On Tuesday, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland and its surrounding areas, rejected incumbent progressive district attorney Mike Schmidt in favor of his colleague and challenger, tough-on-crime career prosecutor Nathan Vasquez. A Republican until 2017, Vasquez won on a Broken Windows platform emphasizing accountability and enforcement, including for petty crimes. “It’s all of the ‘small things’ that have added up to create an environment of chaos,” his campaign website states. “When we don’t enforce, we tell our community we don’t care.” That commonsense message, which Portland’s deep-blue voters likely would have perceived as archaic, out of place, and even cruel in 2020, has prevailed because four years later, those same voters are fed up with elevated crime and unchecked disorder.

Four years ago, Schmidt, then 38, handily won election on what he described as “the most progressive DA platform that this state has ever seen.” The platform embraced ending cash bail, declining to prosecute low-level crimes, prosecuting police misconduct, and supporting mental-health and addiction treatment as alternatives to incarceration. During the nightly outbursts of chaos and violence that ravaged Portland through much of 2020, Schmidt refused to prosecute most misdemeanors, including interference with a police officer and criminal trespass. Yet, he investigated at least 21 police officers for potential misconduct during the riots, sparking acrimony with the Portland Police Bureau, even as charges were either not pursued or eventually dropped in most of those cases.

Schmidt vigorously advocated for Oregon’s now-infamous Ballot Measure 110, which made possession of small quantities of drugs—even hard drugs like fentanyl—a mere violation. Voters approved the measure in November 2020, but Schmidt began implementing it more than a month before it took effect, citing the need to “move beyond” policies that had resulted in “over-policing of diverse communities” and a “heavy reliance on correctional facilities.” The nominal $100 penalty for possession was waived for those who called a hotline number on the back of the ticket, but most violators ignored the fine. The hotline received fewer than 600 calls in three years. As Charles Lehman noted last year, Oregonians at the time seemed to believe that “all law enforcement does is harass drug users, making their lives worse. Leave the addicts alone and then . . . well, surely things will get better.”

Things didn’t get better. Since 2020, large areas of downtown Portland have devolved into open-air drug markets and homeless encampments. Drug users in bent-over stupor dotted the streets, and crime, both violent and nonviolent, rose sharply. In 2019, Portland saw 29 homicides; last year, the number stood at 73 (a decrease, admittedly, from the record high of 95 in 2022). Shootings have also proliferated since the start of Schmidt’s tenure, straining police resources in a city that ranks 48th out of 50 large U.S. cities in police staffing relative to population.

In response to mounting public discontent over Portland’s deteriorating public order, Schmidt prosecuted more cases. In January, he announced that the prosecution rate in 2023 hit a seven-year high of 72 percent, including 67 percent of misdemeanors, a substantial rebound from just 39 percent in 2020. In an even more striking about-face from his prior campaign’s promises, Schmidt testified this February in favor of rolling back Measure 110 and recriminalizing the possession of small amounts of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl. On March 1, the state legislature overwhelmingly voted to make possession a misdemeanor again, effectively ending Oregon’s drug-decriminalization experiment.

But it was too little, too late for Schmidt. Vasquez touted his extensive experience as a prosecutor and blasted his boss’s “failed policy and failed leadership” on issues like Measure 110. With a campaign focused on restoring order to Portland’s streets and getting justice for crime victims, he struck a chord with voters. By contrast, Schmidt’s campaign materials sought to leverage national party affiliations by labeling him as a Democrat, despite the formally nonpartisan race. His top campaign priorities included getting more drug users into treatment, and—in a sign of desperation—“opposing the Trump administration, taking on right-wing militias, and fighting hate and bias crimes.”

Even as last-minute funds from the George Soros-backed Working Families Party and Drug Policy Alliance flowed into Schmidt’s campaign, polls showed Vasquez decisively in the lead. One conducted in late April found that, among voters who cited crime as their greatest concern, 70 percent said they would vote for Vasquez and only 4 percent for Schmidt. Prospective voters who favored banning public camping and treating drug use as a crime overwhelmingly favored Vasquez, regardless of age, income, or demographic differences.

During his tenure, Schmidt never earned the confidence of most cops and line prosecutors. Police brass routinely criticized him publicly. Seasoned prosecutors resigned in high-profile rebukes of Schmidt’s leadership, citing unmanageable workloads, a lack of advancement for women, and a dysfunctional office environment. Last year, an investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries found “substantial evidence” of sex discrimination at the DA’s office, including retaliation connected to complaints. The union representing line prosecutors endorsed Vasquez in January; six police and firefighters’ unions followed suit in February. Last week, the prosecutors’ union board members expressed deep concern about Schmidt’s recent remarks that, if reelected, he couldn’t envision a working relationship with Vasquez.

Schmidt lost credibility among Portland’s elites, too. Vasquez secured the endorsements of The Oregonian, the state’s newspaper of record, and Willamette Week, an influential left-leaning local paper. The Willamette Week endorsement noted that, as a long-time prosecutor and technician, Vasquez had “a firmer grasp on the basic task of allocating limited resources to the most deserving cases” than Schmidt, an “inexperienced prosecutor who hasn’t mastered the logistics.”

With Schmidt’s concession yesterday, Portland joins its sister cities, San Francisco and Seattle, in rejecting progressive prosecution for a more traditional approach to law enforcement. With a new government structure currently in the works and meaningful consequences now on the table for violent and antisocial offenders, perhaps the City of Roses is poised to blossom once more.

Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images


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