DES MOINES – Ron DeSantis was the only Republican candidate for president who removed a progressive prosecutor from office this week. His rivals only wished they could.
On Wednesday morning, DeSantis suspended Monique Worrell, the elected Democratic prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties, explaining that she’d “effectively nullified certain laws” by not seeking mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.
Minutes later, outside the office she’d won with 67% of the vote in 2020, Worrell called the governor a “weak dictator.” The removal, she said, was “a smokescreen for Ron DeSantis’s failing and disastrous presidential campaign.”
But several other Republicans running for president want to remove left-leaning local prosecutors — and other Republican governors are trying.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who’s appearing with 12 GOP candidates at state fairgrounds this week, has given the state’s new GOP attorney general the power to intervene in cases being handled by county attorneys; Polk County, the state’s largest, elected a progressive prosecutor last year.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who’ll join GOP presidential candidates at a conference in Atlanta next weekend, just signed a law that empowers him to remove district attorneys; he’d warned that some “far-left” prosecutors were “failing their constituents and making our communities less safe.” And next month, a new Texas law designed to let Gov. Greg Abbott remove “rogue” prosecutors will go into effect.
The next Republican president might want to help with that. In April, Donald Trump rolled out proposals to bring “radical Marxist prosecutors” to heel, including federal investigations of reform DAs.
“In Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and every other city where these maniacs have taken over, the DA’s offices should face federal subpoenas of their staff, their emails, and their records to determine whether they have blatantly violated federal Civil Rights law,” Trump said.
Donald Trump’s own legal troubles have been burning most of the oxygen that candidates typically use to campaign. But this is an emerging issue, far more resonant than it was the last time that Republicans were trying to capture the White House from Democrats. The movement to elect progressive prosecutors — and the PACs that helped do it, like Democracy PAC and Real Justice – benefited enormously from a backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency.
We’re now deep into the backlash to that backlash, as Republicans debate ways to remove these prosecutors. Larry Elder, a conservative commentator who says he’s halfway to making the RNC’s donor threshold for debates — more than 20,000 of the required 40,000 — has proposed “ethics commissions” that could allow DAs to be removed more easily.
“There are a lot of people who are hurting now because of this,” said Elder, echoing Florida’s Sheriff Grady Judd, who said that getting rid of Worrell would save lives.
But only DeSantis is in a position to actually do this right now. That thrills the conservatives who argue that he’s able to deliver on what Republicans like Trump could only promise. In states where Republicans can change the law, they’re looking for ways to remove reform DAs; in places where voters can recall elected officials, they see the 2022 recall of San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin as a model.
The response from reformers is twofold. One: Removing Boudin hasn’t changed the trajectory of crime in San Francisco, so the blame is misplaced. Two: While they’ve been using the democratic process to change the justice system, their opponents are trying to undo the will of voters. Alameda County DA Pamela Price, who’s facing a recall effort not even a year into her first term, has said so plainly.
“When you lose an election, you shouldn’t be able to overturn the will of the voters,” Price told KTVU. “That’s what happened during the insurrection on Jan. 6.”
The View From Criminal Justice Reformers
None of the PACs that helped elect Worrell responded to questions about the effort to remove reform DAs, though Real Justice helped promote a rally organized by her supporters. The White House didn’t comment, either. But Jessica Brand, founder of the progressive Wren Collective, pointed out that progressive prosecutors kept winning races this year, in races where their opponents blamed their approaches for rising crime.
“In a lot of races you are seeing people who have no track record of reform using reform language in their candidacy because they know it’s what voters want,” she said. “It is pretty clear the goal of many in the GOP is just to use these prosecutors as a political distraction, and they don’t care that people voted for them, because those are Black and brown voters.”
- In the Orlando Sentinel, Amanda Rabines reports on the rally Worrell’s supporters held after her suspension. At Popular Information, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria investigate the claims DeSantis made when he removed Worrell, and find some wanting: “Just this week, the police chief of Orlando, which is the largest city in Orange County, shared that so far in 2023 violent crime is down 10% compared to last year.”