Politicians Prosecuting Their Case to Come to Congress
If three in a row signals a trend, then the era of the prosecutor in congressional politics is clearly taking hold.
The first person sent to the House by special election this year, Dan Donovan, was starting his 12th year as the elected district attorney on New York’s Staten Island. The winner of the second such contest, on Tuesday, is very likely to be fellow Republican Trent Kelly, who was elected DA for seven counties in northern Mississippi in 2012 and before that was city prosecutor in Tupelo for 11 years. The next special election isn’t until September, in downstate Illinois, but the clear favorite is Darin LaHood, who spent almost a decade as a state and federal prosecutor before becoming a GOP state senator five years ago.
The trio is continuing a tradition that’s been around since Congress began, but which has quietly made much deeper inroads into the membership demographics this decade.
Campaign strategists from both parties, but especially in the GOP, appear to have come to an intensified realization that prosecutors make fine congressional candidates for a host of reasons. They can generally be counted on to be above moral reproach, savvy with the media, quick to master policy nuance, attentive to detail, unflappable on their feet and plugged in to the power and money centers of their communities.
Of the 51 members of the 114th Congress (just under 10 percent) with prosecutorial experience, slightly more than half have arrived since 2010. Eighteen of the newcomers are Republicans, only eight are Democrats. The former prosecutors who have been around longer are more evenly divided, 14 Republicans to 11 Democrats.
Their total number, according to the CQ Members’ database, is greater than the share of lawmakers who say they had previous careers in real estate (39), agriculture (32), medicine (25), blue-collar work (also 25) or journalism (15).
Eight senators have been their states’ attorney general. Four are in their first terms: Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
Six former U.S. attorneys, all but one of them nominated by President George W. Bush, have come to the Capitol in the past three general elections — quadrupling the roster of members who were once the top federal prosecutors in their regions.
Ten Republicans and five Democrats, nine of them elected to Congress since 2010, first gained local notice and political grounding as a county district attorney, which for all but a couple of them was an elected position.
The others in the group have limited their crime-busting and suing-for-the-government lives to less overtly political positions in city, county, state, military and civilian federal prosecuting offices.
“If I were working for either one of the House campaign committees, a list of current and former prosecutors in a district would be the first thing I’d look at when it was time to start recruiting,” said Cam Savage, a GOP consultant who has helped elect a pair of U.S. attorneys, Rep. Susan W. Brooks of Indiana in 2012 and Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas last year.
Prosecutors tend to have to withstand more intense personal scrutiny than local or state legislators. State attorneys general and most district attorneys are elected, often after campaigns where their claims of ethical purity are tested by opponents and the media. And U.S. attorney nominations are typically awarded to prominent local political players whose lives can withstand an FBI background check.
Once they’re on the job, prosecutors have ample opportunity to generate headlines. They bask in good press with the lawsuits and criminal prosecutions they win, and they learn spin-control skills whenever their office loses a civil case or fails to gain a high-profile conviction.
Donovan, for example, came under criticism after his office didn’t secure an indictment in the case of Eric Garner, who died last summer after police put him in a chokehold captured on video. But he rebutted the criticism well enough to secure 59 percent in the May 5 contest to succeed Michael G. Grimm, a fellow Republican who resigned after admitting to tax evasion.
And this summer, LaHood can expect to be pressed by his opponents on his prosecutorial record. During his time in Las Vegas as an assistant U.S. attorney, the title for an entry-level federal prosecutor, improper statements he made during criminal proceedings were central to at least three convictions being overturned on appeal, according to a 2010 USA Today investigation of misconduct by federal prosecutors.
(LaHood is hoping to succeed another Republican who quit in disgrace this winter, Aaron Schock. The primary, which will be tantamount to winning the solidly Republican seat centered on Peoria, is on July 7.)
“A lot of a prosecutor’s life is preparing witnesses for trials and then arguing before judges and juries, and all the unexpected things that can happen in a courtroom are great preparation for the things the voters throw at you on the stump or your opponent brings up in a debate,” Savage said. “So the best prosecutors become great candidates because they know they have to prepare thoroughly for every meeting and pay attention to every detail because the little things really matter — which is true in politics, too, but a lot of politicians don’t ever understand that.”