Progressives tested in three northern Virginia Democratic DA primaries

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Progressives tested in three northern Virginia Democratic DA primaries

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A trio of Democratic district attorneys who have faced criticism and recall efforts in northern Virginia are being challenged Tuesday by members of their own party who say they’ve done a poor job handling high-profile cases and claim gross mismanagement of their offices have put nearly 2 million residents at risk.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve DescanoLoudoun County Commonwealth’s Buta Biberaj, and Arlington-Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti were elected in 2019 as part of a wave of progressive candidates who campaigned on transparency and making law enforcement fairer. They were supported by Democratic megadonor George Soros’ Justice & Public Safety PAC, which spent millions helping them defeat former incumbents in the primaries and saw Biberaj through a tight general election race against Republican candidate Nicole Wittmann.

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In 2021, Descano, Biberaj, and Dehghani-Tafti were targeted by Virginians for Safe Communities, a Republican-linked group that has tried to brand Democrats as soft on crime by targeting progressive prosecutors. Sean Kennedy, the group’s president, told the New York Times that the decision to go after Virginia prosecutors was part of a broader push to harness voters’ concerns about crime rates and a response to anti-police sentiment.

“All things in politics have their time, and now is the moment that people who are for law enforcement have woken up,” he said, adding that the recall efforts in Northern Virginia were a “test case to launch nationwide.”

Prosecutors across counties in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin will be on next year’s ballot. How the primary races play out Tuesday in Virginia could provide a snapshot of what’s to come.

In Fairfax, Descano will square off against Ed Nuttall, a trial lawyer known for defending officers charged in police shootings.

“I’m not a politician,” Nuttall recently told 7News. “I got into this race at the end of January because I had a front-row seat to the dumpster fire that is the Fairfax County Courthouse in the last three and a half years. I am prepared to make significant changes to protect our vulnerable population, but also to hold violent offenders accountable.”

Descano and Nuttall traded barbs in April after appearing together on WAMU’s The Politics Hour, with Descano accusing Nuttall of befriending “MAGA, antisemitic conspiracy theorists” and Nuttall responding by calling him “incompetent” and a “liar.” The candidates also disagreed on how the office should handle cases involving police officers, as well as where to allocate funds, and how to support victims of violent crimes.

Descano stood by his record and said he’s made the office more professional by adding new hires, improving the electronic database, and focusing on diversion programs, which he said made the community feel safe.

However, Descano has been dinged for losing winnable cases, including one in which a drunk school bus driver swerved off the road with 44 kindergarteners, injuring nine. The case fell apart because Descano’s staff missed multiple deadlines for supplying evidentiary material to the driver’s lawyer. In the end, instead of facing nine felonies, Descano’s staff agreed to let the driver plead no contest to three misdemeanors.

His office has also been taken to task for botching up evidence in a sexual assault case involving an 11-year-old who was sodomized. His mother got the suspect to admit to the assault in a phone call recorded by the police, but a judge ruled the confession was inadmissible because the evidence wasn’t handled properly by Descano’s office.

In Loudoun County, Biberaj is running against former public defender Elizabeth Lancaster, who has claimed the high turnover rate in Biberaj’s office has hampered the ability to prosecute cases successfully.

Biberaj made waves in December after she announced her office would no longer prosecute certain misdemeanor charges in an effort to focus on more violent crimes. Misdemeanors such as public intoxication, reckless driving, trespassing, petty larceny, hit-and-runs, failure to appear in court, and more would be deferred to local courts and law enforcement.

Biberaj has found herself under a microscope in Loudoun’s culture wars as well. She sought charges against the father of a girl who had been sexually assaulted in a high school bathroom after he got into a fight at a school board meeting. Pictures of Scott Smith being dragged out of the meeting and arrested for protesting proposed transgender policies went viral. He was ridiculed on social media and painted by some as a right-wing extremist and bigot.

Biberaj has also gotten into clashes with the Republican sheriff and the Democratic-controlled Board of Supervisors and has failed to make inroads.

Lancaster said she’s running to be the county’s top prosecutor to restore competency to the office and has made headlines for criticizing prosecutors for missing important court deadlines that could cost them cases. However, she missed her own first Virginia Board of Elections campaign finance report, due on April 17. She attributed it to handling a heavy caseload.

“Sometimes you just don’t get s*** done,” she said. She filed her report on June 3 and was fined $100 by the Loudoun Office of Elections. 

In Arlington, Commonwealth’s Attorney Dehghani-Tafti is being challenged by Josh Katcher, a former prosecutor in her office who claims his ex-boss’s management style has led to an exodus in the office.

“We are failing to produce a 21st-century reform prosecution agenda,” Katcher told the Arlington Connection. “We have an office in free fall.”

While Dehghani-Tafti has brought fewer cases than her predecessor, she has achieved a higher conviction rate by not stacking charges, the Washington Post reported, adding that “she has also shown a willingness to make — and own — difficult choices.”

Dehghani-Tafti resisted pressure to try a 17-year-old as an adult in a vehicular manslaughter case, telling the outlet, “You can’t be guided by emotion, even when it’s genuine and horrifying.”

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She has also accused Katcher of being in the pocket of Republicans, claiming more than 25% of his individual campaign donors are Republicans who have also given thousands of dollars to former President Donald Trump.

“Not true,” Katcher said. “Where can she even get numbers like this? A better point is I have raised more dollars from Democratic donors than she has. She is preying on low-information voters.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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