UPDATED: DA Michael Hestrin’s comments were added May 24.
Riverside County voters may decide their next district attorney by the end of the election, June 7. Their choices: incumbent Michael Hestrin, appellate attorney Lara Gressley and Judge Burke Strunsky.
A candidate will need more than 50% of the vote to win, according to the county clerk’s office. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes in June, a November run-off election between the top two candidates will decide the next district attorney.
STRAW POLL: Who has your vote for Riverside County District Attorney? Click here to vote
As district attorney, Gressley wants to reduce the county’s crime rate, reduce the district attorney’s office’s spending, lead prosecutions in some cases, create a multi-agency homeless task force, appoint an independent ethics officer and correctly charge defendants, according to her campaign site.
Gressley claims the district attorney’s office currently overcharges defendants, without contextual discretion, to coerce guilty pleas. One of her clients, an immigrant, almost lost his professional license after the district attorney’s office charged him with two felonies for breaking up a fight, she said by phone. Eventually, the district attorney’s office settled with a misdemeanor conviction for disturbing the peace, but he should never have been charged at all, Gressley said.
Gressley also wants to implement a “blind justice” policy that prevents a deputy district attorney from knowing a suspect’s race, to cut down on what she claims are racially biased charging policies.
Gressley claimed the Riverside County District Attorney’s office is racially biased, and referenced a Feb. 22 ACLU report which shows that the Riverside County District Attorney’s office charges African-Americans in 14% of their prosecutions, while African-Americans make up 7% of Riverside County’s population.
In response, Hestrin said the district attorney’s office does not overcharge, and that they already have a blind filing policy.
The office will charge for all the crimes that a police report indicates a person committed, but will drop some of the charges to get a plea deal done Hestrin said. Hestrin said he understands why defense attorneys might say this is overcharging, but that overcharging is when you charge people for crimes the evidence does not show they commit.
Hestrin also said the district attorney’s office started a blind justice policy two years ago. The policy restricts what the office’s filing unit sees from the submitted police reports, Hestrin said. Racial identifiers in names, the locations of alleged crimes and the residence of the person described in the report are all blocked out, Hestrin said.
Strunsky said he wants to improve public safety, address homelessness, test every rape kit, prosecute wage theft, fight corruption, and make the office transparent and accountable.
Strunsky claimed the homicide rate increased by 70% percent, and the district attorney’s offices’ spending increased by 53%, since Hestrin took office. Hestrin responded to Strunsky’s claims in a March forum hosted by the Riverside County Bar Association. He said violent crime is up in Riverside County by 16% since 2014, but that violent crime increased more in neighboring counties. He claimed violent crime is up in Orange County 17%, in San Bernardino County 58%, and in Los Angeles County 28%.
In response, Hestrin said Strunsky cherry-picked data. Homicide rates hit a lull in 2015, during Hestrin’s first year in office, so any data comparison with 2015 as the base year is contextually inaccurate, Hestrin said. Over the past two years, homicide rates dropped by 16% in Riverside County, while it increased across the state, Hestrin said. Between 2018 and 2021, violent crime went down 3%, robberies went during 14%, rape decreased 14%, and property crime decreased by 14%, Hestrin said in his defense.
Hestrin said the increase in the office’s budget is entirely due to the increased labor cost, which takes up 95% of his office’s budget. The office employs about the same amount of prosecutors as it did when Hestrin first took office, but the salaries to retain the prosecutors have increased and Hestrin requested funding from the county Board of Supervisors to increase the budget, he said.
Hestrin wants to focus his third term on making full use of the 2-month-old Homeless Court, a county program that allows homeless people to plead guilty to certain crimes and be placed in a court-ordered treatment program. The program, which is non-punitive, attempts to get people the treatment they need to break the cycles of homelessness, Hestrin said.
“We are going to have to contend with (homelessness). We can’t just pretend it’s a housing issue,” Hestrin said.
In his past two terms, Hestrin touted creating an internal review system and has digitized the office’s filing system to save taxpayer money. He created a crime prevention unit designed to increase community outreach among the county’s youth. He also mentions he made an organized crime unit, and a collaborative courts unit that works with judges and rehabilitation services to improve recidivism rates.
Follow the money
As far as campaign donations go, more people have supported Hestrin, with higher donations, than Strunsky or Gressley.
Hestrin raised $368,325 from 150 donors between Jan. 1 and April 23. In the same time, Strunsky raised $71,975 from 114 donors, and Gressley raised $55,050 from 76 donors.
On average, Hestrin received $2,250 from each donation, while Strunsky received $551 per donation and Gressley received $564 per donation.
Some of Hestrin’s high lead is due to large donations from powerful organizations. The political action committee American Matters, which self-identifies as conservative, donated $5,000 to Hestrin’s campaign. Law enforcement associations donated $47,500, and the Riverside County Deputy District Attorney’s Association PAC donated $85,000. The Riverside Police Officer’s Association PAC also donated $2,100 to Hestrin in photo services. Four tribes donated a combined $32,500. From the private sector, two owners of the real estate development company Haagen Co. donated a combined $40,000 to Hestrin, real estate mogul Nachhattar Chandi donated $20,000 and a fund run by Frederick Noble of Wintec Energy donated $10,000.
Strunsky made a promise not to accept any money provided by law enforcement associations, saying it was unethical to do so. His largest donors were attorneys: David Greenberg of Law Offices of Soda & Greenberg donated $7,500, and Christopher Whelton, who owns a law office and is running for judge, donated $5,000.
Gressley also swore off money from law enforcement, she said. Her largest contributor is Costa Mesa retiree Michelle Bennett, who donated $10,000.
Even for small donations, under $500, Hestrin received more support. Hestrin received $21,200 from his 98 small donors, while Strunsky gained $18,800 from his 85 small donors, and Gressley gained $15,300 from her 51 small donors.
Across attorneys, Hestrin has received more support, with 51 attorneys or law firms donating their money, including 19 prosecutors, compared to 45 for Gressley and 44 for Strunsky.
The difference in support makes a massive difference for outreach. Hestrin was able to spend $303,000 on his campaign during the four-month period covered by the campaign records. That money went toward billboards, digital advertising, signs, print and online ads and other forms of outreach. Strunsky spent $50,800 on his campaign during the same time period, and Gressley spent $61,400.
Strunsky is largely supported by state Democrats. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara all threw in for Strunsky. The labor activist Dolores Huerta has as well. Planned Parenthood, Assemblymembers Sabrina Cervantes and Jose Medina and Congressman Mark Takano have endorsed him. On the local level, Strunsky is supported by Riverside Councilmember Clarissa Cervantes, Moreno Valley Councilmember Ulises Cabrera, Coachella Councilmember Neftali Garlarza, Perris Councilmember David Rabb and former Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege.
Gressley is endorsed by The Press-Enterprise, which lauded her independence from any political groups. She declined to request endorsements from state or local officials because she did not want to appear partisan, she said. She said the district attorney’s office should not be associated with law-making political parties, is supposed to enforce the law, not to make the law, which leaves no room for political parties, she said. She has received endorsements from Yucca Valley attorney Michael Kennedy, retired San Bernardino County prosecutor Bill Gale, Jurupa Unified School District Board of Education Member Robert Garcia and her law partner, attorney Don Bartell.
The Desert Sun endorsed Hestrin, lauding his experience. Public Defender Steven Harmon, the labor organizations SEIU and La Unia have endorsed him. The Riverside County Republican Party also has endorsed Hestrin, and so have the Riverside Sheriff’s Association, the Palm Springs Police Association, and every law enforcement agency in the county, Hestrin said. Riverside County Supervisors Kevin Jeffries, Karen Spiegel and Chuck Washington and multiple mayors and city councilmembers have endorsed Hestrin, he said.
Hestrin is nearing the end of his second term as district attorney. He was first elected in 2014. Born in the Coachella Valley Hestrin received his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Arizona in Tucson, according to his campaign statements. He worked at a newspaper in Guadalajara, Mexico, for a year until he studied law at Stanford University. He worked as a prosecutor at the district attorney’s office for almost 20 years until his election, where he handled more than 100 jury trials and spent half of his career in the homicide unit prior to his election.
Strunsky decided not to run for reelection as a judge in Riverside Superior Court so he could try for the district attorney’s office. He was elected as judge in 2016, winning 54% of the vote, with two competitors. As a judge, Strunsky handled drug court and juvenile court. He received his undergraduate degree from George Washington University, and his law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law. Strunsky was a Riverside senior deputy district attorney before his judgeship, and a San Francisco after law school.
He wrote and self-published a 225-page true crime book about the judicial system, “The Humanity of Justice: Lighting Even the Darkest Path Toward Justice,” in 2012. He founded the Winchester nonprofit Humanity of Justice Foundation, also in 2012, to provide education, outreach and funding to abused and neglected children. Strunsky donated his book proceeds to the nonprofit, which is still listed as active. The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin & Sonoma gave the foundation $20,000 in 2019, according to federation documents.
Gressley is the only candidate who has not already worked in the district attorney’s office. She was raised in Northern California, and received her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz and her law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law. She worked as a public defender in Santa Cruz, then at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, then as Riverside County counsel. After serving as county counsel, Gressley worked as a court-appointed trial defense attorney. She now works in private practice as a partner at Bartell, Hensel & Gressley, where she handles appellate law. Gressley had challenged Hestrin for district attorney in 2018, and lost with 33% of the vote.
In a March forum hosted by the Riverside County Bar Association, each candidate provided closing statements.
Gressley said she will focus as much on preventing injustice by the district attorney’s office as she will to provide justice to crime victims.
“After all is said and done, here at the forum, or at the ballot box, it turns out we all want the same thing. We all want to feel safe. Safe from being a victim of a crime. Safe from being wrongfully accused. And safe from injustice. We all want peace. Peace comes when we all feel safe in our community, when we feel treated equally by the people in charge, and when we feel well-served by our district attorney. As your district attorney, I will serve with integrity, with transparency, and with perseverance, because I am not going to give up until real and lasting solutions to the biggest of our problems are found. But if you believe that nothing is wrong with our criminal justice system here in Riverside County, then I’m not your candidate, but I will serve as your DA when I’m elected. And if you believe politics should have anything to do with the administration of justice, I am definitely not your candidate, but I will serve you as your DA, and I will be free of politics, and I will dedicate my career to making sure righteous justice is done, and unrighteous justice is undone,” Gressley said.
Strunsky said the county needs a change from Hestrin.
“Mr. Hestrin has had two terms as district attorney. And here are some facts we don’t get around. Crime has gone up here at a higher rate here than the rest of the state. His budget is up 53% just since he took office. Attorneys are leaving in drones. Thirty attorneys have left, and we’re not seeing that in other counties. You can blame COVID, but that’s not what’s happening here. And we’re facing one of the biggest public safety crises we have encountered with these 1,800,1,900 criminal cases awaiting trial ,and no courtrooms to try them in. We have layered a public safety crisis on a public safety crisis. And Mr. Hestrin has no plan to deal with it other than to blame Sacramento, and ultimately the courts. I ask for your support. We need a change,” Strunsky said.
Hestrin focused on his experience in the district attorney’s office.
“I’ve been your district attorney for eight years. I have never taken for granted the trust you have placed in me. I appreciate everything, that this community supports this DA’s office. I have been in this office for 25 years. I never left. This is the only place I have worked. I care deeply about the people that work in this office, this community, and this legal community. And so I ask for your support. Because we’ve made this office a great office. We still have work to do. But in the next four years I’m going to work hard, and double down on what works, and make this office the best in the state, and make sure the county remains, as it is, one of the safest places to live in Southern California,” Hestrin said.[/wlm_private]