Incumbent DA Valdez defends her performance, while other candidates at forum critique her office as lacking public’s trust

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Democratic candidates for Douglas County district attorney — from left, Tonda Hill, Dakota Loomis and incumbent Suzanne Valdez — are pictured at a candidate forum hosted by Women For Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library.

Incumbent District Attorney Suzanne Valdez on Saturday sought to defend her first-term performance as Douglas County’s chief law enforcement official as two other candidates vying for her job voiced concerns about the public’s eroding trust in her office and the charging decisions she has made.

The three candidates squared off at a standing-room-only Democratic primary forum hosted by Women For Kansas and moderated by associate professor of history Tai Edwards at the Lawrence Public Library. In attendance were Valdez and candidates Dakota Loomis and Tonda Hill. After the primary election in August, one of the three will face the sole Republican candidate, Mike Warner.

As the three candidates fielded questions, no one, including the moderator, mentioned the possibly biggest news story of Valdez’s tenure: the recent disciplinary hearing that resulted in the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator recommending that she be censured for unprofessional conduct toward the county’s chief judge, whom she called a liar and a sexist as the Journal-World reported. The Kansas Supreme Court has yet to rule on what discipline, if any, Valdez will face.

Both challengers, however, brought up the topic of a lack of public trust in the current system and said that they would make decisions about charging crimes more judiciously.

Loomis, who works both as a Lawrence-area defense attorney and as a prosecutor in Baldwin City, said that if he were elected he would work to bring dignity and respect back to the DA’s office and restore the community’s confidence in the court system.

“A lot of people who come into this system are worse for wear,” Loomis said.

Candidate Dakota Loomis talks with an attendee before a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

He said that he has seen in recent years that people involved in the Douglas County court system, whether as a criminal defendant or as a crime victim, often leave the system with less faith than they had going in. He said that negative experience made people recoil from wanting to participate. In some cases that may mean they won’t report a crime or in others that they think they won’t get a fair shake if they find themselves accused of a crime.

He said that the most important part of his candidacy would be to build relationships with the community, law enforcement and other stakeholders in the legal process.

Hill, who works as an assistant district attorney in Wyandotte County, said that she would plan to have a more hands-on and involved approach in the charging process. She said she has already made contact with local law enforcement to tell them that she would be an “on call” DA that they would have access to at any time to discuss charging decisions.

Hill said that her priority in those charging decisions would be to focus on violent offenders. She said she has done extensive work prosecuting sex offenders, which are some of the most violent offenses she has dealt with.

She said she would focus on prosecuting only those cases where investigators had collected solid evidence and wouldn’t be pressured to charge a crime where she believed evidence was lacking, regardless of any controversy that may come of such a decision. She said that unlike Loomis and Valdez she was not already entrenched in local politics and that her allegiance would always be to the people of Douglas County.

Candidate Tonda Hill talks to an attendee before a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

Valdez, for her part, said that in her nearly four years as DA she has regularly exercised prosecutorial independence. She said that when she was elected in 2020, unseating Democratic DA Charles Branson, she saw a need for change. She said she has delivered on promises she made then, which included supporting and broadening specialty courts for drug offenders and those with mental health problems.

She said that she has worked to balance prosecution of fentanyl dealers with working with addicts to try to address the ongoing opioid scourge that has claimed numerous lives locally.

Valdez also said that America has a history of using the court system to suppress people’s rights.

She then referred to Justin Spiehs, a man who regularly attends public meetings to give comment and has filed several lawsuits against the City of Lawrence and other government entities. Spiehs was in attendance Saturday carrying signs that said “Democrats are racist” and “Nazis work here.” Valdez said that she works to protect the rights of people like Spiehs who regularly expresses his First Amendment rights. Spiehs could be heard booing Valdez after each question she answered.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Justin Spiehs attends the Douglas County District Attorney candidate forum on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library.

The candidates were each asked what skills and expertise were needed to be the DA.

Valdez said that some of the most important skills were her administrative abilities and management expertise. She said the DA should be a practicing attorney who can handle cases. She said the DA should also be a policymaker who is prepared to enforce those internal policies.

Valdez said that while prosecuting violent crimes is a key part of the job, it isn’t the entire job.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Incumbent Suzanne Valdez talks with members of the crowd before a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

“Putting people in prison isn’t always the right thing to do,” Valdez said, referring to the specialty court programs.

She said she has worked to ensure that the Douglas County Jail is only housing violent criminals and not “bike thieves and pot smokers.” She said she has used her discretion to try to address inequities in the court system.

“The court system has been racist and misogynistic, and it takes prosecutors to change that,” Valdez said.

Loomis said the most important attributes for a DA are communication, trust and knowing what cases to bring and not to bring.

“I don’t believe the system works without trust,” Loomis said.

He said that while working in the rural communities of Douglas County especially he has heard that residents don’t trust the current administration. He said that the first skill he would impart to his staff is listening. He said listening to the community’s concerns would be critical in repairing the relationships between the DA’s office and its partners, such as law enforcement and social service providers.

He said that decision-making was vital to the job and that he would only move forward on cases where the evidence was solid.

Candidate Dakota Loomis speaks at a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

“The hardest thing to tell someone is that we can’t prosecute their case,” Loomis said.

He said that in some cases the victim’s story is believable and likely happened but that there isn’t enough additional evidence to show to a jury — and in those cases a prosecutor must make the hard decision not to charge the case.

Hill said that the skills she would bring to the office came from a lifetime of public service and the experiences of coming from a poor and disadvantaged background — experiences that have translated into a perspective of equity for those who are in and of the system.

She said she previously worked for the University of Kansas to recruit students into the school from more diverse backgrounds. Hill said that the DA should be someone who has experience with marginalized communities.

She said that when hiring for positions in her office she would first assess what resources were already in place and then build around that base. She said she would look to fill the office with experienced staff who could then mentor and help train those new to the job.

Candidate Tonda Hill speaks at a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

Loomis said he has spent the last 20 years developing relationships across the state and that if elected he would be able to tap into those networks to find qualified attorneys and staff who would help the office grow in a way that reflected the community.

He said that his staff would also follow his standards of treating everyone involved in the system with dignity and respect, which he said would give people a better perception of the court system.

Valdez said that her office has maintained an “egalitarian culture” that has no hierarchy of power. She said that each job in the office was just as important as another. She said that recruiting attorneys for the DA’s office is difficult because “no one wants to be a prosecutor” because it is a hard and stressful job.

Valdez said that she has worked to train younger attorneys in the office but that if those attorneys find themselves looking elsewhere that she supports them in that decision.

“When a new opportunity comes up, guess who is pushing them out the door? Me,” Valdez said.

The forum will soon be available to view on the Women for Kansas YouTube page, Edwards, the moderator said. Another forum is scheduled on June 28 at the Watkins Museum of History.

The primary election is Aug. 6. The deadline to register to vote in the primary is July 16.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Incumbent Suzanne Valdez speaks at a candidate forum for Douglas County District Attorney hosted by Women for Kansas on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

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