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Veteran Sonoma County prosecutor Carla Rodriguez poised to take over as district attorney

Complete Sonoma County election results

For more local election results go here.

For the first time in over a decade, Sonoma County will see a new face in the office of its top prosecutor.

Carla Claeys Rodriguez, a 25-year veteran of the District Attorney’s Office, ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary and will succeed Jill Ravitch at the start of next year.

“It’s a humbling experience to look at those election results,” Rodriguez said Thursday morning as she drove to an Elder Abuse Awareness Month event in Cloverdale. “Yesterday was spent reflecting on the enormity of the task I’m taking on, and I truly hope I do the best job that I can for the people of Sonoma County.”

Rodriguez launched her campaign last year with a tough-on-violent-crime platform, promising voters she would focus on victims’ rights and public safety.

But, on the campaign trail, she became aware of other issues of concern, including wage theft, that now inform what she intends to focus on after she takes office in January.

“I’ve learned a lot over the past 15 months. I’ve met a lot of people from different communities, and I think my goals and priorities shifted over the last 15 months from talking to so many diverse communities,” Rodriguez said. “Talking to people who have been directly impacted by things we see in our office has been really motivating.”

Rodriguez received a wide range of support, including from Ravitch and other colleagues in the DA’s Office.

“She’s a career prosecutor and understands the job,” Ravitch said ahead of Tuesday’s election. “I think she’s tuned into the many changes we’re seeing in the criminal justice system and the evolution in the role of prosecutor.”

Some labor organizations and defense attorneys welcome Rodriguez’s focus on crimes that affect workers and her willingness to divert people from the criminal justice system.

Yet, she is taking office amid a collision of political forces nationwide — a progressive movement demanding alternatives to mass incarceration versus a reactionary pushback from those who prioritize “law and order” values — that threaten to complicate her role.

“Every case is a decision,” Rodriguez said. “Should I file (charges)? Should I divert? Should I give them restorative justice? Do they want restorative justice? Should I just try to get restitution somehow? And if I file, what do I file? Do I file something that could send them to prison? Do I file something that would get them local (jail)? Are they on probation? Should I just violate their probation? What are the immigration consequences? What is just?”

Standing up for victims

Though Rodriguez has built her 27-year career solely on prosecuting crimes, she remembers her earliest efforts were in defense — of her siblings from parental discipline and other kids from schoolyard bullies.

"I was kind of a weirdo, but that was my mission. I just hated bullies,“ she said.

As a teen, she and her family moved from Connecticut to Saratoga, California. Rodriguez attended St. Mary’s College and then law school at Santa Clara University. While a student, she interned with the gang unit at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and after passing the bar exam, she worked as a prosecutor in Napa County.

In 1997, she joined the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Rodriguez, 50, still can’t stand bullies.

"I really enjoy holding people accountable who take advantage of vulnerable victims,“ she said.

She aims to protect people not only from violent crime, but from offenses including wage theft. A 2021 state law allows wage theft over $950 to be prosecuted as a felony.

Her stance has won her the favor of several local labor organizations, who call wage theft a pervasive — but overlooked — crime in Sonoma County.

“It tells us that she cares about working people and making sure they get a fair shake,” said Maddy Hirshfield, director of the North Bay Labor Council, the region’s largest labor coalition, which endorsed Rodriguez.

Every year, California workers are robbed of $15 billion in lawfully earned wages in the form of unpaid overtime or being denied breaks, according to Christy Lubin, executive director of the nonprofit Graton Day Labor Center. Other examples include: being paid less than minimum wage or workers’ tips being taken.

And according to Ryan Williams, political organizer for the Service Employees International Union 1021, which also endorsed Rodriguez, wage theft persists in some of Sonoma County's low wage, immigrant-heavy industries such as hospitality, restaurants, agriculture and construction.

Some defense attorneys are similarly hopeful about their work with Rodriguez when she takes over.

"I’ve always gotten along with her very well. ... I could get a reasonable disposition with her“ for his clients, said local defense lawyer Walt Rubenstein said. ”I do believe that she is open to the trends in which California is going.“

'Cautiously progressive’

Rodriguez is quick to differentiate herself from embattled left-wing prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles who have faced political challenges over allegations they were soft on crime.

On Tuesday, San Francisco voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin two years into his first term after critics, including fellow Democrats, painted the city as ridden with crime, addiction and homelessness under his progressive administration. His supporters countered that though some forms of violent crime and drug overdoses were up in San Francisco and elsewhere during the pandemic, crime overall is at historic lows.

Rodriguez said she shares the ideals of many pushing for justice system reforms, describing herself as “cautiously progressive.”

“I’m progressive in that I don’t want people to enter the criminal justice system — I’m trying to find meaningful alternatives to filing cases,” she said.

However, she added, “If I get elected, I’m not going to take office and just unilaterally say, ‘We’re not going to prosecute juveniles, period; we’re not going to send people to prison, period.’ That would be very, I think, bad for our community.”

Though she has regularly disparaged "too much change and too soon,“ she said she sides with more equitable prosecution and incarceration efforts. The execution, she said, is what she finds problematic — like a 2021 bill calling for misdemeanor defendants found ”incompetent“ to receive mental health treatment rather than stand trial.

”Overall, the thrust toward addressing implicit bias and not (relying on) just mass incarceration — I totally agree,” she said. “But when you make laws that anticipate we have mental health facilities that don’t exist, or when you pass laws that say no jail, but drug treatment, and there’s no drug treatment program, it’s a failure. ... That’s the dilemma. I don’t want people in the system. At the same time, we don’t have sufficient resources locally to give them meaningful alternatives. So I’m working on it.”

Still, some doubt that Rodriguez represents the thoughtful, equitable approach to prosecution she espouses.

Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol defense and civil rights lawyer who said he considered running for district attorney but opted not to, called Rodriguez “status quo.”

“I just think she’s not going to change anything, and Sonoma County needs change,” Figueroa said, pointing to Rodriguez’s commitment to keep most of the office’s staff in their current positions and reluctance to directly criticize her boss or agency.

Though a friend of Rodriguez’s, Healdsburg immigration lawyer Bernice Espinoza said she is concerned about her plans to continue prosecuting juveniles as adults in some cases and her “tough-on-crime” perspective on certain offenses.

“But I am hopeful that she is someone who will sit down with you and will listen to what you have to say,” Espinoza said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Complete Sonoma County election results

For more local election results go here.

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