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Centrist challenger ousts progressive prosecutor in DA race in Portland, Oregon

A person drops off their vote-by-mail ballot at a dropbox in Pioneer Square during primary voting on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Centrist district attorney candidate Nathan Vasquez has ousted the incumbent progressive prosecutor in Oregon’s Multnomah County, home to Portland, after running a campaign in which he vowed to be tough on crime.

One of District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s deputies, Vasquez was endorsed by several police groups. He won Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary election after returns showed him receiving more than 50% of the vote. While there was a write in option, Vasquez and Schmidt were the only two candidates in the race.

Vasquez said Schmidt conceded the election when they spoke on Wednesday afternoon. In a post on his campaign's Facebook page, he thanked Schmidt for his service and said he was grateful for the support he received from voters.

Vasquez’s victory comes at a time when progressive DAs and candidates in liberal bastions ranging from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle have faced setbacks as frustrations over public safety and homelessness have risen.

“The voters have made it clear that they are ready to take our county in a new and safer direction,” Vasquez said in his post Wednesday.

“I am committed to ending open air drug dealing and drug use while helping connect individuals to treatment, to rebuilding the broken relationships between the DA’s office and the community, and to ensuring that victims are the number one priority of my office,” he added.

Schmidt was elected in 2020 as social justice protests gripped Portland and the nation. He campaigned on reforming the criminal justice system, and while in office, he launched initiatives to review wrongful convictions and prison sentences and focus prosecutions on violent crime rather than low-level offenses.

During the campaign, Vasquez denounced some of Schmidt’s policies, such as his decision not to prosecute protesters arrested during the 2020 demonstrations for low-level, non-violent offenses, and his past support of Measure 110, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2020 that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs.

Amid one of the nation’s largest spikes in overdose fatalities, state lawmakers this year ended up rolling back the first-in-the-nation law and restoring criminal penalties for so-called “personal use” possession. Schmidt supported reinstating the penalties.

Vasquez has been a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office for over 20 years.

Before taking office, Schmidt led the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency tasked with improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Prior to that, he had served as a deputy district attorney for Multnomah County.

Claire Rush, The Associated Press

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