Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lunch With Middlesex DA Candidate Mike Festa

On Saturday I was invited to lunch in Melrose with Representive Mike Festa, Democratic candidate for Middlesex County District Attorney. I was joined by one of the editors of The Alewife and a couple of Rep. Festa's aides. We discussed Festa's time as a prosecutor in Somerville and the connections he made there. We also chatted a bit about the state political scene in general before settling in on the Middlesex District Attorney's race.

Festa cited the high turnover of assistant DAs as a major problem with the current DA's office. The turnover rate results in not only a lack of institutional memory, but also a lack of continuity of service for victims and witnesses when cases get handed from one ADA to another. In addition, the ADAs end up with large caseloads, a third to a half of which tend to be routine cases such as minor misdemeanors. Those routine cases used to be handled by a police prosecutor, who now performs a mainly administrative function. If police prosecutors handle cases that don't require a law degree, the District Attorney's office can free up salary by reducing the number of ADAs and giving the remaining ones a raise. While I don't think this idea is something Festa can put on a bumper sticker, it strikes me as sensible and shows that he's thought not only about the law enforcement aspect of the job, but also the administrative aspect.

Festa's ability to speak to that administrative role is part of what he thinks will separate him from the other politically progressive candidate in the race, Senator Jarrett Barrios. While the two of them agree on many issues -- including opposition to the death penalty, community-based solutions to gang violence, and the importance of drug treatment in reducing recidivism -- Festa emphasized that, of the two, he is the candidate who has been "in the trenches" and who has "credibility" given that he's been in the system for so long. He also made the claim that his work as a defense attorney would make him an even better DA, given that he's spent the past several years scrutinizing prosecutors as part of his practice.

One of the big questions people have had about Festa's campaign is his fundraising. He mentioned that he raised $50,000 in the past three weeks, and that things have picked up since Rep. Peter Koutoujian (D-Waltham) dropped out of the race. In addition, big-time Democratic fund raiser Steve Grossman has recently endorsed Festa, and he has the potential to bring in some serious donors. At the end of the day, though, Festa admitted that he'd rather have less money and a bigger field operation than more money and no one on the ground.

I haven't decided on who I'm supporting yet in this race. I find myself facing the same dilemma as Lynne. Here's what Festa had to say to that: If you want someone who comes at the DA's job from a purely prosecutorial angle, there's one candidate in the race for you. If you want someone who comes at it with purely political experience, there's another candidate in the race for you. If you want someone with both, then he's your guy.