Three Democrats vie to replace DA Rosemary Lehmberg

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, whose 2013 DWI arrest led indirectly to then-Gov. Rick Perry being indicted and to the Legislature crippling her office’s Public Integrity Unit, will step down in January 2017 after eight years as Travis County’s top prosecutor.

Voters will take a big step toward deciding who will replace Lehmberg in the March 1 Democratic primary, which usually decides the winner in the general election in deep-blue Travis County.

The three Democratic candidates are Gary Cobb, who heads the district attorney office’s grand jury division; Margaret Moore, a former elected county attorney and prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office; and Rick Reed, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. Civil litigator Maura Phelan, also a former prosecutor, is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.

Political insiders and donors often form alliances for an election a year before voters learn the candidates’ names. For most of last year, Cobb appeared to be a lock to replace Lehmberg, with major supporters lining up behind him and no challenger emerging from either party.

Reed, Moore and Phelan joined the race after an American-Statesman story in November revealed that Cobb had a court-ordered debt to his ex-wife stemming from their 1994 divorce and had made contradictory statements in sworn depositions over the years about how he handles his finances. Cobb has since settled the debt.

First black DA?

Raised in Hernando, Miss., Cobb came to the Lone Star State in the 1983 to attend law school at the University of Texas. After a stint with the city of Austin, he joined the district attorney’s office and steadily rose up the ranks before running in the 2008 election Lehmberg won.

Since that election loss, Cobb has won a series of high-profile cases, including a death sentence for cop-killer Brandon Daniel and a conviction in the money laundering case against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. (DeLay’s conviction was later overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)

Cobb, who would be Travis County’s first African-American district attorney, has been stressing the need for engagement with minority communities and reducing mass incarceration.

“As a prosecutor, I understand the need to do something we have not done well over the years, which is focus on prosecuting the most violent offenders,” he said. “Instead we focus too much of our resources on the war on drugs.”

‘Dirty 30’ daughter

A Waco native, Moore has been involved with politics and the law since birth. Her father, Tom Moore Jr., was a member of the “Dirty Thirty” group of Texas legislators who swept into office in the early 1970s after the Sharpstown stock scandal and pushed an ethics reform agenda.

After graduating from UT’s Law School, Moore worked for several years in the state House and then as a public defender and prosecutor for Travis County. In 1981, she was elected county attorney and served one term. Moore has twice been appointed to fill vacancies as a county commissioner.

Before retiring in 2014, Moore worked as a civil litigator in the state attorney general office’s Medicaid fraud division. She cites her role as lead counsel in a jury trial that won a $173 million judgment from a pharmaceutical company as one of her top accomplishments in law.

In an apparent nod to Cobb’s and Lehmberg’s troubles, Moore has frequently said she is running to restore “integrity” to the office. “I’m running for district attorney because I do think the office needs new leadership — leadership with integrity and prosecutorial and administrative skill,” she said.

Seeing both sides

Reed has spent three decades as a lawyer, including as a prosecutor in Dallas and Travis counties. But he said it’s the past eight years of his career that he has spent as a defense attorney that have made him realize how much the district attorney’s office needs to change. The fast-paced churn of cases the office spits out, he said, leads to charges being filed on shaky grounds, plea deals being negotiated for innocent defendants and resources being diverted from real cases.

“I never realized the problems that tie into that office and how they tie into the indigent defense system,” said Reed, who serves on a rotation of public defenders in addition to his private practice. “The DA’s office has not been doing a good job of it, and it’s harming the victims who have legitimate cases, people who have genuinely been harmed.”

He is proposing higher standards for investigators before charges are filed. Reed also said he wouldn’t seek the death penalty, which he said is disproportionately used against minorities and leads to the county spending huge amounts of money on single cases.

Reed, who graduated from Southern Methodist University’s law school, made headlines in 2013 when he unsuccessfully sued to remove Lehmberg from office after her DWI arrest. Like Cobb, Reed ran against her in 2008.

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