District attorney elections shouldn’t be partisan
By Matthew Gagnon
Here’s a fun question to consider: Why, exactly, should anyone care about the political party of a prosecutor?
The job of a district attorney in Maine is that of a chief prosecutor, responsible for representing the state of Maine in criminal proceedings. If you break the law and are arrested, you are likely to get to know the district attorney and the staff of prosecutors who support that attorney quite well.
Most people have a fairly apolitical view of justice. There is no doubt that there are debates between different ideologies about how to handle certain aspects of crime. Drug use and abuse, for instance, inspires a variety of perspectives that range between an aggressively punitive approach, to a compassionate emphasis on treatment and avoiding jail time.
But generally speaking, those debates are good faith dialogues between people attempting to find the right path forward in the pursuit of justice and are all well-meaning attempts to keep communities safe. Especially when it is among those working as prosecutors, doing their job.
Why, then, must we introduce partisanship into the mix?
District attorneys in Maine, and in most states across the country, are elected. In those elections, candidates declare their partisan affiliation, go through primaries, and then end up on general election ballots with an affiliation listed next to their name.
If you are a talented prosecutor who wants to move up in your career and seek an open district attorney job, you must make the difficult decision to openly declare a partisan affiliation (or lack of one), in order to “play the game” as one sitting DA told me this week. Even if you don’t really want to wade into the political arena, even if you don’t even have a well-formed ideology, you must “pick a lane” and then run in that lane.
Enter current district attorney for Cumberland County, Jonathan Sahrbeck.
He has had an eclectic history with political registration. In an interview last week he told me that he had actually originally registered as a member of the Green Party when he turned 18 years old, only to then later register as a Republican in the mid-2000s. Clearly a moderate, he worked in a variety of prosecutorial jobs, ultimately becoming an assistant district attorney for longtime Republican Cumberland County DA Stephanie Anderson.
When she retired, Sahrbeck decided to run for his boss’s position, though he did so as an unenrolled candidate. His own personal ideology had lurched slightly leftward over time, and it was undoubtedly a shrewd political move at the same time. Through a variety of bizarre events that fall, Sahrbeck ended up winning unopposed.
Since becoming district attorney, however, he has consistently shown a progressive streak in his approach to the job. So much so that he began talking to other Democratic district attorneys, noting the similarity between his approach and theirs. When it came time to run for re-election, he enrolled in the Democratic Party and stood as a progressive in the primary election that took place on Tuesday.
Sahrbeck, despite being well-regarded and having a solid record to stand on, lost that election.
If you are curious why, look no farther than the yard signs I’ve seen sprinkled around town for the last month. His challenger in the primary, Jackie Sartoris, made one simple thing her pitch: “lifelong Democrat.”
The implication being that Sahrbeck was a political opportunist and a chameleon who morphed himself into whatever he needed to be, and was not genuinely progressive. And of course, this message was picked up and amplified by an unheard of amount of money — $300,000 plus — from George Soros’ political action committee, which dumped an avalanche of money into Cumberland County to elect Sartoris.
Having also spoken with Sartoris, I found her to be pleasant, genuine, and open to an intelligent dialogue about criminal justice. But there is no question she is much, much farther to the left than Sahrbeck’s already progressive prosecutorial record, and the left-leaning county she will now represent. Yet because there is no Republican candidate for this position — a humiliating and inexcusable failure on their part — Sartoris will now have effectively been elected by a little more than 15,000 votes, out of the roughly 260,000 residents who live in the district.
All because we insist on making everything political, including a job that really shouldn’t have anything at all to do with Republicans or Democrats. And with out-of-state money from billionaire-funded political action committees now becoming the norm, it will only get worse.
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.