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  • Writer's picturemaggie dong

Interviewing Candidates for Santa Clara District Attorney

After over a decade Santa Clara County is facing its first competitive race for District Attorney (DA). The race consists of three candidates: the incumbent, Jeff Rosen, and his challengers Sajid Khan and Daniel Chung. The responsibilities of Santa Clara County’s DA are vast to say the very least; they serve as the county's top prosecutor, meaning they manage a department of over 620 employees, handle 40,000 cases a year, and have the power to charge people for civil and criminal offenses or not to bring a charge at their discretion. To put it in simple terms, the DA has a major say in how the county charges & rehabilitates offenders.

In an effort to help familiarize the public with the candidates, Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA) Silicon Valley Chapter and theIDEA Educational Foundation, partnered together to host a series of Town Hall meetings for each of the Santa Clara County District Attorney candidates. Cupertino Vice Mayor Liang Chao with a passion of engaging young people with real-world civic issues recruited three high school students, Maggie Dong (11th grade, Branham High), Sunjay Muralitharan (12th grade, Washington High) and Sophie Yang (10h grade, Lynbrook High), to organize and moderate the event. In this unique series of back-to-back 30-minute town hall meetings, our goal was simple: to foster a relationship between each candidate and the community, regardless of the election outcome.

We opened the event with this remark: “The intent of this event is to foster a relationship between every candidate and the community regardless who gets elected. The candidates should focus on policy issues the community cares about and refrain from attacking other candidates. The audience should keep an open mind while listening and refrain from campaigning for or against any candidate during the event. Questions should be asked in a respectful manner, even though the content of the question might be pointed and challenging”

Despite the conversation getting a bit heated at times, the young moderators were able to keep everything under control. The audience were impressed with the level of maturity and assertiveness displayed by these high school students.

After the event, a journalist in the audience Susan Bassi approached the high school students and complimented their skills as moderator and for creating this event: “All of you should be proud of those kids. We threw them into a job adults have a hard time doing. They did it better than I saw done at Stanford or in San Jose,” referring to District Attorney Candidate Forums which got contentious with moderators interrupting candidates. Similarly, Siddeny Theodore Scarlet, another audience member, was also impressed by the work of these high school students and even went as far as saying he would vote for Maggie if she ran for president.

DA Candidate Daniel Chung commented that “I love the fact that high school students are out here getting engaged… This is amazing, I mean, we have a sophomore, a junior, and a senior, they’re way ahead of the curve. They’re going to be doing fantastic things. I hope one of you guys become the next DA in the future.”

The majority sentiment from the audience was that even though not everyone supported each candidate, they supported the high school students and respected their work.

“Sajid Khan is a San Jose native and a first-generation Muslim, Indian-American. Sajid is a proud graduate of San Jose High School and UC Berkeley. After earning his Juris Doctorate from UC Hastings College of Law in 2008, Sajid began his career as a Public Defender. Over the last almost 14 years as a public defender in San Jose, Sajid has fought for people’s dignity and constitutional rights and against systemic racism and mass incarceration, handling every type of case from low-level misdemeanors to death penalty litigation. Through these experiences, Sajid has learned the criminal legal system inside and out” - Sajid’s introduction at the event (provided directly by his campaign).

Khan’ began by touching on what he deems to be the source of crime. “Crime happens in context. Oftentimes people commit crimes as a result of unhealed trauma, mental illness, substance abuse issues, poverty or a constellation of all those issues; especially with our young people'' Khan explained. In order to fix these underlying issues from the source Khan expressed that he would fight for increased investment in diversion, restorative justice and mental health programs.

When asked by the moderator on how he would combat the uptick in Asian hate crimes, Khan focused on the need for diversity in the DA’s office. “Having lived experiences in these seats of power is really critical so that we have someone who is representative of the community, that understands the needs of people of color,” he emphasized. The seasoned public defender went on to mention that many hate crime victims might not want to report hate crimes or may not know how to do so; his hope was that a more diverse, or “culturally competent” as he put it, DA’s office would be able to better help these minority committees in getting the justice they deserve.

A member of the public questioned Khan on why the bill he supported (Senate bill 1391) only applied to 14 and 15 year olds (the bill made it so minors of this age range could not be tried as adults. Khan reiterated his well known commitment to prosecuting minors differently than adults and explained that this bill was only the beginning. “The next step is to end the practice of prosecuting 16 and 17 year old as adults.” The advocate for juvenile offenders also mentioned that his opponent, Jeff Rosen, is a fervent supporter of prosecuting minors the same way as adults.

Some of Khan’s more progressive views are considered controversial by some voters, but Khan was not challenged on them today. Surprisingly, the well respected incumbent, due to his more balanced approach, got some heats from the audience later.

“SANTA CLARA COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY JEFF ROSEN is a nationally recognized leader in criminal justice reform. His changes to one of the largest prosecutorial offices in the country include: reducing the jail population, diversion programs for non-violent offenders, expungements for low level drug crimes, prison reform, and promoting the highest ethical prosecution standards. This, all while keeping crime at its lowest rate in decades, by vigorously and successfully prosecuting murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, domestic violence abusers, child molesters, corporate polluters, and those who commit fraud against the elderly. Since 2011, Mr. Rosen has overseen the largest prosecutor's office north of Los Angeles, serving a population of almost two million. The District Attorney's Office has over 620 employees, including 190 deputy district attorneys. From gang homicides to human trafficking to cyber-crime, the DA’s Office prosecutes tens of thousands of cases in court each year and diverts thousands of others to achieve justice inside and outside of court. Under Mr. Rosen’s leadership, the Office is more diverse than ever, with women comprising 50% of prosecutors and African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and LGBTQIA+ individuals representing more than 40% of the prosecutors.” - Rosen’s introduction at the event (provided directly by his campaign).

Rosen began with a brief outline of his goals as DA: “my philosophy as DA is to vigorously pursue public safety and criminal justice reform.” he said. Rosen went on to claim that when only one of these two goals are pursued, neither come to fruition. The incumbent supported his ideology with his success as DA. “Santa Clara County is the safest large county in the United States and our crime rate is one of the lowest for any county in California and the United States,” he explained. Rosen credited these successes to his favorable relationship to law enforcement.

He continued laying out his proudest accomplishments which included strides in victim services, reduction in gun crime, mental health drug treatment, and creation of a paid law clerk program over summer for law school students. Rosen stressed the importance of a paid law clerk program in the DA’s office as the lack of one beforehand led to many qualified prosecutors being hired districts with such a program; in addition, he highlighted that not everyone can afford to take up unpaid work especially with the high costs of law school. The participants in this highly selective program must be second year law school students, they receive between $10,000 - $12,000 for their work and are commonly hired into the Santa Clara DA’s office. Throughout the town hall Rosen continuously stressed his commitment to raising both diversity and excellence within his DA’s office. “Half of our prosecutors and managers are women, more than 50% of the people I have hired have been African American, Latino, Asian American or LGBTQ+ and I think that that has made us a prosecution office where people want to come to,” he proudly asserted.

Things began to get heated when the floor was opened up to the audience. As a DA for 12 years, handling tens of thousands of cases per year, there are bound to be upset people, such as victims who didn’t think justice was served or defendants who didn’t think their trials were fair. And some were in attendance looking for a change of DA. Margaret Petros, a member of the audience and executive director of Mother’s Against Murder (an organization that supports grieving families of murder victims) pressed Rosen hard on the fact that state victim compensation filings and benefits have fallen under his leadership despite the increases in their budget. Rosen responded sternly saying “I don’t know what you are talking about.” The heated back and forth continued between the two, and in the end Rosen defended himself by claiming that he brought victim services into the DA’s office and went as far as tripling their staff.

The following questions sparked similarly contentious arguments. A back and forth between the incumbent and journalist Susan Bassi regarding her case resulted in Bassi accusing Rosen of victim shaming her as he laid out what he recalled of her case. “You are the one with the restraining order we filed against you… which was granted because you post photos of their children of their internet, and you were also declared a vexatious litigant by the Santa Clara County superior court which means you are not able to file documents in court anymore,” were Rosen’s exact words that prompted this accusation. Bassi quickly interjected “You mean the ones you put on the internet first.” The final question came from Siddeny Theodore Scarlet where he and Rosen had a contentious argument about Scarlet’s past history of being delivered little to no justice for the crimes committed against him as well as the ongoing prosecution of his case that has dragged on for 7 years. Rosen concluded his segment by agreeing to look into Scarlet’s case while expressing frustration about how the audience members each wanted to discuss their own specific cases.

“Daniel Chung is a career prosecutor who is committed to prosecuting crime. He grew up in a single-parent immigrant family in Milpitas and has lived approximately two decades in Santa Clara County. Financial aid and teaching jobs enabled him to attend Harvard and Columbia. His father served in the military and in law enforcement and inspired him to pursue public service. Daniel prosecuted gun crimes in New York City and violent crimes in Santa Clara County. In 2020, DA Rosen awarded him the Webb Award for being one of his two best trial attorneys. Daniel is committed to restoring justice and uplifting people in his home community.” - Chung’s introduction at the event (provided directly by his campaign).

Chung begins by stating his overall position in this race. He states that he is a firm believer in “prosecuting crime” and that “we have serious public safety issues here in Santa Clara County… Both property crime and violent crime need to be prosecuted seriously.” From meeting with small businesses constantly, Chung wants to create a DA office that “is responsive and supports law enforcement to do the right thing.” As a career prosecutor, Chung emphasizes on his experiences – “I started in New York City focusing on gun crimes there and did violent crimes here in Santa Clara County. And in 2020, I was awarded the Webb Award for being one of the two best trial prosecutors here in Santa Clara County”.

When asked to elaborate on his Op-Ed about Criminal Justice Reform, which was published in 2021, about the then-recent spike in Asian American crime, Chung responded that it “changed my life.” After hearing about the Atlanta shootings, as an Asian American violent crime prosecutor, not only does he believe that “people [should hear] us – that we are talking about [Asian American hate crimes]”, he also believes the public should “hear about the criminal justice reforms that are coming out”. With those reforms, Chung believes in “balance” – “so that we protect the victims as well as the defendants.” Later on, when addressing an audience question, Chung circles back to reforms with the question: “Why are all these reforms that are coming out that are so unbalanced – why are Asian Americans experiencing so much violence and no one in the South Bay was speaking up?”

Another distinct part of his campaign is that Chung believes in being hard on crime. He argues that “if [repeat offenders] don't take advantage of second chances and just keep harming our community, we have to put our foot down.” Chung firmly believes that accountability for repeat serious violent offenders should be held to the highest degree, arguing that “sometimes, that might include prison.”

For voters who have watched previous candidate forums for this race, they have come to expect some contentious moments between Chung and Rosen. Such moments were absent in this event since the candidates followed the ground rule of focusing on policlices, rather than attacking other candidates.

The event successfully passed with multiple audience members praising the high school students for their work. Although there was some back-and-forth during Rosen’s section – which the moderator quickly terminated – there were no attacks on other candidates throughout the whole event. It was purely informational and gave the audience a general idea about every candidate’s goals. As a student moderator, Maggie believes the event was a success: “People got to hear campaigns from a variety of candidates, and I believe we all learned something today”.

Here’s more information on each candidate from their own websites:

Sajid Khan’s:

The election day was June 7th, 2022. Whoever won 50%+1 vote will become the DA. If no one gets a majority support, the top two contenders will head to the general election for a run off.

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