Paige Clarkson, left and Spencer Todd, right are running for Marion County district attorney. (Candidate submitted photos)

The race for Marion County district attorney in the May 17 primary draws the incumbent and a Salem-based public defender.

Spencer Todd is the only candidate to challenge sitting District Attorney Paige Clarkson since Gov. Kate Brown appointed her in 2018.

Clarkson, 48, believes her 20 years of experience as a prosecutor makes her better equipped to serve as Marion County’s top law enforcement official over Todd, who said concerns about how Clarkson operates motivated him to run.

Clarkson said she has handled every kind of criminal case from trespassing and DUI to aggravated murder. As district attorney, she said she essentially runs a large law firm with a $16 million budget, 100 employees and 50 more volunteers that work at any given time to help crime victims.

“This isn’t a starter job,” she told Salem Reporter in an interview. “That takes experience, that takes someone who understands budgets, who understands personnel, who understands working in a union environment.”

Clarkson was a Marion County deputy district attorney from 1999 until 2018. She ran unopposed for district attorney in the May election that year and was set to take over in January 2019, but was appointed to the post three months early to replace Walt Beglau when he stepped down.

She is married to Jason Van Meter, the police chief of the Black Butte Ranch Police Department in Sisters. Van Meter also worked for the Salem Police Department for 17 years and is a veteran.

Clarkson said her biggest unexpected challenge as district attorney was trying to continue running a criminal justice system after the pandemic hit Oregon. In March 2020, she called the county’s presiding judge and arranged for her office to have weekly meetings with the Marion County Circuit Court, the public defender’s office and a public defender that contracts with the county.

“Because of that we were able to problem solve in Marion County those issues that we've seen really plague other counties,” she said, “We still have a backlog (of cases) but we aren't anywhere near what other counties are in trying to facilitate that and trying to fix that.”

Clarkson said one effort she’s most proud of is starting the county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which diverts people who commit minor crimes away from the justice system and into services.

“We can do in just a matter of 48 hours something that the system was not equipped to do in that space of time,” she said.

Under her leadership, she said the district attorney’s office assigned a special prosecutor for human trafficking cases, and began working with police to help connect victims with an attorney and other services instead of citing them for prostitution.

“We're able to use their information to actually get at the real problem, which is the traffickers,” she said.

Todd, 33, worked at the Marion County Circuit Court as a courtroom clerk, filing clerk and jury coordinator before starting law school, during which he clerked for multiple defense attorneys. He worked as a court-appointed lawyer in Polk County after graduating in 2013 and has done so in Marion County since 2015.

He said he has done pro bono legal work for a number of cases and consultations in the past five years, representing victims - such as women who obtained restraining orders their partners contested - and people objecting to their family members or others seeking guardianship over them.

In his nearly 10 years as a court-appointed defense attorney, Todd said he has learned the importance of individual prosecution.

He recalled a case in which a client wanted a no contact order against her husband lifted. In a one-time incident, he said, she had pushed the husband, who pushed her back and was later charged with harassment.

“We went to court and we argued in front of a judge about this, and my client said, ‘I'm more victimized by the process and the no contact order than I am by my husband's conduct,’” he said. “That's a good example of one of the aspects of the job as I envision it, which is set a policy that is good, but then treat every case on a case-by-case basis and where policies aren't right, do something different."

In a recent case, Todd remembered thinking when a client was sentenced to probation, “Boy, if this weren't my job to get him this deal, I would be pretty upset that he's not going to prison,” he said. “But the thing that I try to explain to people is that what the Constitution requires of me right now in my job is different than what the Constitution requires of a district attorney.”

He said Clarkson should not be re-elected “because she doesn’t show up to work and take cases,” adding that the district attorney personally should be doing run-of-the-mill prosecutions and having direct conversations with victims.

“She needs to be in court, she needs to be representing the public in the way that we expect her to represent us,” he said.

Clarkson said it is inefficient for her to prosecute a DUI case or other minor offense.

“I think that's the answer of a really ignorant, naïve individual who's never worked in a DA’s office, she said. “I have done that my entire career, so for someone to criticize that is actually somebody who just wants on-the-job training. He would have to go into court and handle cases and talk to victims, he would have no idea how to do that otherwise.”

Todd in response said Clarkson hasn’t worked in courtrooms since taking office in 2018 and, like himself, had no prior experience as a public official.

Crime reduction

Over the past couple of years, Clarkson said the district attorney’s office prioritized prosecution of violent crime.

She couldn’t say whether her choices resulted in lower crime in any category.

“Crime prevention is not necessarily my job. It is accountability for people that commit them,” she said.

When asked if she would change her approach to prosecuting those considered homeless who commit crimes, Clarkson said, “We don't prosecute the homeless for being homeless. We do prosecute individuals who commit crime, who hurt other people and who are violent in camps.”

“We have to start holding folks accountable, and if they want better, we need to support social services that will come along alongside them,” she said. “But if they don't want better and if all they want to do is victimize our community, stay in drug addiction, victimize other folks, we have to say that that's not going to happen here.”

Todd said he has represented many clients who are homeless for different reasons, but if someone commits a crime, “there has to be something done” on a case-by-case basis.

“Do I think incarcerating a homeless person for a long period of time is a good use of resources if they break a window or do some minor thing? No, of course not,” he said. “But some accountability more than zero needs to happen, and I think that some accountability more than zero will lead to a reduction in the rate of crime in the community.”

One alternative to jail, he said, for some offenders with mental health issues would be getting family members to establish guardianship to place them in secure group homes. He also supports a mobile crisis response program similar to CAHOOTS, where mental health workers respond to some crisis calls instead of police, which he said would reduce officers’ responses to minor crimes and make better use of resources.

Todd said he believes Marion County needs more police officers focused on community policing, talking to local businesses and people on the street or offering safe rides.

“I really do think that the relationship between the public and the police might be the public safety issue of our time, and rebuilding that relationship, I don't think that there's anything that could make us safer than that,” he said.

A “day one” priority for Todd, he said, is changing the way prosecutors use the Brady list, which tracks police officers’ misconduct. Placement on the Brady list means prosecutors won’t call the officer as a witness for credibility reasons, “which means they essentially lose their job and can’t be a law enforcement officer,” he said.

Todd said he would create one that breaks officers down into those with no misconduct reported, those with misconduct reported who still keep their job, and those under the current list. He also wants to create a Brady Council that includes a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, law enforcement officer and community member to give input before the district attorney puts an officer on the list.

He said one of his frustrations with Clarkson’s office is prosecutors’ hesitation to motivate cooperation by people who are charged, such as not guaranteeing a specific deal for them to testify against another person.

“Not enough credence is given to the fix versus the punishment,” he said, adding that Clarkson’s office doesn’t often enough give people an opportunity for probation.

Clarkson responded that Todd was inexperienced and speaking from the perspective of a criminal defense attorney “whose whole job is to minimize accountability.”

“The frustration that prosecutors hear all the time from our community and from victims is not that this defendant didn't get enough chances. It's that this defendant got too many chances,” she said.

Todd clarified he wants to prevent crime without prison sentences where possible.

“If we can turn someone from an offender into a contributing member of society without sending them to prison, that is a net benefit for all of us,” he said.

Addiction and drug trafficking

If elected, Todd said he would explore something similar to Idaho’s treatment program, which allows people to avoid a prison sentence by pleading guilty, getting into treatment and getting sober in a given period.

“Fixing someone's drug addiction, fixing someone's anger problem, fixing someone's mental health situation makes us a lot safer than sending them to prison where we spend a bunch of money and don't solve their problem,” he said.

Clarkson said the passing of Measure 110 last fall has made work more difficult for prosecutors and law enforcement, who can no longer disrupt drug trafficking organizations without contact with buyers.

The law decriminalized possession of small quantities of heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs, intended to treat addiction as a health matter instead of a criminal concern and invest in grants to expand treatment and referral centers.

Clarkson said the law made Oregon an attractive target for large drug trafficking, which has historically resulted in violence, theft, burglary weapon offenses and other crimes.

“My concern with Ballot Measure 110 is absolutely accessibility of drugs. It's also acceptability of drugs. Once you decriminalize something, you are communicating to an entire generation that it's just not that big of a deal,” she said. “I think from a public safety perspective, it's not going to play out well for our communities.”

When asked about the role for the prosecution system as a stopgap until treatment is developed through Measure 110, Todd said it’s one of the “fundamental differences” he has with his opponent.

“If a policy changes, if a ruling comes down from the judiciary, if some outside source that isn't in your control does something, all you can do is lead, adapt, adjust, figure out a way,” he said. “Excuses are the wrong way to be when you're a public official. The public doesn't want excuses, even if it's not your fault.”

Clarkson said some circumstances are out of her control, such as “a governor who lets a lot of nonviolent people out of prison.”

Clarkson has been vocal in opposing Brown’s clemency decisions to grant early releases from prison and commuting the sentences of dozens Oregonians for crimes committed as minors.

Campaign cash:

Clarkson has raised $86,057 in cash contributions and $68,073 in in-kind contributions as of April 27 - about $39,065 from individuals and small donors, $57,500 from businesses and $49,065 from political action committees.

Her largest donors are Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee, with $41,100 in in-kind contributions; Oregon Excellence, LLC, a consulting firm owned by Salem attorney Kevin Mannix, with $18,000 in in-kind contributions; and Mountain West Investment Corporation and Cascade Floors, each with $10,000 in cash contributions. (Disclosure: Larry Tokarski, Mountain West president, is also a co-founder of Salem Reporter.)

She has spent $44,975 on her campaign.

Todd has raised $236,107 in cash contributions and $10,469 in in-kind contributions to date - about $205,340 from individuals and small donors and $33,500 from businesses.

He has spent $165,437 on his campaign.

His largest donor, with $50,000, is Aaron Boonshoft, a Portland philanthropist who has backed a ballot initiative to decriminalize sex work in Oregon, according to the Associated Press. Todd's second-largest donor is Salem-based financial planning company Opal Creek Capital, LLC, with $21,000.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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