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In Northern California, ‘Race Baiting’ Takes Center Stage in Heated District Attorney Contest (Updated)

Nicole Knight

The Alameda County district attorney race pits a Black civil rights attorney endorsed by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza against a career prosecutor.

UPDATE, June 6, 10:14 a.m.: Nancy O’Malley on Tuesday won the county district attorney race with 59 percent of the vote.

“Race-baiting” tactics have roiled a Northern California district attorney race that’s among several pivotal match-ups in the state as progressives push to revamp the criminal justice system via the ballot box.

Tuesday’s Alameda County district attorney race is one of seven contests in California pitting incumbents—so-called law-and-order candidates—against self-billed reformers who promise to reshape cash bail policies, promote alternatives to incarceration, and reduce racial disparities in sentencing, as HuffPost reported.

Alameda County challenger Pamela Price, a Black civil rights attorney, has vowed to bring justice to communities frustrated by discriminatory policing and sentencing. Incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley also touts a record on bail reform. She noted that on her watch, the county’s rate of pre-trial detention has fallen to about 24 percent, far shy of the state average of 70 percent.

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These distract attorney match-ups are playing out in Southern California as well, but the Alameda County contest has proven particularly heated.

Price last week accused the Oakland Police Officers Association of “race-baiting” for an email by its political action committee attacking Price’s public stance on leniency for minor crimes. Sent expressly to white voters, the email read, “[Pamela Price] WILL NOT PROSECUTE DRUNK DRIVERS, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES OR CRIMINALS WHO ARE ARRESTED FOR BREAKING INTO RESIDENTS’ CARS,” as the East Bay Express reported. The Express reported the email list used a code that seemed intended to exclude likely African American voters. 

The police union did not respond to Rewire.News‘ request for comment.

A career prosecutor, O’Malley has won the backing of labor unions, county elected officials, and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a former Alameda County prosecutor, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Price, meanwhile, has won endorsements from various activists, influential state unions like the California Nurses Association, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.

“If we’re interested in reducing incarceration, promoting alternatives, promoting second chances, and diversion programs, then we need to look at what’s happening in district attorney offices,” said Anne Irwin, founder of a policy nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reforms and has endorsed Price, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle

Billionaire George Soros funneled more than $550,000 to support Price’s campaign and attack her opponent, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Price has also benefited from $80,000 in Facebook ads bought by a PAC run by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who aim “to fight structural racism and defend our communities from abuse by state power.”

These are among the millions of dollars pouring into the state to bankroll attack ads as county prosecutors become the new frontline for criminal justice reforms.

Price has offered mixed messages on whether she’ll prosecute low-level crimes. She initially vowed during a recorded debate to “stop prosecuting misdemeanors in Alameda County,” before telling the San Francisco Chronicle she’d prosecute domestic violence misdemeanors and “some” DUI cases.

Domestic violence survivors blasted Price in a rally last month and praised O’Malley, saying her office consistently filed charges in misdemeanor domestic violence cases, as a local CBS affiliate reported.

But a police union payout to O’Malley’s campaign has raised eyebrows for suggesting the prosecutor might be soft on police misconduct. O’Malley accepted a $10,000 campaign donation from the Fremont police union while her department was investigating officers in that department for the 2017 killing of a pregnant 16 year old, as the East Bay Express reported.

O’Malley defended her acceptance of the donation, telling the newspaper she remained unbiased.

“This is a law enforcement job and we work with the police,” she said. “As I said before, when police do something that is against the law, they either get fired or they get prosecuted.”

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