PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the important races in the 2024 election will be for district attorney in Multnomah County. The current district attorney is Mike Schmidt, who was elected in a lopsided victory in 2020 during racial justice protests.
Campaigning as a reformer of the criminal justice system, Schmidt won with 77% of the vote. But he's faced strong criticism during his first term from those who feel his policies have led to rising violence and crime.
So far, Schmidt is facing just one opponent, Nathan Vasquez, a career prosecutor and a senior deputy district attorney in Schmidt's office.
Schmidt joined Straight Talk with Laural Porter this week to talk about why he's running for re-election, why he thinks he deserves a second term, what he feels he's accomplished, whether he's delivered on those promises for reform, and if he's to blame for rising crime in Portland.
Here's an excerpt from the conversation with Schmidt. Watch the full show in the video at the top of this article.
Why do you want to run for re-election?
"When I ran in the first place, it was because I knew we could do things better, and by that, I mean do things to make us more safe as a community. I ran the criminal justice commission before I became the district attorney, and so I've been into data and research, I've gotten to travel the world, I went to Norway. We all have heard, over and over again, that the United States is the most incarcerated nation in the world. We're not the safest. We know that it can be done in smarter ways. And so my focus has been on smart reforms that I think bring together the reforms that will make us more safe by doing them."
What do you see as your biggest accomplishment since being elected?
"We've created a number of programs, things that I'm proud of. We started a new treatment court that I'm very proud of. The recidivism rate of that treatment court is 10%; recidivism, of course, meaning committing a new crime within three years. The same folks, when they get sent to prison, their recidivism rate is 50%. Very proud of that work, it's called the STEP Court.
"I'm proud of our justice integrity unit that works on getting old convictions right. You may have seen news about the Department of Motor Vehicles and a bunch of wrongful convictions from across the state. It was my office that uncovered that. And now we're talking about tens, if not dozens, of people who have been wrongfully convicted and we're correcting that.
"I've got prosecutors now back into communities. One of the first things when I was the district attorney, I met with other DAs from around the country, and they said, 'Multnomah County, you guys are leaders in neighborhood prosecution. How's that going?' And I said, 'that program was cut years ago.' They said, 'how can that be?' Since then, we've built it back, working with the county commission. I now have four prosecutors in neighborhoods so that they can work directly with community members to work on the issues that will make them feel more safe."
Why do you think public perception of your job performance is so low?
"I talk with community members all the time, people from Portland ... about what their issues are. And there is a feeling of unsafety, and I think we have to address that. That's why I'm working on things like auto theft, with our new auto theft task force, retail theft, obviously homicides and gun violence. I'm focusing on the issues that I think are driving a lot of members of our community not to feel safe."
At the beginning of your term, you dropped misdemeanor and felony charges against more than 500 protesters. Do you regret that?
"I don't regret that. You have to remember, I came in on the 60th day of the protests. My first day, the former district attorney resigned, the chief of police resigned, and I started on Aug. 1, day 60, right after the Trump administration had sent federal people to our streets to do all kinds of things, using munitions. And we've just seen report after report about the violence and the gas and other things being used by Portland police, and also by the federal troops who were sent here. So it was a very challenging time.
"I came out with a policy that said, look, if you're damaging windows, if you're destroying property, if you're lighting things on fire, we're going to prosecute you. If you're just in the streets and you're just demonstrating to say that our system is not getting it right, those aren't cases that we're going to use our resources on. I think it was the right policy. The challenge has been the messaging afterwards. I mean, Donald Trump was talking about me in speeches. And that messaging, I think, broke through, that, oh that means we're not prosecuting anything. Not true. Our prosecution rates in our office are now higher than what my predecessor's were. So we're doing the work, there's just some misinformation out there."
So you think you're prosecuting enough?
"Oh, I do. I do. What a lot of folks maybe don't understand, and it's a complex system, I can only prosecute cases where police officers make an arrest and have evidence. So we get those cases from them, they're kind of the pitchers, we're the catchers, we take those cases. And what I track is the percentage of the cases they're sending us, what percentage are we prosecuting? And that number has been going up consistently since I started, and now we're at a higher point than when my predecessor held this office. So, the way you get there is not by accident, it's by hard work and it's actually by collaboration with law enforcement partners, helping them on building better cases, gathering evidence, and then my prosecutors take it from there."
Do you think you have the support of the rank and file of the Portland Police Bureau?
"I go out with Portland police, I do ride-alongs, I went with the behavioral health unit, I've gone with the FIT team, which is the focused intervention team that works on gun violence, I've attended the citizens academy, I meet with the chief on a regular basis. Like I talked about, these two new task forces that we've got, the retail theft and the auto theft, which are getting really great results, even early on, are showing that collaboration. So I think it's growing. I started in a tough point, I started in a tough spot in the protests, but we're working together and we're getting good results."
Schmidt also answers questions about the public defender crisis, Measure 110, Jesse Calhoun, running against Nathan Vasquez, and why he thinks he should be re-elected. Watch the full video to hear what he had to say on those topics and more. Schmidt also stuck around for a bonus episode, which you can watch here.