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Sacramento's DA race is done: Why progressives never should have backed Noah Phillips

DA candidate Noah Phillips says race too early to call on election night

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declared victory Tuesday, June 5, 2018, over challenger Noah Phillips, but he says the race is too early to call.
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Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declared victory Tuesday, June 5, 2018, over challenger Noah Phillips, but he says the race is too early to call.

Noah Phillips officially has abandoned his run to become Sacramento County district attorney. He announced his concession Thursday via an email to his supporters, but didn't bother contacting his opponent —the incumbent, Anne Marie Schubert — to concede and congratulate.

In the final analysis, Phillips' failure to demonstrate respect for the democratic tradition of calling the winner of an election — even when there are bitter feelings between candidates — is typical of his behavior.

During the latter stages of a contentious campaign, Phillips initially refused to own up to a racist and sexist email he had received in 2016 on his work account when he was a prosecutor with the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office. The email was from a relative. Replying to it, Phillips told the relative the off-color jokes about women of different ethnicities were "work appropriate."

When asked by a Bee reporter about the email exchange, Phillips initially said his account had been hacked. Then he said the stress of the job caused him to be callous. Then, days later, he apologized without reservation.

Phillips likely would have lost the race anyway (at last count, Schubert had 63.9 percent of the vote and Phillips had 36.1 percent), but the email flap revealed what many prominent Democrats already knew: Phillips was a poor choice to challenge Schubert. Save for Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, few prominent Democrats endorsed him despite the intense criticism that Schubert faced during the campaign.

It says a lot that even as Schubert's office was being picketed by Black Lives Matter and others in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and a majority of the Sacramento City Council stuck with Schubert.

During the race, Phillips was able to generate money and support from sources outside of Sacramento, such as billionaire George Soros and civil rights activist Shaun King. The implication was that Phillips would being tougher on police when they used deadly force.

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But when he spoke to The Bee's editorial board, Phillips said he had not come to any conclusions on the Clark killing and would remain open minded. Such remarks clashed with the public statements of BLM, which had asked Schubert to commit to charging the officers in the Clark case even before Sacramento police had concluded their investigation and sent their findings to Schubert for review.

Phillips now will work as a private attorney; he still is being investigated for misconduct from his days as a prosecutor. Meanwhile, local progressives may one day regret going all in with Phillips — if they don't already.

Schubert has been criticized for not being more aggressive in investigating or charging cops who have used deadly force on the job. Before the Clark killing, the 2016 killing of Joseph Mann by police in north Sacramento brought scrutiny and protests to Schubert's downtown office.

But while those controversial shootings were hotly debated around the city, Schubert remained popular in Sacramento County, a place that's far more politically conservative than the urban core.

Schubert always was going to be a tough candidate to beat. She grew up in Sacramento, has deep ties here and enjoys strong support from a vast network of locals. Though a registered Republican, she is not a Trump supporter as Phillips alleged. In addition, she played a key role in the arrest of a suspect in the East Area Rapist case, which has haunted Sacramento and other parts of the state for decades.

Now that the election is over, progressives need to ask themselves if they made a miscalculation by backing a candidate like Phillips.

Instead of targeting Schubert, they would have been better served trying to unseat Sheriff Scott Jones. Unlike Schubert, Jones is a Trump supporter and has gone to Washington for photo ops with the president. He also has been an outspoken supporter of the Department of Homeland Security, which is separating immigrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

So far, Jones has received just over 50 percent of the vote in the June 5 primary. Challengers Milo Fitch and Donna Cox, who worked under Jones, both have earned slightly more than 20 percent of the vote at last count.

With more than 100,000 ballots left to tally, Jones still may slip below 50 percent, forcing a November runoff against either Fitch or Cox. But if he holds on to his job for four more years, progressives may rue the day they decided to share the focus of their efforts with Phillips.

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