Running for district attorney is a challenging and rewarding experience. A DA is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases within their jurisdiction. They work closely with law enforcement agencies when investigating crimes and evidence. They determine whether criminal charges are filed and prosecute defendants in court. As chief prosecutors, district attorneys have significant power to shape justice in their districts.
Like judicial elections, district attorney races tend to fly under the voter’s radar. Most people can’t name their county’s district attorney, so building name recognition is an important election strategy.
NOTE: In some states, district attorneys are called county prosecutors, state attorney, or prosecuting attorney. They usually serve in office for a four-year term. For this article, we will refer to the elected position as district attorney.
How to run a campaign for district attorney:
Why do you want to become district attorney?
When thinking about running for district attorney, it is important to consider your personal reasons and motivations for seeking this position. Your beliefs and values should align with the responsibilities of the position. This will help you craft a clear platform and message for your campaign.
Many candidates want to work within the criminal justice system. For those who want a safer community, it provides a way to prosecute criminals and help ensure that victims receive justice. Elected prosecutors also act to protect civil rights and liberties. They have latitude in how they charge people with crimes. They can offer second chances through treatment and rehabilitation.
Knowing what drives you will help you create an interesting campaign message. Ideally, your story should resonate with voters.
“Ask any lawyer – if a prosecutor thinks he can win a case, he’ll prosecute it.” – Robert B. Weide
Check your eligibility to run
Not every state elects its chief prosecutors, so you’ll need to live in one of the 47 states that do. For example, in Arkansas, there are 28 prosecuting attorneys across the state. In New York, there are 62 county district attorneys. Rhode Island has only one Attorney General, who has primary duties for the entire state.
As an aspiring district attorney, you’ll need to meet certain eligibility requirements. These are determined by your state or municipality. Here are some common requirements:
- You’ll need to be a United States citizen of at least 18 years old, registered to vote, and who meets the state residency requirements.
- In most states, you’ll need a JD from an accredited law school.
- You may also be required to have experience working as a lawyer. District attorney candidates must usually be licensed to practice law in the state where they seek election.
Experience as a prosecutor or defense attorney, or having held other elected positions in the past, can be helpful. Trial experience, knowing how to advocate for clients, and understanding how the courtroom works can give you an advantage. Even private sector work, such as working as a general counsel for a business or non-profit, can help prepare you for the DA position.
Finally, to properly file and get on the ballot, you’ll need to collect petition signatures from registered voters. The actual number and how they must be submitted vary by state. Contact your local board of elections to review those rules.
Are there legal issues with running for DA?
Like all political candidates, candidates for district attorney must follow state and federal election laws and regulations. You can be penalized with fines and even disqualification from the race if you do not follow the rules. Here are specific legal issues that district attorney candidates should watch for:
- Campaign finance violations: You must comply with laws governing the amount, the source, and any reporting requirements, of all campaign contributions.
- Conflicts of interest: Avoid even the appearance of conflict. For example, accepting contributions from individuals or organizations could appear to influence a candidate’s decisions as DA. This can raise concerns about impartiality and fairness. District attorney candidates running for reelection should be particularly sensitive to this.
- Disclosure issues: As a candidate, you must state your sources of income and investments. You must be transparent in this, as this information will become publicly available.
- Defamation and libel: Be careful how you speak about opponents and others. False or defamatory statements on the campaign trail can get you in legal trouble.
- Voting rights violations: Do not violate any laws protecting the right to vote. This includes issues such as voter intimidation or discrimination.
- Ethics violations: You will be held to high ethical standards due to the nature of the office you seek. Ethical violations can result in disciplinary action or even removal from the ballot.
- Government and political activities: If you are already working in a government position, there are restrictions on using government resources for any campaigning purposes.
If you currently hold a different elected office, such as a city council member or a judge, you might not be able to keep that position. Some states prohibit individuals from holding two elected positions at once. Check your state’s laws and seek legal advice, if necessary.
“The great joy of being a prosecutor is that you don’t take whatever case walks in the door. You evaluate the case; you make your best judgment. You only go forward if you believe that the defendant is guilty.” – Merrick Garland
How to begin your campaign
The next important step is to file your required paperwork and petitions with your local election board. This typically includes a statement of candidacy, financial disclosure forms, and nomination papers.
You’ll need to provide personal details, along with your education, work experience, and current residence. You’ll also need to file additional documents, like a Statement of Economic Interests (SEI). An SEI lists any financial interests or potential conflicts of interest that you may have.
It’s important to follow your filing requirements and deadlines. If you don’t, your candidacy could be disqualified. It’s at this time that many candidates begin building their campaign websites.
How much money will you need to raise?
Running for district attorney can be expensive. You’ll need money for advertising, campaign materials, and staff. Campaign costs can often run as much or more as any other local office.
The amount of money you’ll need will be unique to your particular race. Some if it will depend on your district size and the total number of voters. The number of opponents you’ll face in the primary and general elections will also influence the cost. A typical DA race costs tens of thousands of dollars. However, some races cost a lot less due to being uncontested.
To get an idea of how much money your campaign will need, put together a detailed list of all your estimated costs. This includes printing, polling, venue costs, office space rental, and staff salaries. Advertising is another large expense. Add the estimated cost of running TV, radio, and online advertising.
Once you know your campaign’s potential costs, you can start figuring out how to pay for them. Most candidates start by reaching out to friends, family, and colleagues for initial contributions. In time, you’ll need to connect with more potential donors.
Fundraising laws vary by state and jurisdiction. There are hard limits on how much money an individual donor can give to a specific candidate.
Find out how much previous district attorney races have cost in your area, and set a fundraising goal based on that.
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Create your campaign committee
A campaign committee is the core group of people who will run and manage your campaign. They can include volunteers or paid consultants. Find people with different skills, like fundraising, marketing, and organizing, at the grassroots level. Each member should be assigned clear roles and responsibilities.
Here are the basic steps to putting together a campaign committee:
- Designate a treasurer. Like other political campaigns, a district attorney campaign must have a designated treasurer. This person is responsible for managing the campaign’s finances. A treasurer makes sure that all contributions are legal and within legal limits. Treasurers also file required financial reports and statements. This person should be detail-oriented and familiar with election finance.
- Open a campaign bank account: You’ll need a dedicated bank account to deposit and spend campaign funds. All financial transactions must be properly recorded. Under no circumstances can campaign funds be commingled with personal funds.
- Make a campaign budget. Work with your campaign treasurer to make a detailed campaign budget that lists all expected costs and sources of income.
- Put together your campaign team. In addition to a treasurer, you’ll need to fill other positions. To start, you’ll want to have a field director, a communications director, and a campaign manager in place. Each person will manage a different part of your campaign, such as fundraising, advertising, and voter outreach.
- Make sure election laws are followed. Your campaign committee and staff must be aware of and follow the proper election laws and rules.
A strong, talented team will help make sure that your campaign for district attorney goes smoothly, follows all laws and rules, and has the best chance of succeeding.
Secure your endorsements
Endorsements from influential community leaders, elected officials, and organizations can boost your credibility. Reach out to community leaders, such as elected officials, and business owners. These individuals can provide valuable support and help mobilize voters in your district.
Consider seeking endorsements from law enforcement organizations, such as police unions or associations. There may also be advocacy groups and other organizations that align with your campaign’s platform.
There should be no apparent potential conflicts of interest from those who endorse you. For example, if an endorser has a significant interest that is or may come before the DA’s office, it could be perceived as a conflict of interest. Endorsements from law enforcement organizations or law firms could raise concerns about potential bias or conflicts of interest, particularly if your platform involves criminal justice reform measures.
Be transparent about any endorsements you receive. Be prepared to address any concerns or questions raised by voters or the media.
Make your announcement
Once you officially and publicly announce your candidacy, you can put your strategy to work. It’s important to get your name before the voting public. Do it through events, through online promotion, in mailings and through signage.
District attorneys often communicate with the media to provide information to the public about cases. As a candidate, you’ll also deal with the media as you hold press conferences and give interviews.
Maintain a good working relationship with the press, as you will deal with them a great deal as a DA.
Many of our clients who ended up winning did so because they were able to get their name and message out to voters better than their opponents.
Becoming a prosecutor can be a rewarding career choice. It allows you to work on important criminal cases and make a real impact in your county or state. You will have a lot of influence over proposed criminal justice reform.
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