply Ted Wheeler's new policy case by case, looking for repeat offenders.

  • "The goal is to stop behaviors harming the community."
  • "We must also keep in mind that homelessness is not a crime and that jail time and criminal records often exacerbate the cycle of homelessness."

Vasquez: He said he believes jail has a role to play in enforcing all laws, including the camping ban.

  • "However, the primary focus of our intervention should always be to assist in getting folks stabilized and housed."

If you win, how much will what you do still be affected by the legacy of the COVID pandemic?

Schmidt: He said he expects his office of around 100 lawyers to get through the backlog of cases from the pandemic soon. He said crime is trending downwards, admittedly not yet to pre-pandemic levels.

  • "Our goal should always be to make sure we have capacity to resolve cases, hold people accountable and secure justice for victims."

Vasquez: He said he believes his office has recovered from most of the effects of court closures.

  • "There were still plenty of lessons to be learned that I hope will create a more robust system in the future."

To Schmidt: How will your approach in your second term differ from your first?

Schmidt said work from his first term is just coming to fruition, especially around homelessness and drug addiction, and that, following changes to Measure 110, "we really will have much better tools to address drug use than we did in my first term."

To Vasquez: Which DA's work do you hope to emulate?

Vasquez said he is still inspired by his former boss, Mike Schrunk, who died last year.

  • He said Schrunk's motto — which was "Do the right thing for the right reason" — "stays close in my heart."
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