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Money And Rhetoric Fly In The Race For Washington County DA

Kevin Barton, left, and Max Wall are facing off in the Washington County district attorney's race.
Campaign photos
Kevin Barton, left, and Max Wall are facing off in the Washington County district attorney's race.

As unprecedented cash pours into a heated race for Washington County, Oregon, district attorney, much of the attention has focused on Max Wall.

Wall, a former deputy district attorney in Polk County who currently represents criminal defendants, has tapped into a national movement aimed at installing candidates promising reform in prosecutors’ offices.

His candidacy has benefited from more than $200,000 in spending from a national political action committee run by a campaign operative connected to billionaire George Soros, who’s been active in district attorney races across the country. Wall’s TV ads have blanketed the Portland area in recent weeks, and he’s hired a prominent political consultant, Liz Kaufman.

Wall’s opponent, Washington County Chief Deputy DA Kevin Barton, is now benefiting from outside largesse as well. Barton recently reported a $25,000 contribution from Nike founder Phil Knight. And he’s received nearly $50,000 from a political action committee funded by industrialist Henry Swigert, the former longtime chairman of ESCO Corporation.

Barton said he doesn’t know precisely why Knight decided to support him, but that he “was able to have conversations with people who work with Mr. Knight about the reasons I am running for DA, my qualifications and broad community support and about the concern of out-of-state groups trying to influence a local election with large sums of money.”

Barton’s father, Robert Barton, also works for a law firm led by Doug Houser, Knight’s cousin. Knight declined to answer questions through a spokesman.

In total, records show Barton’s campaign committee has received more than $200,000. Wall’s campaign has reported more than $275,000 in contributions.

The money flowing to both candidates has brought heaps of attention to the contest for who prosecutes crimes in Oregon’s second-most populous county. This is the first time an open DA seat has been contested in Washington County in decades.

The patterns have largely followed similar races nationwide: Barton presents himself as the established prosecutor, with long experience in the office and support from a wide swath of the law enforcement community and local officials. Wall’s messaging paints him as the reform-minded outsider, who wants to prioritize treatment over incarceration, and to smooth relations between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Wall has also received support from high-ranking Democrats such as House Speaker Tina Kotek and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, both from Portland.

But the rising attention has also led to heated accusations.

Barton has long claimed Wall's misled voters since March by saying he’d not been promised “dollar one” from national donors when he decided to run. Wall filed his candidacy on March 6, the last possible day, and Barton has rarely missed a chance to refer to “dirty money” and suggest dubious reasons for outside influence parachuting into a typically sleepy election.

Now, Wall is firing shots of his own. He’s recently taken issue with Barton’s refusal to participate in a candidate forum on Saturday organized by the ACLU of Oregon, community organizing group Unite Oregon and Coalition Communities of Color.

“Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system in our county and statewide,” Wall wrote in a recent email declining to participate in a candidate event put on by the Washington County Public Affairs Forum. “And voters of color deserve an opportunity to hear from the candidates about how the DA will engage communities color. The fact that Mr. Barton refuses to participate in a forum led by these nonprofit organizations gives me pause.”

The ACLU of Oregon is piling on. Daniel Lewkow manages the organization’s “They Report to You” campaign, aimed at bringing attention to Oregon DA races. He told OPB this week that Barton’s refusal to participate in the group’s forum indicates “it’s not a priority to engage with impacted communities and communities of color.”

As a nonprofit, the ACLU does not endorse political candidates and has said the event it’s planning for Saturday morning will be nonpartisan and unbiased.

Barton said that doesn’t appear to be the case. He says a small group of demonstrators recently showed up outside the Washington County Courthouse holding signs supportive of Wall and handing out ACLU literature.

“I told them from the very beginning that I wasn’t comfortable with them as a moderator,” Barton said.

Barton also is critical of the ACLU’s campaign to raise awareness about district attorney races, which he believes uses “inaccurate, offensive and inflammatory cartoon images” in online videos.

“Although the ACLU has a long history of doing important work nationwide, in this particular DA race I do not believe the ACLU has been completely neutral,” Barton wrote to Lewkow in an April 25 email.

Earlier this week, the ACLU was preparing an announcement that Barton has refused to attend its event, but that Wall would be there alone. That doesn’t mean voters won’t have a chance to hear the candidates debate.

Both men are scheduled to appear at a candidate forum on at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 3, at the Hillsboro Civic Center. They’re also planning to appear on OPB’s "Think Out Loud" on Friday, May 4.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.