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Despite advantage for Dem, race for Travis County DA not a coronation

I don’t have a negative thing to say about the people Margaret Moore has named for key jobs in the Travis County district attorney’s office. And knowing what I know about Mindy Montford, who understands both sides of the criminal justice bar, having served as a public prosecutor and private defense lawyer, I can think of few people as qualified for the job of first assistant to the DA.

But that is not the point.

The point is that Moore, the Democratic nominee for the post, is not yet the district attorney and won’t be until she beats her Republican opponent, Maura Phelan, in the Nov. 8 election. Although that scenario is likely in deep blue Travis County, it is not a given. So, in handing out jobs before a single vote is counted, Moore has created a perception that a coronation is in progress instead of an election.

And that is not the only problem with Moore’s handling of matters in the district attorney race.

Her conditional job offers raise other concerns about preferential treatment in the DA’s office and Moore’s commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in top positions on her staff. At this point, including herself, the top four people in a Moore administration all will be white. That sends the wrong message to a community as racially and ethnically diverse as Travis County.

The absence of people of color in Moore’s key selections can look as if she is taking minority voters for granted. That approach treats African-American and Latino voters as captive voting blocs, meaning they will support any Democrat who shows up rather than vote for any Republican, including a highly qualified one who is speaking to their concerns — as Phelan is doing. For instance, Phelan told the American-Statesman that if elected she would support a special prosecutor or other type of independent investigation in police misconduct cases “to counter the community’s distrust.” By contrast, Moore does not support a special prosecutor.

The American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski recently reported that along with Montford, Moore has selected two others for chief jobs: Lockhart Police Chief Mike Lummus, who was president of the Austin Police Association in the 1990s, will be Moore’s chief of investigations; and state District Judge Don Clemmer will take over the office’s special prosecutions division, which houses the Public Integrity Unit.

It is true that the Democratic Party as a whole is better than the Republican Party when it comes to issues important to minorities, such as public school financing and immigration and criminal justice reform. Even so, we have an electoral process that deserves greater deference than Moore is demonstrating.

In making such decisions, Moore told me she tried to “walk the line between presumptuousness and poor preparedness” and doesn’t know “why it would rub anyone the wrong way” to offer jobs with the condition that “if Margaret wins, we’ll take those jobs.”

“The office has been under same administration for 40 years — with Ronnie (Earle) for 32 and Rosemary (Lehmberg) for eight,” she said. “So this is the first time in decades the office will have someone come in and give it a fresh look. To do that properly, I needed to identify a first assistant.

“I was told when Mindy was named first assistant, there was joy in the office,” Moore said, explaining that some people thought “I was going to bring all my friends from the (state attorney general’s) office,” where Moore worked for nearly a decade before retiring in 2014.

Transparency, she said, also was important.

“Announcing it publicly seemed to be the wise and appropriate thing to do — instead of having secret meetings — and sends a message to voters what the office is going to look like.”

I don’t know if I’m more bothered by Moore’s failure to see anything wrong with handing out jobs prematurely or the fact that she sees it and thinks there is nothing wrong with it. To her credit, Montford recognizes there is a problem — real or perceived — and assured me she is doing what she can to avoid any favoritism — real or perceived — in her dealings with prosecutors.

As a defense attorney, Montford has cases pending in the district attorney’s office, essentially representing clients in criminal matters against some of the very lawyers she likely will supervise. I have no evidence that Montford has received favorable treatment from prosecutors, but it’s only natural that an employee would want to handle a boss with kid gloves. Montford told me she is not taking any more serious felony cases at this time, but as a single mother of a 12-year-old she still must keep working to pay the bills.

“Under the state bar, my ethical duties are to my clients, and I will zealously represent them,” Montford said. “If I am getting favor for that, I haven’t seen that.”

With less than three months until the Nov. 8 election, Moore said she doesn’t intend to make more job offers but will keep us posted if she does. In the meantime, I hope she works for the votes of African-Americans and Latinos with real policy positions addressing mass incarceration of minorities, police misconduct, crime prevention and juvenile justice reform. And regardless of who is elected, I hope we see an office that reflects the diversity of the people it serves.

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