Egan, Smittcamp address racial issues in Fresno County DA debate (video)

The Fresno BeeApril 30, 2014 

A strange thing happened Wednesday evening when incumbent Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan and her challenger, Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp, got together for the second debate in their contentious campaign.

They agreed on an issue.

The question was about ensuring ethnic diversity in the DA's office, and Egan touted her efforts to promote both women and minorities to upper management positions.

Employees are promoted because of their talent, not their race or gender, Egan said, but added that her office needs to be reflective of the region's diversity.

Smittcamp complimented Egan on the diversity of the DA's office. A 12-year member of the office until she resigned last August to challenge Egan, Smittcamp agreed that "we have a racially diverse office."

But by and large, the agreement ended there as the two candidates once again showed they are miles apart on how the office is run, the district attorney's role as the county's top prosecutor, staff turnover and just about everything else the office does.

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It was a decidedly different atmosphere from the first time the two clashed — a debate last month sponsored by the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, a pro-business Republican organization.

This time, sponsors for the standing-room only event — held in the Old Library in Fresno City College's Old Administration Building — included the American Civil Liberties Union of California, NAACP, Mexican American Political Association and the Central Valley Progressive PAC.

It showed in the questions. Egan and Smittcamp were asked about racial disparity in drug law enforcement, the best way to deal with low-level drug offenders, their position on officer-involved shootings and the death penalty, and sentencing under the state's Three Strikes law.

But the contentiousness of Round One was just as apparent in Round Two, especially from Smittcamp, who pressed her complaints about Egan's leadership and mixed her criticisms in her answers.

On the racial disparity in enforcing drug laws, Smittcamp said a key was to "get out into the community, and as the district attorney I will take on that role … not shutting myself up in an ivory tower."

It wasn't the last time Smittcamp would make an "ivory tower" reference and hit on one of her key campaign issues — that Egan was busy meeting with outside groups and doing other things that took her away from the office and its core mission, which is prosecuting criminals.

Egan suggested that Smittcamp lacked the understanding of how to run the office. She cited Smittcamp's statement that she'd personally prosecute cases as district attorney.

"It's not practical, because who is going to do my job," Egan said. If a district attorney is in court, she added, "then you're not doing your job."

Another area where the two clashed was on reducing jail overcrowding. The dueling answers hit on two big campaign issues — the DA's "filing team," which looks at criminal filings from the county's law enforcement agencies and determines whether they're ready to move forward or should be sent back to the agency, and office turnover.

Smittcamp said the filing department needs to be reviewed to see whether additional staffing is needed or whether different people should be in the office.

"We don't have to file cases that don't belong in the courts … and that is not happening right now," she said.

Smittcamp also said Egan and her second-in-command, Chief Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan, have chased away seasoned prosecutors in part because they don't allow them leeway to settle cases. Their replacements, Smittcamp said, are rookies unprepared for felony prosecutions.

Egan disagreed, saying her filing team is experienced, has good working relationships with the county's various law enforcement agencies and knows when to move forward on a case and when to send it back to a policing agency for more work.

As for staff turnover, Egan said departures have been consistent, at about 10 per year since she took the job. Most, she said, went on to better jobs. But the departures spiked after the Fresno County Board of Supervisors cut prosecutor pay.

"They've only walked away … because of the money," Egan said.

Not surprisingly, both Egan and Smittcamp found common ground on the death penalty and officer-involved shootings.

On the death penalty, Smittcamp said it should be "used very, very rarely"; Egan called it "the most solemn decision." But both noted the state's voters have reaffirmed its use.

As for officer-involved shootings, both said they're going to happen.

But, Smittcamp said, "officers don't shoot unless they are threatened." Egan called them "the bane of law enforcement" but said the "reality is, their lives are in danger and at times there are shootings."

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

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