Former employee Smittcamp to challenge incumbent Fresno County DA Egan

The Fresno BeeOctober 31, 2013 

Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan has gone unchallenged in two re-election bids since fending off four challengers in 2002 to win the office.

Not this time, it appears.

Former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp opened an official campaign committee last week and all indications are that she will officially announce her candidacy in a few weeks. In fact, she already sounds like a candidate.

"I am running for DA because I have seen, firsthand for 12 years, the inner working of Mrs. Egan's administration -- and I think I can do it better," Smittcamp said in an interview Thursday.

Countywide offices are up for election in the June primary; if there's a need for a run-off, it'll happen in November 2014.

Smittcamp, 44, joined the Fresno County District Attorney's Office in 2001 after a four-year tenure in the major crimes unit with the Madera County District Attorney's office. She started her legal career at one of Fresno's premier law firms -- McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth.

She left the DA's office in August knowing she was running for the top spot. Staying while she ran against her boss, she said, would have caused friction in the office.

Several local political and legal experts predicted a heated race not only because the Smittcamp name is known in Fresno County, but also because Lisa Smittcamp will almost certainly cast herself as someone who worked in the DA's office and knows where improvements are needed. In doing so, they added, she will probably cite specifics, which could result in political fireworks.

That said, the consensus is that Egan has the upper hand out of the gate.

"People are going to get emotionally charged about the race, so it is not as plain vanilla as other races," said David Schecter, a Fresno State political science professor. "At the same time, the incumbent advantage is really hard to overcome."

Anthony Capozzi -- a longtime defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1989 -- agreed.

"Politically it's going to be difficult to unseat an incumbent district attorney who really hasn't done anything terribly wrong," he said. "We haven't seen an outcry of something major we need to change."

Still, Smittcamp isn't just any name. Her father-in-law is prominent Fresno businessman Bob Smittcamp.

"It's a legacy name in the community, which could be helpful to her," Schecter said.

Smittcamp graduated from San Joaquin Memorial High School before earning an undergraduate degree in English literature at the University of Southern California. She got a law degree from the San Joaquin College of Law in 1995 and was admitted to the State Bar in June 1996.

She is listed as Lisa Ann Sondergaard on the State Bar website, which she said was her professional name. Given her job as a prosecutor, leaving Smittcamp off gave her family some protection, she said.

Smittcamp said she's been mulling a run for awhile.

Besides believing she "can do a better job," Smittcamp said she also is running because she thinks she'll better be able to mentor young attorneys to make them better prosecutors, and also because she has a "passion for helping victims of crime."

Egan, 54, didn't return a phone call or email seeking comment, but late Thursday she issued a news release touting her endorsement by the Fresno Deputy Sheriff's Association.

"As a candidate for re-election I am very grateful to receive the endorsement of the men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe," Egan said in the release.

The release also touted endorsements by Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and former sheriffs Richard Pierce and Steve Magarian.

Fresno Deputy Sheriff's Association President Eric Schmidt said Thursday that Egan won the group's endorsement hands down. There was no need to interivew Sondergaard, he said.

"We're partners not only in prosecutions, but in protecting the citizens of this county," Schmidt said of Egan. "She hasn't done anything wrong."

Egan became Fresno County's first-ever woman district attorney when she won the seat in 2002, beating now-Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton in a runoff after the duo finished one-two in a five-person primary election.

At the time, the seat was open after District Attorney Ed Hunt said he wouldn't seek re-election.

Egan was unchallenged in 2006 and 2010.

This time, experts said, Egan and Smittcamp must make their pitch not to the county's legal community, but to the average voter who likely has minimal contact, if any, with the District Attorney's Office.

Egan, Schecter said, will likely say " 'I've kept you safe and put the bad guys behind bars.' That could be a compelling case. Those cases are hard to counter."

For someone unknown outside the legal community like Smittcamp, it will take money to counter that message. Being a Smittcamp likely will help in fund-raising, Schecter said.

"While there may be a lot of money involved on the Smittcamp side, that is not to say Egan can't call in her chits and make sure she is fully funded," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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