Douglas County district attorney candidates answer colleagues’ questions, address experience in bar forum
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Candidates for Douglas County district attorney took questions from their colleagues and peers during a forum Thursday evening, with less than two weeks remaining before the Aug. 4 Democratic primary.
The Douglas County Bar Association forum, moderated by bar president Andy Bauch, asked several individual questions of candidates Cooper Overstreet, Suzanne Valdez and incumbent Charles Branson. Bauch, who is an assistant district attorney who has been on military leave for the past 11 months and soon will continue on leave, said questions came from the members of the bar and what they’ve heard from their friends and neighbors.
Bauch touched on each candidate’s experience and qualifications during the 90-minute forum. He asked Overstreet, a defense attorney who has spent the last six years or so with the law office of Sarah Swain, about what professional and managerial experience he would bring. Bauch said Overstreet has never prosecuted a case and had three jury trials in Douglas County.
“I don’t have experience throwing people in jail; that’s not what I’ve done for the last five years,” Overstreet said. Instead, he’s worked as a defense attorney across the state. He said that right now, protesters taking to the streets all across the country are not calling for the folks who are in charge of the system to do more training or to “do a little bit better”; they want to completely reimagine the legal system.
He said his office wouldn’t look to convict as many people as possible, but rather look at how to help the community and keep it safe by helping people access resources they need. He also said he would “place a premium” on hiring prosecutors who care about seeking justice fairly and smartly, not career prosecutors who are seeking convictions.
Valdez is a law professor at the University of Kansas and a special prosecutor for the Wyandotte County district attorney’s office. Bauch asked her about how many cases had been assigned to her in that role and which ones were the most serious.
She said she’s had two stints in roles with that office. From 2005 to 2008, she was a special assistant prosecutor, so she handled a wide range of cases and proceedings, including traffic cases, diversions, preliminary hearings and ultimately higher-level felony trials. She said she tried one case on her own and handled four or five as second chair.
During her current stint, from 2017 to present, cases have been assigned to her when there could be a conflict for the prosecutors in the office. She said she’s handled many preliminary hearings that have resulted in “very fair” plea deals, and she tried the last jury trial right before COVID-19 hit. That case was for charges of robbery, kidnapping and possession of methamphetamine, she said, and the most serious case she’s tried was an aggravated robbery.
Branson has held his office for nearly 16 years and never faced a challenger since he was first elected. Bauch asked him about a statement he’s made in multiple forums. Bauch said Branson has claimed that the job of district attorney is “not one you can learn on the job.”
“Didn’t you do this very thing when you were first elected in 2004?” Bauch asked.
Branson said that no, he was a “nine-year veteran litigator” when he took office. He said he had worked as a city prosecutor for Eudora, sat as a pro tem judge in Douglas County District Court and tried “many, many” cases to conclusion, from misdemeanors and traffic cases to high-level felonies. He said he thinks he came into the office with “a book of experience that is not presently matched by either one of my opponents.” He said he’s dealt with hundreds of victims and witnesses over the years, and his experience made his taking office successful.
In a later question to Branson, Bauch asked about alternatives to incarceration programs the office has helped to start in the past few years: pretrial release, a diversion program for women and specialty courts, for instance. Bauch said given that Branson has been DA for 15 years but the programs were created in the past few years and have served “very few defendants,” what would he say to voters who believe it’s too little, too late?
Branson said that starting programs like those has to be done in collaboration with other groups and people, including the courts. When he first ran, no one talked about “diversion rates,” he said — “that wouldn’t have gotten you elected, frankly.” He said his office has to adapt and change to better fit the needs of the community. Programs such as behavioral health court and drug court are small and time-consuming, but they’re keeping people away from the system, Branson said.
Bauch asked Overstreet about a campaign pledge to eliminate cash bail, which the district attorney does not have the authority to do under state law. He asked what justification Overstreet had to keep promising he would do that.
Overstreet said the DA has the authority to request that judges set cash bonds at defendants’ first appearances. He said he would have a default policy to request that defendants be released on their own recognizance pending trial. He said cash bail is racist, and that it’s a problem that is driving mass incarceration in this country. He said he would act as a leader on the issue.
Bauch asked Valdez about her previous voter registration. As the Journal-World has reported, Valdez was registered as a Republican from 2000 to 2008, was unaffiliated from 2008 to 2014 and had been a Republican from 2014 until she switched to the Democratic Party in January of this year.
“My record speaks for itself … I have a social justice heart; I really want to do the right thing,” Valdez said. She said she really was a “Bob Dole Republican,” and that this office is supposed to be nonpolitical. She said she entered the race for all the right reasons, and she believes that she has the qualities to serve. She said her ideals have aligned with the Democratic party “even more so than our current district attorney” in terms of where she thinks the office needs to go.
The full video of the forum is available on the Douglas County Bar Association’s Facebook page.
The last day to request an advance mail ballot is July 28. The next DA will most likely be decided in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary as no Republicans filed for the seat. For more information or to request an advance ballot, visit douglascountyelections.com or ksvotes.org.
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More 2020 election coverage: Douglas County district attorney race
• April 28, 2020: District Attorney Charles Branson files for reelection in 2020
• April 16, 2020: Two Democrats file to run for Douglas County district attorney