By James Abraham
It’s a venerable, storied tradition that’s steeped in pivotal moments in American history: political debates. In public no less. Yes, in the days before Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour cable news and vitriol-steeped television ads, the folks that wanted our votes had to have the guts to literally stand in front of their opponent—and the electorate (gasp!)—and articulate their beliefs, their positions and their reasons why they think they’re the man (or woman) for the job.
Flashback to 1858 and you would have heard Abraham Lincoln verbally duking it out with Stephen Douglas.
JFK and Nixon did it—in front of cameras in 1960. And more recently, Obama and McCain agreed to no less than three official debates across the country 2008.
Political debates seem to be intrinsic parts of the democratic process like, well, voting itself.
Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco ain’t having none of it.
And this puzzles—and piques the interest of—his opponent, Riverside Superior Court Judge Paul Zellerbach, 56, who is running for the seat Pacheco currently holds for the June 8 election.
“It’s a fundamental concept of our political system that we engage in, the candidates engage in forums and debates where they can question each other and the public should be allowed to question them,” he tells the Weekly.
But this form of spoken sparring doesn’t seem to be Pacheco’s cup of campaign tea.
So far, Pacheco has failed to show up to six scheduled debates. In some cases, Pacheco or his campaign staffers have not even responded to the invitations.
Pacheco did show up for a “town hall” forum last week that was more meeting than verbal match-up.
“It was not a formal debate between he and I, unfortunately,” Zellerbach says.
For his campaign Zellerbach touts a 22-year career as a prosecutor and 10 years of experience as a Superior Court judge, the position he currently holds (though he’s taken an unpaid leave of absence to accommodate his campaign). As a prosecutor, he netted several achievements, including two Outstanding Prosecutor awards, he says.
“So, I think I’m extremely well equipped to lead that office,” he says.
Meanwhile, Pacheco—who’s made it a point to publicize his prosecutions of gangbangers in Riverside and allegedly corrupt San Jacinto City Council members—and his PR machine continue to generate press release after press release trumpeting charges filed here and successful verdicts there; his campaign squad cranks out sound bites and comments about how Zellerbach is soft on crime and sexual predators.
These are statements Zellerbach describes as “purposeful and intentional misstatements.”
“If Mr. Pacheco were making these statements or allegations in a court of law, he’d have been sanctioned for unethical conduct because he’s distorting the truth and misrepresenting the facts—which prosecutors are ethically prohibited from doing,” Zellerbach says. “And here you have the elected DA engaging in that kind of unethical conduct and behavior.”
Pacheco also likes to tout his 90-some percent conviction rate—though Zellerbach is quick to point out that this is the kind of general statistic other district attorneys in California can boast about.
At one point, Pacheco’s campaign even sued Zellerbach, claiming that the statistics the judge was citing to question the district attorney’s conviction record weren’t true. A judge ruled in Zellerbach’s favor.
There are plenty of other reasons to question Pacheco’s standing, the judge and the district attorney’s critics say.
There was a pesky Grand Jury report last year that cited a “climate of fear” in Pacheco’s office, noted an exodus of roughly 90 experienced prosecutors from this same office and pointed out an “executive division” of individuals—who report solely to Pacheco and includes three public relations types—that costs taxpayers almost $600,000 a year. By Zellerbach’s figuring, Pacheco’s budget (almost $100 million) has grown by 71 percent over the past three years.
“That’s a lot of money,” he says.
Then there’s the charge that Pacheco overfiles, clogging the courts unnecessarily with caseload after caseload.
“He’s wasting taxpayer dollars,” Zellerbach says. “That’s not being tough on crime, that’s being tough on taxpayers.”
Pacheco and his campaign staff did not respond to the Weekly’s request for an interview.
So, who’s got what it takes to take on the mantle of Riverside County District Attorney? On June 8, voters will hand out their judgment.