The 2023 elections may not have the fireworks of 2024, but there is still plenty up for grabs. In this “off year,” most of which takes place on Nov. 7, Virginia will be keenly watched, particularly by followers of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and whether he can springboard Republican success into national aspirations. Meanwhile, the governor’s mansion is up for grabs in Kentucky and Mississippi. New Jersey’s Republicans believe they have a real shot at turning the state red in legislative elections, while there are also fierce mayoral and district attorney battles throughout the United States. Voters will also decide several fascinating referendums, particularly in Ohio, Maine, and Texas. This series, November to Remember, will dive into all of these and more over the following two weeks. Part 10 will take a closer look at district attorney races around the country.
Dozens of local prosecutor races will take place across Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania in a few days, pitting progressives against centrist Democrats and Republican candidates frustrated that incumbents have created a landscape that lets crimes slide and prefers reform over prison.
In the South, there will be 123 local prosecutor races taking place, though only 24 will feature more than one candidate on the November ballot, with the lion’s share in Virginia.
In June, a trio of progressive prosecutors in Northern Virginia swept their Democratic primaries despite a growing national debate over what policies strike the right balance on public safety and criminal justice reform. Funded by Democratic megadonor George Soros, Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Fairfax County’s Steve Descano, and Loudoun County’s Buta Biberaj were elected to their posts in 2019. Since then, crime rates have risen, and each candidate has had to deal with backlash from voters, as well as political rivals, claiming they haven’t done enough to keep their communities safe.
In Mississippi, three Democratic prosecutors are up for election this year. The trio have made names for themselves by expanding alternatives to incarceration or vowing not to prosecute women seeking abortions. Their opponents are running campaigns that promise to walk back some of those initiatives and get constituents back on familiar ground.
But it’s the race in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County that is getting the most attention after incumbent Stephen Zappala, who has been the Democratic district attorney for more than 25 years, was voted out by his party during the May primary. Perhaps stranger is that Zappala, who lost to Democratic public defender Matt Dugan, made it onto the November ballot after residents put him down as the write-in candidate for the Republican Party.
In almost all of these races across the country, public safety remains the top concern. How the contests shake out will provide insight into the political parties and how they frame crime and punishment in 2024.
Here’s a look at some of the most notable district attorney races across the country this year.
Allegheny County (Pennsylvania)
The drama playing out in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County involves two candidates from the Democratic Party campaigning for the top spot in the district attorney’s office.
Dugan and Zappala battled it out in May, with Dugan, the county’s chief public defender, walking away with a double-digit win.
The Nov. 7 showdown is essentially a primary rematch, only with a lot more money and outside influence injected into it.
The race has become a flashpoint in the national debate over criminal justice reform and the progressive push for reform.
The two candidates have traded increasingly nasty barbs and have completely different visions for the future of Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh. Zappala has claimed Dugan’s plan would turn the southwestern Pennsylvania county into a mini San Francisco or Los Angeles, two liberal havens that have been overrun with crime. Dugan claims Zappala’s vision is outdated, his office is in disarray, and he does not represent the beliefs of the Democratic Party, despite being a member.
If Dugan wins, he’s promised to push for greater reductions in cash bail, more mental health and drug programs, and has vowed to work with local law enforcement agencies to choose which crimes to prosecute and which to divert from the criminal justice system. During his decade in the public defender’s office, Dugan represented clients who were being prosecuted by the very office he now wants to lead. He also backs an initiative that would provide free expungement services for former clients whose charges were tossed out.
In his time as the top prosecutor, Zappala has ushered in a number of criminal justice changes himself, including the creation of “problem-solving courts.” He’s also pushed for more accountability for law enforcement as well as prosecutors but claims that if he wins in November, “we can kick some ass and take some names.”
Washington County (Pennsylvania)
Washington County’s district attorney’s race pits Republican Jason Walsh against Democratic challenger Christina DeMarco-Breeden. Walsh was appointed to the post following the 2021 death of incumbent Eugene Vittone.
In the two years Walsh has been in office, he has turned Washington County into the epicenter of the death penalty fight and has made a name for himself for how frequently he has pushed for the death penalty.
Of the county’s nine murders in 2021, he sought the death penalty in five. His office has 12 capital cases that have yet to go to trial, making up about 25% of the total pending death penalty cases in Pennsylvania, though Washington County only makes up about 2% of the state’s population.
As Walsh increases his body count, the state as a whole has been moving away from capital punishment over cost concerns, racial biases, and its ineffectiveness to deter crime. This year, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D-PA) called on the legislature to abolish the death penalty.
DeMarco-Breeden, a prosecutor in nearby Somerset County who is from Washington County, believes the death penalty should only be used in certain heinous crimes and has criticized Walsh for overusing it for his own political gain while burning through taxpayer dollars to carry it out.
Henrico, Loudoun, and Prince William counties (Virginia)
In all three district attorney races, a Democratic incumbent is running for reelection after joining an association of prosecutors who pledged statewide criminal justice reforms. Their Republican challengers want a more punitive approach to how cases are prosecuted and have taken shots at the Democrats for pushing reform over punishment.
In Prince William County, Commonwealth Attorney Amy Ashworth, a Democrat, and her Republican rival, Matt Lowery, took shots at each other in a one-hour debate over the rising crime rate, working with local law enforcement, as well as criminal justice reform.
Lowery, a criminal defense attorney, blamed the “giant crime spike” on Ashworth and her office’s prosecution policies that he called “out of control.”
“We have a 70% increase in violent crime,” he said. “There’s no explanation for that other than there’s been a change in respect for law enforcement; there’s been a change in the office of the commonwealth’s attorney; and there’s no external factor to explain that other than those changes.”
Ashworth disagreed, taking issue with Lowery’s stats, calling them a salacious misrepresentation and adding that the county’s chief of police has boasted that Prince William County is “very, very safe to live in.”
Broome County (New York)
Republican attorney Paul Battisti and former Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan, a Democrat, will be going head to head in a few days to see who will be the county’s next top prosecutor, though neither has any experience for the job they want.
Battisti, who has worked as a defense attorney for two decades, beat out incumbent Mike Korchak in the June primary. Ryan was a former public defender for 15 years, 10 of which included pro bono work.
Both candidates say their experience on the other side of the aisle can help the county tweak its approach to dealing with crime.
Battisti said one of his priorities will be to reduce domestic violence.
“So far, this year, we have had eight child fatalities in Broome County, which is horrific,” he said. “We need to do more training with victims of domestic violence. We need to treat and train the offenders to stop the horrible rate of recidivism.”
Ryan said he believes the duties of the office “shouldn’t be just prosecuting crime” but about “preventing crime in the first place.”