Over the past few years, billionaire and “Democratic mega-donor” George Soros has been heavily involved in funding efforts aimed at “reshaping the American justice system,” specifically by funding progressive challengers in District Attorneys races around the country (bolding added by me for emphasis).
Soros has spent on district attorney campaigns in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas through a network of state-level super PACs and a national “527” unlimited-money group, each named a variation on “Safety and Justice.” (Soros has also funded a federal super PAC with the same name.) Each organization received most of its money directly from Soros, according to public state and federal financial records, though some groups also got donations from nonprofits like the Civic Participation Action Fund, which gave to the Safety and Justice group in Illinois.
Also see Billionaire Soros funding reform-minded district attorney candidates, which reported in May 2018 that Soros “has dropped at least $275,000 into district attorney races throughout Northern California, supporting candidates who advocate reduced incarceration and other criminal justice reforms”:
Such issues have long been a passion for Soros, who in past years has funded state ballot measures to legalize marijuana and weaken the “three strikes” sentencing law. He’s also tipped district attorney elections in other parts of the country — last year a Soros-backed political action committee helped clinch the win for civil rights attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.
This year, the liberal financier has funneled contributions into the California Justice & Public Safety Political Action Committee, which is paying for campaign mailers and advertisements in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as Sacramento, ahead of the June 5 state primary.
In Alameda County, the committee has spent $131,158 in support of Oakland civil rights attorney Pamela Price, a candidate known for her sharp criticism of police. She is challenging District Attorney Nancy O’Malley — a more mainstream progressive seeking a third term — on the June ballot.
And check out this WaPo article from last September, which reported on the Democratic primary victory of Rachel Rollins, a “47-year-old lawyer, who ran on ending ‘mass incarceration’ and cutting off relations between Boston and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency,” who “won the Democratic primary for district attorney of Suffolk County in a rout, leading her closest rival by 16 points.” The WaPo article added:
Rollins, who spent just $230,000 on her campaign, is the latest in a string of reform-minded candidates who will be district attorneys in deep-blue cities — places that, for years, elected Democrats who ran on “law and order” platforms. The effort to elect them, which began before the 2016 election but has accelerated, has succeeded in Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis and failed in some other blue cities. But it’s created a blueprint for electing reformist prosecutors and for shaping their agendas.
The first victory in the campaign came in early 2016, when George Soros plunked $300,000 into a PAC created to elect Kim Foxx as the state’s attorney of Cook County, Ill. Foxx won the Democratic primary, tantamount to election in the deep-blue county, proving that the investments in races that sometimes attracted little money or attention could work.
In 2017, a larger coalition came together behind Larry Krasner, a defense attorney running in Philadelphia after suing the city’s police force 75 times. He won the Democratic primary, then the general election, despite being opposed by the city’s police union and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
So what does any of this have to do with Virginia politics, you might ask? For starters, Soros poured tens of thousands of dollars into the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney race in 2017, on behalf of Stephanie Morales, who was reelected as Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney with 63% of the vote. Now this year, based on the 1Q19 campaign finance reports that came out the other day, it looks like Soros is “playing” once again, and in a big way, in Virginia – this time in the Fairfax County (incumbent Ray Morrogh vs. challenger Steve Descano) and Arlington/Falls Church (incumbent Theo Stamos vs. challenger Parisa Tafti) Commonwealth’s Attorney races. Per VPAP, Tafti has received over $51,000 so far (in “in-kind” contributions) from the Soros-funded “Justice and Public Safety PAC,” while Descano has received about $52,000 (also in “in-kind” contributions). In Tafti’s case, that money accounted for slightly less than half her campaign’s total receipts in 1Q19, while for Descano it accounted for slightly more than half. Either way, the Soros money makes up a significant chunk of these two candidates’ campaign funding.
Just to be clear, I’m a fan of most of the work Soros does. I’m also a fan of smart, progressive reforms to the criminal justice system. What I’m *not* a fan of is our completely f’ed-up campaign finance system, which allows wealthy corporations and individuals to pour essentially unlimited amounts of money into our political system, whether for good (e.g., environmental and progressive groups) or for ill (e.g., the Koch brothers, polluting industries, Big Pharma…). As far as I’m concerned, we should be moving towards a system of public financing of elections, but good luck seeing that happen anytime soon – or ever, for that matter.
By the way, I was curious to see how Soros-funded District Attorney/Commonwealth Attorney candidates had fared, and here’s what I found.
- In 2016, Soros heavily funded Cook County (IL) State’s Attorney candidate Kim Foxx in the March 15 Democratic primary, in which Foxx easily (58%-29%) defeated the incumbent, Anita Alvarez, and then went on to win the general election by a whopping 72%-28% margin.
- In August 2016, Soros-backed Democrat Kimberly Gardner “soundly defeated three other Democrats vying for the nomination to become the city’s next top prosecutor,” with “47 percent of the vote, nearly twice the total for runner-up Mary Pat Carl, an assistant circuit attorney in Joyce’s office, who got 24 percent.”
- Also in 2016, Soros pumped in nearly $1 million on behalf of Democratic challenger Aramis Ayala, who was running against incumbent Jeff Ashton “in the Democratic primary for Orange-Osceola State Attorney.” In late August, Ayala defeated Ashton in “a major upset,” by a 57%-43% margin.
- Also in 2016, Soros spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Democratic candidate for Harris County, TX district attorney, Kim Ogg. In the general election, Ogg defeated Republican incumbent Devon Anderson by a 54%-46% margin. Ogg had previously defeated Morris Overstreet – who Soros had heavily supported – in the March 2016 Democratic primary, by a 51%-29% margin.
- In 2017, Soros spent a whopping $1.7 million – “more than five times as much as Krasner himself spent — and nearly 30 percent of all the spending in the seven-candidate primary”- in support of Larry Krasner, a progressive candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney. Krasner won that race with 38% of the vote in a seven-candidate field, defeating the second-place finisher (Joe Khan) by 18 points.
- As I mentioned, above, Soros poured tens of thousands of dollars into the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney race in 2017, on behalf of Stephanie Morales, who was reelected as Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney with 63% of the vote.
- In February/March 2018, Soros “poured nearly $900,000 into the campaign of Joe Gonzales, a Democrat running to unseat Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas ‘Nico’ LaHood” in the Democratic primary by around 18 points.
- In June 2018: “California voters appeared to reject liberal challengers in three closely watched district attorney races on Tuesday, delivering a sharp defeat to a national network attempting to reshape the criminal justice system by electing left-leaning prosecutors… In Sacramento, Alameda and San Diego counties, the challengers lost. In Contra Costa County, their candidate—Diana Becton, a former judge appointed as district attorney last year—was 500 votes shy of a majority.” As Stanford Law Professor David Sklansky pointed out in that article, these results did *not* “suggest that the movement to elect reform prosecutors has hit a wall,” but they *did* indicate that “[i]t’s still very difficult to run against an incumbent district attorney.” [Note that in the San Diego election, the winner – Summer Stephan – is a Republican and was acting interim District Attorney at the time, while the challenger was San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a Democrat. So that one wasn’t a Democratic primary, as the current races are in Fairfax County and in Arlington/Falls Church.]
- As I noted above, last September, Rachel Rollins “won the Democratic primary for district attorney of Suffolk County [MA] in a rout, leading her closest rival by 16 points.”
Overall, it appears that Soros has been mostly successful in his efforts to elect District/State/Commonwealth Attorneys: big wins in 2016 in Cook County, IL and Orange/Osceola, FL; a loss in the March 2016 Democratic primary in Harris County, TX, followed by a win in the November general election; a win in the August 2016 Democratic primary in St. Louis; a win in 2017 in Philadelphia; another win in 2017, in Portsmouth, VA; a win in Suffolk County, MA in September 2018; a win in March 2018 in Bexar County, TX; and several losses in June 2018 in California.
The questions for the two big Commonwealth’s Attorneys races on June 11 in Northern Virginia (Theo Stamos vs. Parisa Tafti and Ray Morrogh vs. Steve Descano) are: a) will Soros put more resources into the Tafti and/or Descano campaigns; b) if so, how much; and c) will it work? Stay tuned over the next 53 days!