Since taking the reins at the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office in 2020, Mike Schmidt has faced a deluge of crises, and criticism. 

Schmidt took office in August 2020 amid a global pandemic and nationwide racial justice reckoning that spurred prolonged protests in Portland. Those external factors, coupled with a nationwide rise in crime during the pandemic (that has since fallen) painted the picture for many residents that Multnomah County was in dire straits. 

Unsurprisingly, residents placed the blame on those in power, and Schmidt, who got elected on a progressive campaign of criminal justice reform, was an easy target. 

By the summer of 2023, the DA’s face was plastered on billboards downtown that singled him out as the culprit of Portland’s problems. While the unsavory tagline may have been catchy, it was largely misleading.

Crime, homelessness, addiction, and skyrocketing housing costs aren’t problems caused or single-handedly fixed by prosecutors. As much as they’ll tell you they can fix things during campaign season, many of the issues the county currently faces can only be solved with a confluence of government policy changes, social interventions, and money.

Both candidates running for the seat agree that the DA does have a role to play in local crime, largely by prosecuting offenders in hopes of deterring other crime, but also by working closely with law enforcement to build successful cases and often, to launch special missions that take down repeat offenders. But let’s not pretend that one elected prosecutor can transform the social and economic landscape that often leads people to commit theft, robbery, or worse, homicide. 

Schmidt’s detractors claim he’s "soft on crime" and purposely not prosecuting cases for ideological reasons. Part of the reason this sentiment became widespread is because police were parroting it to the public as justification for not fully doing their jobs. What Schmidt actually said in 2020, amid racial justice protests that often led to protesters clashing with police, was that he wouldn't prosecute low-level, non-violent crimes stemming from those protests, but things like property damage, theft, and violence or threats of violence against others would still be pursued. It was largely an effort to make sure the DA Office's limited resources were focused on serious crimes and justice for crime victims, and to ensure his office wasn't chilling the free speech or freedom of expression of those who were rightfully frustrated with policing and the criminal justice system.

In reality, the latest data reflect prosecution rates at the DA's Office last year were the highest they've been in seven years. Felony prosecutions were at an eight-year high.

We've heard complaints about criminals being let out, or their cases being dropped entirely. It's important to remember that when cases get dismissed, judges make that call, not prosecutors. Same with sentencing. Prosecutors can recommend prison sentences or probation terms, but judges make the final call. When offenders get released from jail or prison early? That's also out of the DA's hands. 

But the DA can play a key role in the crime landscape. Schmidt's developed community partnerships that helped weed out major offenders (via police task forces like retail theft and auto theft missions) while also trying to prevent recurring crimes, rather than chase them. When catalytic converter thefts skyrocketed, Schmidt knew that trying to hunt down and jail every thief could prove costly and futile. Instead, he worked with legislators to make it harder to sell catalytic converters. Sure enough, catalytic converter thefts have plummeted.

Schmidt also brings a holistic approach to his job—one that looks at root causes, outcomes, and ways in which the criminal justice system can be a change agent, and prevent people from re-entering the system, or spending their lives entangled in it.

Last year, in response to outcry over public drug use and rising overdoses, Schmidt worked with state legislators to retool and replace Measure 110— Oregon’s drug decriminalization law. While the move didn’t curry favor with advocates of the original measure, it proved his ability to listen to community concerns, and respond accordingly.

Schmidt’s opponent, Nathan Vasquez, is a successful prosecutor who deserves recognition for his years of service at the Multnomah County DA’s Office, including working to bring justice for the victims and survivors of the horrific 2022 shooting at Normandale Park.

Still, it’s hard to tell whether Vasquez can be trusted to reflect the kind of progressive values we hope to see in local government and in the justice system. Vasquez voted as a Republican until 2017. While he told the Mercury he voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election and plans to do so in November (we had to know whether a DA candidate was supporting Trump at this point), we’re not convinced he’s the type of prosecutor who would hold everyone accountable, including police. He’s the darling candidate of the Portland Police Association and his campaign was bankrolled by wealthy donors and political action committees (PACs) that also back candidates like Rene Gonzalez and the most conservative among those running for local office. 

Vasquez criticizes Schmidt for not having much experience as a prosecutor, but the time to make that argument was before Schmidt got elected in 2020, not now. Schmidt’s held the role of lead prosecutor in Oregon’s largest county for four years now, and when it comes to forward-thinking vision as the state faces a dire shortage of public defenders, we think Schmidt is on the right track.

[Read the rest of the Mercury's endorsements here. No time to read? Check out our Voter Cheat Sheet! And by the way, putting these endorsements together takes LOTS of hard work—and that's on top of our regular excellent reporting. Show your appreciation for the Mercury with a small contribution, please, and thank you!—eds]