Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Fight for District Attorney Heats Up
By T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writer
The candidates for Bernalillo County District Attorney live within a few miles of each other. They're both women. Both know how to handle a gun. Between them, they have 11 children.
The similarities pretty much end there.
Democratic incumbent Kari Brandenburg and Republican challenger Lisa Torraco don't exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to prosecuting crime.
• Torraco wants to reorganize the DA's Office and change the way defendants are charged, using fewer grand juries and more preliminary hearings, which are similar to a trial and require a judge.
• Brandenburg says Torraco's plan is unrealistic because preliminary hearings consume a lot of court time and could clog the system.
• Torraco claims that too many "sweet deals" have been reached with repeat offenders while Brandenburg has been in office and promises to take more cases to trial.
• Brandenburg says Torraco is misinformed and questions her challenger's qualifications.
• Torraco says Brandburg's office has a lousy conviction rate caused, in part, by poor organization and bad decision-making. Brandenburg defends the success rate of her office and says that, in any case, convictions aren't the proper standard by which to judge her. That standard is "doing justice." (The Journal reported on that dispute two weeks ago. That story can be found here).
Brandenburg has other critics.
Some families of homicide victims have done radio ads — funded mostly by Torraco — attacking how Brandenburg's office gave accused killers "sweet" plea deals.
Torraco has criticized Brandenburg's handling of high-profile cases, including the prosecution of former Marine Elton John Richard II.
Richard was sentenced to two years in prison in February for the Dec. 30, 2004, fatal shooting of Daniel Romero, who was trying to steal a Ford Bronco from outside Richard's home. Richard was freed in June after a judge reduced his sentence.
Torraco said Richard shouldn't have been prosecuted.
Brandenburg responds that Torraco has waffled on the issues, doesn't know all the facts and has been "taking advantage" of a family's pain in her ads.
As for the Richard case, Brandenburg says it was a righteous prosecution because Romero was shot in the back after Richard chased him and they fought.
Will the attacks be enough for Torraco to upset the two-term incumbent?
"There are things way beyond the control of the Republican candidate that make it more challenging for her," said Brian Sanderoff, a political analyst and president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque. "This race is being overshadowed by the presidential race and that New Mexico has five congressional seats up for grabs."
"It's hard for these lower profile races to gain traction and get their message across. When that happens, it tends to benefit the Democrat because there are more of them in Bernalillo County."
Torraco thinks she can pull off the upset.
"I know I am going to win," she said. "I know I can do this. If I am elected, I know crime will go down."
As for Brandenburg, she says her work isn't done. Since she took office, she says the DWI conviction rate has increased. She said she has started several programs, such as a unit that targets meth-related crime, to "increase the quality of life."
"We have raised the level of service incredibly," she said. "The DA's Office has been in better shape than what it has ever been."
Before taking office in 2001, Brandenburg, 54, spent the majority of her career as a defense attorney. She was born and raised in Albuquerque, graduating from Sandia High School in 1972. She has been married twice and widowed twice.
Her father, Jim Brandenburg, whose painting hangs behind her desk in her office, was Bernalillo County's district attorney from 1972 to 1976.
Brandenburg left New Mexico to attend college, earning her undergraduate degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and her law degree from Southern Methodist University.
Torraco, 46, the daughter of two educators, was born in Baltimore and graduated from high school in Columbia, Mo. She is married to a general contractor.
She spent most of her legal career as an assistant district attorney in Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties, getting her start prosecuting drunken drivers after graduating from UNM Law school.
For about 10 years, Torraco was an instructor at UNM's DA clinic, a school for aspiring prosecutors. When the school closed a few years ago, Torraco opened her own small private practice operating out of a house-turned-office on Second Street a few blocks from Federal Court.
Brandenburg's office doesn't exactly fit the "Law & Order" mold.
She has several plush animals in her office that sing, including a bear rug and a deer head on the wall. She is known to dance to the animals as they break out with such tunes as "Sweet Home Alabama."
In the corner of her office is a large refrigerator. On top is a case of A&W Root Beer and inside the freezer are gallons of ice cream.
"I don't like soda," she says. "We were having root beer float day for everyone in the office."
Brandenburg prides herself on being able to improve morale. It was part of her platform when she first elected eight years ago.
Every hour, her office erupts in sound. She collects clocks that make noise. There are at least two dozen.
As for Torraco, you get a sense of who she is by asking a simple question: Where do you live?
After she rattles off the address, there comes a warning: "Be careful, I have lots of guns," she said jokingly. "We are pro-Second Amendment people. ... To be honest with you, I don't know how many guns I have."
When she isn't working, Torraco spends most of her time taking care of seven children, who range from age 3 to 24.
She starts her day shuttling kids in her Toyota 4Runner. The windshield is cracked, and it is going to stay that way because "I don't have the money to fix it," she said.
As she's interviewed by the Journal, she texts one of her three adult stepchildren. She then quickly puts down the mobile phone to e-mail a supporter.
"I work hard," she says.