Fresno County DA's race: Why Lisa Smittcamp won so big

The Fresno BeeJune 4, 2014 

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District Attorney candidate at right Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp during election night on June 3, 2014.

MARK CROSSE — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp used name recognition, a stack of high-profile endorsements and a handful of key issues to oust Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan from the office she's held for nearly 12 years.

Perhaps most important, Smittcamp had the money to exploit those advantages to win election Tuesday in the central San Joaquin Valley's highest-profile race in the June primary.

Egan, on the other hand, may have started contributing to her own demise years ago by not fully pressing the powers of incumbency by publicizing her office the same way as Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.

And when Egan found herself in a competitive campaign after free passes in 2006 and 2010, she chose to attack Smittcamp -- using cases and incidents that happened while she was Smittcamp's boss -- instead of touting the successes of her office.

Add it together, and the result is a convincing win for Smittcamp.

"It was like a perfect storm," said Anthony Capozzi, a longtime defense attorney in Fresno and former federal prosecutor who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1989. "Things just started happening."

After the first round of counting was finished early Wednesday, Smittcamp was up 12,875 votes, with only 26,100 ballots -- 22,500 vote-by-mail and 3,600 provisional -- left to count. Egan would have to win 75% of the outstanding ballots, when she's been winning only 41.3% of them so far, to catch Smittcamp.

It's a task that is all but impossible, and both Egan and Smittcamp know it.

"I am very honored to have served as Fresno County's district attorney for the last 12 years and to have worked with so many fine professionals in the law enforcement community, including Sheriff Margaret Mims and the members of the Fresno County Deputy Sheriffs Association, leaders from crime victims groups, the judicial branch and the community," Egan said in a written statement released Wednesday. "The DA's office will continue to focus on keeping our community safe while I serve the remainder of my term."

Smittcamp put a statement on her website that said, in part: "I trust that the current district attorney and myself will make this transition as smooth and seamless as possible. We are all dedicated to serving the public, and no one wants to jeopardize public safety in the process."

Smittcamp and others reflected Wednesday on how she beat Egan.

Key endorsements

"There was no one defining moment," Smittcamp said. "It was just a very consistent progression of momentum that we built."

She said the Fresno Police Officers' Association endorsement in March started the ball rolling. Police officer associations in outlying communities followed, and then Dyer and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Smittcamp also said Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas' endorsement was "really big" because it "gave prosecutors hope there was some possibility of communicating with the board."

Some prosecutors told Dyer it was his endorsement that gave them the push their association needed to endorse Smittcamp.

It wasn't easy for the group to buck its boss, Egan. Initially, the association did not think Smittcamp would win, Dyer explained. Once he gave his endorsement of Smittcamp, they could "see Lisa win."

Egan too quiet?

Capozzi said Egan's own style probably hurt her, too. She never seemed much for self-promotion, rarely calling a news conference to tout a conviction or speaking to service clubs.

"She's being criticized for being a politician," Capozzi said. "She wasn't a politician. She's more of a low-key type of person. She's not someone who is going to run to the press to promote herself."

Egan usually was there when Dyer or Mims or the U.S. Attorney's Office highlighted an arrest or a conviction or a program. But Egan didn't always talk.

"She should have held a news conference to talk about how she was protecting the public," Capozzi said. "She didn't promote that office."

It didn't matter when Egan wasn't challenged. Then Smittcamp came along. She talked about low office morale and high turnover. She questioned Egan's ethics and her commitment to the job.

Money was never an issue. In the latest campaign funding disclosures released late last month, Smittcamp reported raising more than $685,000 to Egan's $430,000. Smittcamp was able to flood voters with her message using television and radio ads, mail pieces and a paid campaign staff.

At the same time, Capozzi said, unhappiness inside Egan's office hurt, especially when both the prosecutors and investigators associations endorsed Smittcamp.

But he also said Egan "ran the wrong kind of campaign. It shouldn't have been about plea bargains or how Smittcamp ran a case."

Instead, Capozzi said, Egan should have highlighted the declining crime rate, her push for victim's rights and her office's attendance at parole hearings, where they opposed the release of prisoners.

"The Egan campaign should have dealt more with the successes of her office," Capozzi said. "They only talked about the negatives, and never about her positives."

Long transition period

With the race done, there's still six months until Egan leaves office and Smittcamp takes over.

Smittcamp said she'll use the time to talk with "law enforcement contacts that I have and trying to establish a path to repair these relationships."

She said she also wants to talk to community members who reached out to her during the campaign, including those representing mental health services, addictive disorder services and the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program.

"My time will be donated to the county to prepare this work so I can hit the ground running in January," Smittcamp said. "I will do all I can externally without interfering with the DA's office."

Mims, who endorsed Egan and has worked with no other Fresno County district attorney since first being elected in 2006, said she's looking forward to getting to know Smittcamp better.

"There has to be a transition," Mims said. "I'm willing to be helpful in any part of that transition I can be. I'm looking forward to getting on with the business of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating. I want to be a good partner."

Dyer said he'll reach out to Egan supporters in the coming weeks with the hope of healing rifts. That process, he said, might be slower coming inside the district attorney's office.

"I think the internal healing in the DA's office is going to occur much easier when Lisa assumes office, obviously because she had incredible internal support from the prosecutors and the investigators," Dyer said. "It has to be very challenging in the DA's office right now."

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

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