In a contentious series of exchanges that marked their first debate, candidates for Arlington commonwealth’s attorney left no doubt they have decidedly different views on the role of prosecutor – and aren’t particularly fond of one another, either.
Parisa Tafti, who is taking on two-term incumbent Theo Stamos in the June 11 Democratic primary, suggested Stamos was out of touch with current thinking on criminal-justice issues, and was simply mouthing support for reforms.
“Where has she been for the last seven years, and where will she be when she no longer has a primary opponent?” Tafti asked during an often tense 60-minute April 3 forum, which drew 200 to the monthly meeting of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
Stamos gave as good as she got, ridiculing the contention that Arlington was a “hotbed of racial discrimination” as “an indictment of our entire community.”
“She doesn’t want to focus on the facts,” Stamos said of Tafti, suggesting the challenger believes “that there’s some sort of monolithic and oppressive regime” running the county government and court system.
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Beyond the headline-grabbing attacks, the two candidates squared off on a host of substantive issues, from prosecution of marijuana cases and use of the death penalty to racial disparities in prosecution and restoration of voting rights. Issues related to drugs and mental illness also were highlighted in the debate, moderated by Krysta Jones.
But it was the zingers that left an impression:
• “You don’t need to be tough [on crime] if you’re smart [on crime],” said Tafti, legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “We need to keep rigorous data and share it with the public.”
• “This is not an entry-level job,” said Stamos, who has served three decades in the prosecutor’s office. As to Tafti’s focus on rights of the accused: “We already have a public defender in Arlington,” Stamos said.
Asked about the death penalty, Tafti didn’t directly answer whether she would refuse to seek it under any circumstances. Stamos suggested she would continue to keep it as an option “for the most heinous and serious offenses and offenders,” but would let the legislature make the ultimate call on its fate.
“If the General Assembly were to repeal it tomorrow, I’d be just fine with that,” Stamos said.
Maybe the most heated moment of the night came when Stamos was asked if she saw racial disparities in the number of African-Americans stopped by county police.
“Is guess the question is, ‘Are Arlington police racist and bigoted?” retorted Stamos, drawing jeers from Tafti supporters.
The candidates appeared to be trying to appeal to different audiences: Tafti the Democratic middle and left, Stamos the broader electorate.
“We represent the values of this community well,” the incumbent said.
“I’ve done nothing in my career but build bridges,” Tafti countered.
Even a recent campaign announcement by Stamos that she had received the endorsement of a raft of defense attorneys drew a mixed response, with the incumbent saying it proved her office was fair to defendants and Tafti saying it represented “questionable judgment” to seek the support from those who have to deal with the prosecutor’s office on a daily basis.
Stamos in 2011 was serving as chief deputy to Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden when, upon Trodden’s retirement, she was elected as prosecutor for Arlington and Falls Church. Facing a challenge from her left in the 2011 Democratic primary, Stamos was unopposed in general-election races in 2011 and 2015.
But with the mood of many rank-and-file Democrats tacking left in recent years, and with Stamos’s support for independent candidate John Vihstadt in his bids for County Board, the challenge from Tafti is a serious one. Her supporters outnumbered the incumbent’s at the April 3 forum, and at times both candidates seemed rattled by their back-and-forth and by the boisterous crowd.
“Answer the question,” Stamos shot back at Parisi at one point when the challenger attempted to go back and “fact-check” a previous Stamos response.
(Twice during the debate, Stamos’s husband – Craig Esherick – loudly grumbled “mind your business” when Tafti supporters responded derisively to Stamos comments.)
Under Virginia law, voters do not register by political party, and with no local Republican primaries slated this year, any voter will be eligible to take part in the June 11 Democratic primary.
Given that, the Stamos-Tafti battle could end up being like the 2016 Democratic County Board primary between incumbent Libby Garvey and challenger Erik Gutshall, which occurred a year after Garvey supported Vihstadt over a Democratic candidate for County Board. Garvey’s victory in that primary likely was aided by Vihstadt supporters who turned out to assist her.
Stamos, like Garvey, supported Vihstadt in his successful 2014 County Board race and his unsuccessful quest to hold the seat, and the tens of thousands of Vihstadt supporters could prove key in what, despite being the marquee race of 2019 among Democratic insiders, is a race for prosecutor that so far has not drawn all that much attention from the broader community.