With Senior Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s announcement Tuesday in front of nearly 100 supporters that she is officially in the race to be Santa Barbara County’s next top prosecutor comes the reality that, for the first time ever-since the District Attorney became an elected position in Santa Barbara County in 1855-the incumbent will face opposition from someone within the department.
Dudley, known for her aggressiveness in the courtroom, has already shown her aggressiveness in the race despite being 10 months away from the primary, racking up several big-name endorsers, including at least two county supervisors and two senior deputy district attorneys. She faces a formidable opponent, squaring off against a woman who gained nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2006.
Christie Stanley, the current DA, hasn’t made an official announcement of her intention to run for reelection but told The Independent in an August 4 interview she intends to stick around. “I think I’m the best person to do the job,” she said, adding that if Dudley chose to run, she would be welcome. “Everybody has a right to do what they think they’re qualified to do.”
The unprecedented challenge from Dudley leaves Stanley with her work cut out for her. Elections, as they say, are a referendum on a voter’s confidence in an incumbent, not the challenger. And though much of Stanley’s time as the county’s top prosecutor has been quiet, there are at least a few largely controversial topics leaving her vulnerable come June 2010.
Just months after taking office, Stanley raised some eyebrows when she decided to prosecute Ricardo Juarez-who had turned 14 shortly before he was accused of committing a gang-related murder on State Street-as an adult. Earlier this year, several people, county officials included, didn’t take kindly to Stanley approaching the Board of Supervisors- entrenched in major budget cuts the county hasn’t seen in years-and requesting a $30,866 salary increase. Though many thought the request had rotten timing, however, Stanley’s salary does sit well below that of comparable counties’ DAs.
But the issue causing most community concern is Stanley’s investigation and prosecution of the alleged starters of the Tea Fire. While Sheriff Bill Brown came out within a week of the start of the blaze in November 2008 and said investigators knew who started it, Stanley took four months to file charges. In the interim, the department was quiet about updates, leaving the community to wonder what was happening. Calls throughout the weeks were returned by her executive assistants. On February 13, the office finally announced that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the so-called Tea Fire Ten started the fire. Instead, the 10 would face misdemeanor trespassing and building a fire without a permit charges. All of the defendants accepted a plea bargain which allowed them to do community service in their hometowns.
Dudley herself came under scrutiny in recent years for Intoxicating Agent, a book she self-published a few years back. Defense attorney Bob Sanger claimed the book’s story was based on a case Dudley was prosecuting involving a client of his, Massey Haraguchi. Sanger alleged that perceived similarities between the book and his client’s case prompted Dudley not to seek a plea bargain because taking it to trial would promote her book. The case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court, which eventually ruled the book was, in fact, unrelated to Haraguchi’s case and the timing of the book’s release was coincidental.
But of all the issues related to the DA’s office facing voters, the main issue, according to those in legal circles both inside and out of the office, is Stanley’s health. She had been fighting an intense battle with lung cancer. After a first round of treatments, it appeared the cancer had subsided. It did not, however, and for the better part of the last year, she’s been fighting once again, enduring radiation and chemotherapy that she said has had a “real positive effect.” “I’m improving a great deal,” said Stanley in early August. (She did not return several phone calls for this story.) Stanley has reportedly missed a large chunk of the last two years in office dealing with the cancer. Dudley herself said she hasn’t seen Stanley since she told her she was running in the beginning of June. Though Dudley works on a different floor of their building than Stanley, this claim is echoed by other deputies.
Despite her absence earlier in the year, Stanley, who has often been seen in a wheelchair, said she had been in daily contact with executives in her office. And now, according to Chief Trial Deputy Joshua Lynn, her presence in the South County office is steady. “She was out, and now she’s back,” he said. The product going out to the public is still first class, Lynn said. Additionally, he said, Stanley has been present in South County frequently. “This is not an abandoned office,” said Lynn, who recently secured a major conviction for the office when a Santa Barbara jury found the infamous Jesse James Hollywood guilty of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
Many, however, have said the office is lacking clear direction. “I think that office needs a presence of leadership,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who supported Stanley in her 2006 run but is supporting Dudley this time around. “And I say it with the most sensitivity toward Christie.”
Several in the DA’s office have characterized the situation as awkward, especially with the election 10 months away, and deputies are treading very lightly around Dudley’s announcement. Few would comment on the record. And they might be smart not to. One need not look far down the road, to Ventura County in 2002, to find that supporting a candidate who loses a race could have potential consequences. Adam Pearlman, who regularly represents defendants in Santa Barbara County, was one of those. He supported candidate Ron Bamieh, who was beaten by the sitting DA’s hand-picked successor. In part because of that, he was transferred from his position of senior deputy district attorney prosecuting felonies to the child support enforcement division, where he would be going after deadbeat parents. Pearlman, who didn’t return a call seeking comment on the Santa Barbara DA race, has since gone into private practice.
As of now, only two-Senior Deputy DAs Ron Zonen and Jerry Franklin-have come out publicly supporting one of the two candidates. Zonen said there isn’t a better prosecutor out there than Dudley. “I think she would do this job better than anybody,” he said. Several defense attorneys are also taking similar, quiet stances. “I want no part of that,” said one. “I have clients I’m representing.”
Dudley said her decision had nothing to do with Stanley, and said she is extremely fond of her boss, and that it was heart-wrenching to tell her about her decision to run. “When I decided, I did not know whether the DA was going to run again,” she said. “I had to decide how I felt I could best serve the office and county.”
Dudley lists plans to focus on violent crimes, including gang violence, create an arson unit, reinstall a truancy program, and make the department more transparent to the public. Her boss and now opponent Stanley, who began her career with the District Attorney’s office in 1980, was named prosecuting attorney of the year in 1984. The filing period for the race doesn’t officially open until next spring, giving either contender chance to change her mind, or more candidates the opportunity to enter the race.