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Multnomah County hasn't seen a real contest for this job in a generation; Ethan Knight and Mike Schmidt want it

PMG FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, shown at a City Club panel on race and justice, is stepping down after two terms. Two lawyers are vying to succeed him.For the first time in decades, two candidates are vigorously contesting the race for Multnomah's top prosecutor, and at a time when the future looks more uncertain than anyone can remember.

Ethan Knight, 45, and Mike Schmidt, 39, are offering diametrically opposed visions to succeed outgoing District Attorney Rod Underhill as they try to win support in the run-up to the May 19 primary.

Knight, a former Multnomah County deputy district attorney who became a federal prosecutor under U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, offers a profile similar to that of the outgoing incumbent: a moderate whose vision includes incremental progressive reforms but who views the office as primarily a law enforcement agency.

Knight is supported by Underhill, numerous former prosecutors, Troutdale Mayor Casey Ryan, Portland Public Schools board member Julia Brim-Edwards and law enforcement unions, including the Portland Police Association and the Multnomah County Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the line prosecutors that the county district attorney oversees.COURTESY PHOTO - Federal prosecutor Ethan Knight, 45, says the Multnomah County District Attorney's office needs stability.

A 21-year prosecutor, who's been assigned to gangs, public corruption and extremists, said that in the time of coronavirus, "I think it's going to take credibility and understanding that this isn't the time to burn the system down. It is candidly, a time to batten down the hatches and get things done right where we can and ... remind people that their core services are functioning effectively."

Schmidt, a former Multnomah County deputy district attorney who now heads the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, is running against the longstanding role of the agency he wants to lead, with the goal of transforming it into a data-driven office oriented toward promoting statewide reforms to achieve greater equity for poor and minority defendants, rather than on punishment.

Schmidt is supported by Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, the five members of the Multnomah County board of commissioners, several lawmakers, criminal defense attorneys, criminal justice reform groups such as Safety and Justice and the union representing district attorney nonlawyer employees.

Schmidt, who'd worked as a teacher before going into law, worked for the district attorney's office for about five years until 2013. He said he left for many of the same reasons he is running to rejoin it now: "After five years in the office, I wasn't changing the system. I wasn't fixing anything. I wasn't addressing inequality or looking at … how we use incarceration."

COURTESY PHOTO - Mike Schmidt, 39, left the Multnomah County District Attorney's office because he didn't believe in the job he was doing. Now he wants to run the office.He began working for the Legislature, then moved to the justice commission, sort of a state-run think tank, where he was appointed director in 2015. As top prosecutor, he would seek to do what he's doing at the state now, make "justice system data transparent," Schmidt said.

The race is a contrast in opposites to succeed Underhill, who served two terms in the job. Underhill had been the anointed successor to Mike Schrunk, who in turn ran unopposed to succeed Harl Haas.

In 1992, Schrunk faced a vigorous challenge from Ed Jones, a public defender, but drubbed Jones with more than 80% of the vote. Previous to that, the most contested race was Haas' victory over Des Connall in 1972.

Both Schmidt and Knight have raised significant funds. Schmidt has raised about $135,000 while Knight has raised about $120,000. There's a lot of time left, and at a more traditional time both candidates could expect more funding to flow in as the primary approaches. But it's unclear who will be spending money on contributions if, as expected, a recession or depression takes hold.

Elements of controversy

Both candidates' records have drawn questions.

Knight prosecuted the 2010 Portland Christmas tree bomber case involving an attempted detonation at the yearly tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square. The case sparked complaints of law enforcement entrapment by Mohamed Osman Mohamud's defense lawyers.

Knight, for his part, said "a judge, a jury and the 9th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court all rejected that argument repeatedly." He added that Mohamud rejected "numerous chances to back out" of the plot.

Knight also was a prosecutor in the Bundy trial of the band of occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife refuge, which fell apart spectacularly in late 2016.

"For that first trial, I really failed to appreciate the depth of anti-government sentiment that was prevalent at that time," he said.

But he said the case "speaks to my ability to handle significant, complicated, challenging situations … that was the one of the largest trials in the district's history and we came back two months later and convicted a number of people."

He said the case speaks to his ability to take on right wing-extremism.

He also said he has the management ability the job needs: "it's important to recognize that managing lawyers is a different task ... you have to motivate and manage in a different sort of way."

Schmidt, meanwhile, has come under fire for his relatively skimpy history as a prosecutor. The union representing deputy district attorneys on Tuesday issued a blistering statement explaining its endorsement of Knight, saying that because Schmidt "has never personally tried to a court or jury any felony level assault, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse or homicide case, he will be ill-equipped to set policies on how these offenses should be handled in this county."

The statement also portrayed Schmidt as running a campaign based on buzzwords and political expediency.

Schmidt, for his part, called the attacks unfair. He said the job he's running for means that he doesn't have to know how to litigate. He said his deputies eventually will respect him for the work he plans to do to advocate for reducing their workload and increasing funding for the office. He pointed to his role overseeing a staff of 25 at the state.

"It's a job that you're managing in office, and you're working on policy, and that's exactly what I've been doing for the last six years," he said.


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