How many of us have a racist older relative we love but who can be embarrassing and offensive and seem downright nutty? Many of us would raise our hands to that question. Noah Phillips, the Democrat running for District Attorney, certainly could.
This week, it was revealed that an older relative – a "70-year-old uncle" – sent Phillips a racist, sexist, offensive email to his work account. Noah's place of work when he got the email on Feb 17, 2016 was the Sacramento County District Attorney's office.
How bad was this email? It's really bad. It makes stupid, disparaging, racist, sexist, cringe-inducing comments about Latinas, Jewish women, "Anglo/Saxon" women, Chinese women, Irish women and "Arab" women. The "Mexican" woman is wearing a sombrero and the description, in part, describes a first date as "getting drunk on Tequila" and having sex in the back of her car. By the second date, "she is pregnant," it reads.
With Irish women, the email read: " You both get blind drunk and have sex." With Arab women: "You are shot dead on the street and your (expletive) are feed to the goats. No third date!" The punchline? "Don't you just love the Irish?"
OK, Phillips might have instantly deleted the email, called his uncle and said, "Dude, you can't send that kind of stuff to my work email. Here is my home email." But he didn't. He told his uncle that the email "Was work appropriate and for that matter appropriate anywhere."
When asked about the email by Bee reporter Darrell Smith, Phillips would neither cop to the exchange, nor apologize. He kept repeating some lame excuse of having his emails "hacked." What does that mean? I have no idea. But he might have said, "You know? I apologize. My uncle sent me that. He didn't mean any harm, It's clearly not what I believe but I love my uncle and didn't want to scold him. I should have handled it better. It's on me." But he didn't.
Instead, Phillips made some comment about how the "crude and callous" law enforcement culture made him do it. "Sorry to say I was a part of it until I realized the impact this culture has on our justice system as a whole," Phillips said in a statement.
Strike three. You're out.
The system made him do it? Yikes. If Phillips melts down over something as random as a racist email sent to him by his uncle, what would happen when he had to face a real crisis? Herein lies why most influential local Democrats can't get behind this guy, no matter how much they might want to.
Finally, late Wednesday, Phillips tweeted what he should have said all along. That he should have challenged his uncle, but didn't because it was easier not to. "I sincerely apologize for my encouragement of this kind of behavior and for my own participation in it," he wrote.
Was that so hard? I would be willing to give the brother the benefit of the doubt if Phillips had responded with a little more emotional maturity in the first place. This situation isn't harmful to his campaign because of what his uncle wrote. It's harmful because of how Phillips responded to it, step-by-step, and it underscores why he is so lacking as a candidate. He sees the light now. That should have been an easy light to turn on.
Phillips, 46, has gotten much more traction than the candidate who challenged Schubert four years ago because the world has changed since then, and not because of anything he has done. The Stephon Clark killing by Sacramento Police in March has shined a bright spotlight on DA's such as Schubert and has demanded that they show more independence and transparency when investigating cops who kill unarmed black men such as Clark in the line of duty.
This movement should not be dismissed or underestimated.
The billionaire George Soros has pumped $400,000 into Phillips' campaign. The activist-writer Shaun King has stumped for Phillips in person and on Twitter. It's all part of a nationwide campaign seeking to unseat incumbent DA's and replace then with more progressive ones. The model is Larry Krasner, who was elected DA in Philadelphia in 2017 after a long career as a civil rights attorney. He was also a public defender and went after cops in police brutality cases.
Krasner wants to end mass incarceration of African Americans. Krasner is anti-Trump. Krasner is progressive.
But you know what? Krasner was supported by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and most people who matter in Philadelphia. That indicates an ability to build bridges. With the exception of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, most influential Democrats have not dropped their endorsements of Schubert and switched to Phillips.
"A man who thinks it's appropriate workplace conduct to sexually degrade and objectify women does not deserve the trust of voters" said Angelique Ashby, a powerhouse local Democrat and the only woman on the Sacramento City Council.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna was critical of Schubert for not saying more in the aftermath of the Clark shooting.
Of Phillips, he said, "(But) her challenger comes across as more presumptuous by the day."
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said: "I believe Schubert will win. I also believe my early endorsement (of her) will put me in a better position ... to push her on genuine criminal justice reform and social justice during her second term."
Ultimately, that's where Phillips comes up short. To begin with, he was not like Krasner, who took over a DA's office after a long career of challenging and fighting in court. Phillips is a prosecutor who was part of the system under scrutiny by progressive advocates. He was barely known when he ran. As recently as February, he used a West Sacramento address. There are other Democrats who don't want to be quoted who saw him as arrogant and immature.
The cause of reforming criminal justice is a righteous one. It's just that Philips is the wrong messenger for it, as he proved that by bungling the racist email flap. And even then? Those of us who want criminal justice reform must understand the law gives wide latitude to cops who kill.
On Wednesday, we had that cold-water-in-the-face reminder. What did Krasner of Philadelphia do on his first police shooting case? On Wednesday, Krasner chose not to prosecute a cop who killed an unarmed man two years ago. Why? Because the cop said he was afraid and Supreme Court precedent allows cops to kill if they fear for their lives.
Krasner spent his whole campaign saying it was unfair not to prosecute cops who kill. But on his first try, he had to follow the law.
Phillips would have face the same constraints. He would very likely disappoint his progressive supporters as Krasner surely has. Add to the picture his emotional immaturity and lack of judgment, and you have a guy unfit to be DA of Sacramento County.