Absent debater

In seeking reelection, top prosecutor Anne Marie Schubert displays an aversion to public debates

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.
This is an extended version of a story that appears in the May 31, 2018, issue.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert may be running for a second term as the county’s top prosecutor, but she apparently does not enjoy making her case in public.

Schubert has declined most invitations to participate in public candidates forums, blocked critics on Twitter and erected a 10-foot cyclone fence around her office as she tries to hold off challenger Noah Phillips, a deputy district attorney. With only days until primary voters determine the future of an office that has drawn increased scrutiny since the March 18 police killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, Schubert’s critics say her reluctance to debate her opponent in public has robbed voters of an opportunity to weigh the differences between the two.

“It’s my personal opinion that she never intended on showing up to any public meetings at all due to her incumbency,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, a member of the American for Civil Liberties Union’s Sacramento chapter. “Traditionally, people don’t pay attention to DA elections. … An aggravated community has made this an issue.”

Since Clark’s death became an international story, the role that Schubert’s office has played in clearing dozens of officers of misconduct in past use-of-force cases has drawn local and national attention. Phillips has portrayed himself as a reformer who would reopen the DA’s investigation into the July 2016 police killing of Joseph Mann, following admissions one of the officers made to SN&R, and has benefited from the financial support of Real Justice PAC, George Soros’ California Justice & Public Safety PAC and Bay Area tech liberals.

Thus far, Schubert has only publicly debated Phillips once—during a League of Women’s Voters candidates forum last month in Sacramento. Schubert has cited scheduling conflicts or hostile environments in turning down other offers.

Ressl-Moyer says she contacted Schubert four or five times before Schubert indicated she wouldn’t attend an April 27 forum hosted by the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild. “She replied on Facebook Messenger and said she had family obligations with a smiley emoticon,” Ressl-Moyer said.

Schubert’s campaign manager, David Gilliard, gave SN&R a different reason, saying his candidate wouldn’t participate because the ACLU demonstrated “extreme bias.”

Betty Williams, president of Sacramento’s NAACP branch, said Schubert told her she would attend the reception for the organization’s April 30 forum, but then canceled 15 minutes prior to the event because she “feared for her life” after a local organization planned to demonstrate outside.

“The event was held at a church with pastors and community organizers and leaders,” Williams said. “There was no imminent threat. She was too afraid to walk into the very community she represents.”

On May 10, the Players Coalition, a professional athlete-led social and racial justice advocacy organization, hosted a forum on criminal justice reform in Oak Park. Both Schubert and Phillips were invited. This time, Schubert informed organizers ahead of time she wasn’t coming. Shortly after Phillips noted his opponent’s absence, he was interrupted by Natalia Luna, a DA’s employee. Luna asked about Phillips’ stance on the Clark case.

“Is it your position, as you sit here today, that you would prosecute those two police officers?” she asked.

Phillips responded, “That’s an executive staff of the district attorney’s office. [Scubert’s] afraid to be here herself so what she’s done is sent people in her stead to ask these questions.”

Massaging their story again, Gilliard says there’s a good reason his candidate isn’t attending these events. “District Attorney Schubert was busy leading the team that captured the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer and planning for his successful prosecution,” he said in an emailed statement to SN&R.

Rather than debate Phillips, Schubert has taken to attacking his character—accusing him of offering an unethical deal to a murder defendant, and leaking an email exchange in which Phillips indulged a sexist, racist joke sent by his uncle.

Schubert has also erected virtual fences. She’s blocked Real Justice PAC co-founder Shaun King and activist Jason Collins on Twitter after they questioned her acceptance of funds from over 17 law enforcement agencies days after Clark’s death. A federal judge in New York City last week ruled the Trump administration’s blocking of critics on social media unconstitutional. Schubert briefly deleted her account, but has since revived it behind a privacy wall that only shows her tweets to her eight followers.

The NAACP’s Williams says Schubert is sending a clear message. “If you don’t show up to our events and don’t show your face in our community, it shows that you don’t care, and obviously don’t care about our vote,” Williams said.