Fresno County DA race: Smittcamp wins big over incumbent Egan

The Fresno BeeJune 3, 2014 

Come January, Fresno County will have a new district attorney.

Challenger Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp parlayed a massive campaign war chest and one of the best known last names in the region into a double-digit election lead -- and almost certain victory Tuesday night -- over her former boss, Elizabeth Egan.

With all precincts reporting, Smittcamp had 58.3% of the vote to Egan's 41.3%.

Smittcamp jumped to the big lead earlier Tuesday evening when the initial batch of more than 51,000 vote-by-mail ballots was counted. Each time the Fresno County Elections Office updated its vote count, the lead grew.

Even early in the evening, when far fewer votes had been counted, there was a celebratory mood at The Lime Lite, the restaurant where Smittcamp held a party packed with her supporters. And at that time, Smittcamp's tentative comments fit the moment.

As the evening pushed past 11:30 p.m., however, Smittcamp's feeling that victory was in her grasp grew.

"I am not a political aficionado, but the numbers are very encouraging, and I believe we are headed for victory," she said.

By contrast, Egan -- in an impromptu news conference a few miles away at The Landmark restaurant in the Tower District -- started off by speaking in the past tense, as if she already had lost the race. She quickly corrected herself, then called it "a long, hard campaign."

"I hope voters look past the last four months and look at my 11 years in office," she said. "The DA's Office did an incredible job and did it with shoestring budgets. I hope the voters give me four more years."

She couldn't be reached for additional comment later in the night.

The initial results showing a double-digit gap between Smittcamp and Egan weren't indicative of the pitched, sometimes ugly campaign waged by the two contenders that gave it the feel of a neck-and-neck battle.

In the end, Smittcamp and Egan collectively raised -- and spent -- more than $1 million, with Smittcamp accounting for two-thirds of that amount.

Smittcamp's family -- including father-in-law Bob -- were her main financial supporters. That included almost $126,000 in contributions from the Smittcamp family owned Wawona Packing and $50,000 from Lyons Magnus, the Fresno beverage and frozen- and canned-fruit company operated by Bob Smittcamp.

That kind of money gave her the power to take on a sitting incumbent who was unopposed in two re-election bids after initially being elected to the office in 2002.

The Smittcamp family name -- well known to voters across Fresno County -- also helped.

Egan said she was at a loss to explain how the race went nuclear, but she did say that legal and public policy issues related to the DA's Office were complex and not suited to short debate answers.

But the two seemed to square off more in dueling television commercials and negative campaign mail pieces than in the few times they met face to face in campaign forums.

At this time last year, it appeared the DA's post was Egan's to hold for as long as she wanted. But Smittcamp quit her job in August and by late October had opened an official campaign committee.

In just a few months, Smittcamp already had raised more than $250,000.

Still, Egan seemed to hold a key advantage: Where was the outrage? There were no major problems evident to the general public.

There was, however, discord in the office, with much of it centered on Chief Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan. There were allegations of micromanagement, low morale and quality prosecutors fleeing the office.

It appears Smittcamp was able to convey that office turmoil to voters. It also helped that she won the endorsements of the associations representing both prosecutors and investigators in Egan's office.

Egan and Smittcamp also haggled over conviction rates, plea bargaining and early releases from the Fresno County Jail.

The battle between Egan and Smittcamp became increasingly heated as the election approached, forcing people to take sides in business, political, legal and law enforcement communities.

Hard feelings are still at a high level.

Smittcamp, however, had a definite edge in her endorsements, especially in law enforcement and legal circles.

Egan had Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, former sheriffs Richard Pierce and Steve Magarian, the Fresno County Deputy Sheriffs Association -- and the claim in campaign mailers to be law enforcement's choice.

But Smittcamp had Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno County Prosecutors Association, Fresno County District Attorney Investigators Association, Fresno Police Officers Association, Fresno Sheriff's Sergeants Association, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson and five major city police officer associations around the county.

As the election drew closer, Smittcamp continued to pick up more endorsements.

Earlier in the campaign, Egan would counter each Smittcamp announcement -- be it an endorsement or even her initial campaign announcement -- with an endorsement of her own.

But as Smittcamp's campaign started surging, Egan found herself without any new endorsements. Instead, she ended up having to remind voters of supporters she already had.

The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com, (559) 441-6320 or @johnellis24 on Twitter. Staff writers Brianna Vaccari and George Hostetter contributed to this story.

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