Subscribe

Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch not seeking fourth term

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch will not seek a fourth term in office, saying she will be ready to retire at the end of 2022 from the county’s top law enforcement agency in a move that is likely to open up the field for a contested race.

So far two deputies in her office and a private attorney have said they are exploring the possibility of running for the position: Windsor Vice Mayor Esther Lemus, a deputy district attorney; Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell and cannabis attorney Omar Figueroa, who briefly challenged Ravitch before her reelection in 2018.

With whispers that others are also exploring a run, the campaign could turn into a crowded issue-driven race at a time when criminal justice reforms and police brutality have been central to public discourse nationwide.

Staebell already benefits from the backing of Ravitch, the first woman to serve as Sonoma County’s district attorney. Ravitch said she encouraged the 23-year veteran of the office to run because of his broad experience in the courtroom and managing staff.

But she cautioned against viewing her role leading the agency as diminished, noting she still has two years to oversee the office that reviews at least 17,000 cases each year and has a budget of $17 million.

“I’m very proud the voters are giving me a third term and I’m working hard every day to ensure we seek justice,” Ravitch said. “I’ve been at the helm through fires, pandemics, power outages, floods, protests, housing crises. You name it, we’ve been through it.”

Ravitch unseated then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua when she was elected in 2010 after campaigning on her strong record in the courtroom, where she was known as a fierce and successful prosecutor.

Her preference for a district attorney with more trial experience is reflected in her approach to leading the office after she replaced Passalacqua, who had less experience arguing serious felony cases than Ravitch. Early in her first term, Ravitch took the lead role in prosecuting a murder case involving a man who killed his sister’s boyfriend at their Healdsburg home.

Ravitch said her experience handling serious felony cases has been essential when she has had to make death penalty decisions and when she provided the yearlong review of the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy shot by a sheriff’s deputy. His death sparked calls for police reform that last today.

She concluded the deputy, Erick Gelhaus, did not violate criminal law when he shot and killed the boy, a controversial decision.

“That was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make,” Ravitch said. “The facts made it hard. It’s horrifying to think a child has been shot. It was a difficult decision because the community was in such unrest. It unveiled the incredible disconnect in our community and the disenfranchisement.”

Lemus has less experience handling serious cases than her colleague but would bring political exposure and experience winning an election, gained when voters chose her to join the Windsor Town Council in 2018.

Lemus grew up in a deeply rooted Sonoma County family, went to UC Berkeley and studied law at UCLA. She worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Bay Area and Southern California before joining the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in 2007.

Lemus said she has been encouraged to run and was interested, but declined to elaborate on her experience or what motivates her to consider pursuing the role.

“I’m acknowledging that I’m exploring a possible run, but it’s so early,“ Lemus said.

Ravitch, when asked about Lemus’ work, said she has worked on the misdemeanor trial team, domestic violence treatment court and has served in a public engagement role.

Staebell graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law and joined the District Attorney’s Office after graduating 23 years ago. He has decades of experience handling serious felony sexual assault, gang and murder cases. He has chaired the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force for the past five years and was promoted six years ago to Ravitch’s management team.

Staebell said he, too, is still “exploring” a run for the office but said he believes he has the experience to meet the demands of the office.

“Experience is important because the issues are so complicated,” Staebell said. “Just the number of curveballs where you have to make decisions that affect people’s lives in a powerful way, you have to have a sense of fairness and experience about where those decisions will lead.”

Anticipating a dynamic, contested campaign, a group of about a half-dozen criminal defense attorneys are putting together a list of criminal justice reforms that could be implemented by the District Attorney’s Office and plan to ask each candidate to explain their stances.

While the list is still in development, it will include questions about the District Attorney’s role rooting out corrupt policing, making it easier to expunge criminal records and making death penalty decisions, longtime local defense attorney Kristine Burk said.

Burk, who is the current administrator of the county’s conflict panel of private attorneys contracted to provide criminal defense when the Public Defender’s Office cannot, said they hope the policy questions will help shape the campaign.

“The goal will be to not just go with the candidate we like the most and have known the longest, but to really try to advance and put to the front of the campaign legitimate issues around criminal justice reform,” Burk said.

Longtime criminal defense attorney Chris Andrian said he believes Lemus could be a formidable foe for any candidate because of her political experience and her work on community relations after the death of Lopez. Andrian said county voters may be ready to elect a Latina or Latino district attorney.

“If you have someone representative of the community who is strong and capable, they might have a political edge,” Andrian said.

Figueroa ran against Ravitch briefly leading up to the 2018 mid-term election on a platform advocating for reforms in how the county handled cannabis cases. While he isn’t ready to declare his candidacy, Figueroa said he is seriously considering a run because he views this as a critical time for reform from within district attorneys’ offices.

“Democracy dies without contested elections,” said Figueroa, who said candidates can force each other to clarify their policy perspectives.

Figueroa said he doesn’t believe people with substance abuse problems should be “put in cages” yet he believes strongly that perjury and environmental crimes should be handled with a strong hand.

He believes Ravitch has shown a lack of leadership on officer credibility issues that has allowed law enforcement to get away with bad behavior. Figueroa said the death of David Ward in 2019 was a prime example because the deputy involved had a record of excessive force complaints. Ward died after the deputy tried pulling him through an open car window by wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck and bashing his head into the side of the window. Sheriff Mark Essick called the deputy’s actions “extremely troubling” and moved to fire him, but the deputy resigned.

Figueroa said he believes district attorneys must take more action when it comes to problematic law enforcement behaviors, such as excessive force and false testimony.

"If I did get elected, I’d be a crusading district attorney and I would clean up the justice system,“ Figueroa said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette