The Ada County Democrats intend to field candidates in races this year for both the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
The Idaho Press reports if they do so, it would be only the third time in more than 40 years the party has run a candidate for county prosecutor, and the sixth time since 1980 it has had a candidate for sheriff. Both positions are up for reelection every four years. Both current Prosecutor Jan Bennetts and Sheriff Steve Bartlett are Republicans, and have confirmed to the Idaho Press they plan to seek reelection in 2020.
Despite not having names available for either candidate yet, Jackie Groves, chairwoman of the Ada County Democrats confirmed to the Idaho Press “we’re absolutely working on it.”
One of the reasons Groves said she felt a Democrat could run a viable race in Ada County in 2020 is because Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo, a well-known and respected Democrat, is also running for reelection.
“I think one of the things that makes it most compelling is Diana Lachiondo is running alongside this person, and she is an amazing person and candidate and an excellent commissioner,” Groves said. “So, for the first time, basically, at the top of the county ticket, you have someone who is going to run a well-funded, well-received race. That makes it much better for anyone who is going to run with them.”
Still, Groves said, finding candidates is challenging.
“Anybody already in the prosecutor’s office who would be very qualified is worried for their job, so some of our best prospects would not be interested,” Groves said.
She added attorneys can often earn more money staying in private practice as well, which also could dissuade potential candidates.
The prosecutor position, which currently includes a $165,175 salary, is one that has seen little turnover for decades. In 1982, Republican Greg Bower defeated Democrat Breck Seiniger in the county prosecutor election, according to Ada County Clerk’s Office records. For the next 20 years, Bower didn’t have a challenger, even from within his own party. It wasn’t until 2012 that longtime political player Ron Twilegar — who had served as the prosecutor in Boise County — ran against Bower as a write-in in that year’s May primary, and secured enough votes to run against Bower in the general election. Bower prevailed, however, and upon his retirement in 2014, the Ada County Republican Central Committee unanimously selected Jan Bennetts to lead the office, a move the Ada County Commissioners unanimously endorsed as well. Bennetts ran unopposed in 2016.
Yet Groves said she felt a Democratic candidate could run a serious race for the office in 2020. She said she believes the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office’s decision in 2018 and 2019 to prosecute three out-of-state men who were transporting hemp through the county could serve as a possible political foothold for a Democratic candidate, because the decision generated what Groves called “negative publicity.”
Idaho law does not distinguish hemp from marijuana, although hemp contains only trace amounts of THC and does not produce a high.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office initially charged all three men with trafficking in marijuana, and given the amount of the substance they had, they faced a mandatory five years in prison under Idaho law.
Bennetts’ office received criticism for the decision. The criminal cases fueled heated debate in among the 2019 Legislature in 2019, as lawmakers tried to legalize hemp at the state level. Those efforts were unsuccessful, but three state representatives — Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, and Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton — in May delivered a petition to Bennetts’ office, urging her to drop charges against the three men. The petition had 13,000 signatures.
She refused to drop the charges, but prosecutors from her office reached a plea agreement with all three men. In September they all pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and will serve no jail time as a result.
That plea agreement will be more than a year old by the time the general election arrives in November, but Groves said she still feels the decision could have hurt Bennetts politically.
“A number of people have been very upset about the treatment of the hemp case,” Groves said.
Bennetts stood by her decision when the Idaho Press asked her if she felt the case would hurt her politically. She noted many of the people who criticized the office’s decision to prosecute the men did not live in Ada County.
“I received support from people who were in favor of upholding the law,” Bennetts wrote in response to the Idaho Press. “Some were in favor of changing it. Some disagreed with enforcing it. I thought hard about the input from each one. The misdemeanor resolutions in each of those cases demonstrate a measured, thoughtful and fair approach, consistent with my office’s handling of each of the 6,000 criminal matters we handled in one year.”
Asked about what she has accomplished in office, Bennetts pointed to the growth of the Faces of Hope Victim Center, which served victims of sexual and domestic violence, experienced under her leadership.
“Since I became the prosecutor of Ada County, my office has prosecuted 47 homicide defendants, including murders and manslaughters,” she wrote. “We have represented the people of Ada County in prosecuting Adam Dees, who murdered a family of three in the foothills; Bruce Marchant, who killed Sierra Bush and left her body in Boise County, and Carlos Sandoval, who shot one man to death and left a woman injured. The list goes on.”
Groves said she anticipates even more difficulty recruiting a Democratic candidate to run for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, a position paying $140,639. Bartlett, the current sheriff, is well-liked by both Republicans and Democrats, she said. That makes it more difficult to find someone willing to run against him.
Bartlett ran unopposed in 2016 after being appointed in 2015, according to records from the Ada County Clerk’s Office.The last time a Democrat ran for sheriff in the county was in 2004, when Bruce Honey made an unsuccessful bid for the office
Patrick Orr, spokesman for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, listed some of the accomplishments the office has made under Bartlett’s leadership. In 2016, the office opened a new, 25,000-square-foot 911 dispatch center, and residents can now text 911 if necessary.
“The (office) became the first law enforcement agency in Idaho to have a Crisis Intervention Team … comprised of sworn deputies who respond to calls for service for people who suffer from mental illness and to coordinate available resources within the community to assist them later,” Orr wrote. “Later, the sheriff added a (crisis intervention team) to the Ada County Jail.”
Groves said she believes people feel Bartlett has done his job well during his tenure. Nevertheless, she said, Idaho’s founders felt it was important for prosecutors and sheriffs to run partisan races.
“So it is my job to recruit partisan candidates for partisan races regardless of whether people on both sides of the aisle like the person doing the job,” she said. “…We really owe it to the people to do our best to find candidates even when someone is well-liked.”