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Debate Between DA Candidates Benito and Carlton: No Contest?

 

It was a Monday night, but Bonnyview Baptist Church pews were filled with believers who leaned more political than theological.

Hundreds of people gathered at the church to hear an exchange of opinions between Shasta County District Attorney candidates Stephen Carlton, a former Shasta County DA, and Jerry Benito, the county’s current district attorney.

The pair accepted the Redding Tea Party Patriots’ invitation to a debate at the Tea Party’s 6-8 p.m. meeting at Bonnyview Baptist Church in Redding Monday.

The Redding Tea Party Patriots, whose slogan is, “A Grassroots Conservative Movement For ALL of Northern California” hosted the standing-room-only event inside the sanctuary, led by Erin Ryan, one of the group’s organizers.

For about the first 30 minutes, Ryan took care of regular business, including what she described as intentions by the U.S. Forest Service to ban campers, hunters and other recreationists from using forest land.

Ryan’s question to the crowd, “Who does the forest belong to?” was answered by a group exclamation.

“Us!”

She outlined an activity planned for Tuesday at Forest Service offices, where Redding Tea Party Patriots could show up en masse with messages intended for a certain Forest Service employee.

By 6:30 p.m. the debate between attorney Carlton and District Attorney Benito was off and running.

The men took turns answering questions and offering rebuttals when allowed.

A yellow plastic chlorine-bucket lid signaled when each candidate had 15 seconds remaining for each answer, while a red plastic chlorine-bucket lid indicated when the candidate should cease talking.

Timing seemed a drawback for Carlton from the get-go when he was unable to complete his opening statement within the allotted 2-minute time frame. This resulted in Calton’s unfinished statement that began with him saying how integrity was a necessary character trait for the position of district attorney, and how, if Carlton were again elected DA, he would seek justice – justice for all – and how he’d be tough when appropriate but also compassionate when appropriate. Just as Carlton seemed ready to wrap up his statement with a suspenseful, “The current administration…” he was cut off with the wave of a red plastic lid.

Carlton returned to his seat, saying something to the effect of, “I’ll finish that in closing…”

Benito, on the other hand, seemed to have his statements timed down to the second, quickly blasting through his points without hesitation.

He boasted that he commits 110 percent of himself to the citizens of Shasta County, and how he’d battled such problems as illegal dumping and bad-checking writing and how, under his administration, he had an above-average conviction rate, and how he’d reduced DUI-related deaths by more than 40 percent. He said his mission was public safety and justice.

When Carlton and Benito were asked, how, if each were operating under the same law, one could be a better candidate than the other, Carlton was allowed to answer first, but, again, he was cut off by the red lid before he could finish.

But first, Carlton named several reasons he believed he was better DA material than Benito, naming, for example, Carlton’s integrity (his theme repeated throughout), and how he would treat everyone fairly (another Carlton theme). Carlton vowed that when considering cases, he would ask himself, “What’s the right thing to do?”

Again, Carlton said he’d be tough when appropriate and compassionate when appropriate. Carlton said that regarding fiscal restraints, he’d ask himself the question, ….

And the red lid cut him off.

Benito tackled the why-am-I-a-better-DA-choice question with rapid-fire answers: he’s current, he’s conservative, he’s Christian (is that a prerequisite?) and that he believed in the right to bear arms.

Throughout the debate, Benito seemed relaxed, rehearsed and on his game, even joking about his height with a comment about how he had the tall step stool on stage.

Regarding a question that basically asked for a wish list of programs the candidates would want, if money weren’t an issue, Carlton said that even in the best of fiscal times, he’d always be mindful that the money belonged to the taxpayers. With that in mind, Carlton chose one program for his wish list: a mental health court. He pointed out that between 11 and 15 percent of defendants suffer from serious mental health issues.

Benito answered with a blitz of specific programs, such as a computer crimes program, and a DUI court and more help for domestic violence victims, all of which were followed by Benito’s saying that nearly all those programs were already started in his office during tough financial times.

Grants were frequently mentioned by both candidates. Benito said that without grants, his office wouldn’t have enough money to do what needed to be done. Carlton said that grants were restrictive and tended to tie departments’ hands.

When asked what staff might not like about each candidate, Carlton guessed that the staff might not like Carlton at first, but he predicted they’d grow to like him over time. Carlton took that opportunity to quote the DA office turn-over rate as 90 percent during Benito’s administration. As a point of contrast, Carlton said he would treat the DA staff like professionals “… and by the time …”

Carlton’s sentence was interrupted by the dreaded red plastic lid.

To that question, Benito conceded that his staff might like it better when Benito was away from the office, but only because they could relax more in his absence, because Benito had high standards and demands.

The men were cordial toward one another, but even so, the evening contained swipes by each candidate.

Benito said he wasn’t afraid of guns.

Carlton said that a 2007 document showed that Benito had the lowest conviction rate — 57 percent — he’d heard of in 41 years.

Benito accused Carlton of not answering a question, which Benito said would be a problem for a DA.

Carlton criticized Benito’s handling of a case in which he prosecuted the mother of a 12-year-old girl after the daughter was killed in the car driven by the mother.

Benito countered that Carlton didn’t get all the facts straight, that the mother was driving over solid double yellow lines, yelling into a cell phone and reaching for a drink while moving at speeds that some motorist/witnesses described as making them feel as if they were “standing still.”

Carlton calmly observed that if those were the facts, it sounded like reckless driving, which would have been a felony.

As the debate came to a close, Carlton addressed the issue of so many grant-funded programs in the DA’s office. He questioned the DA office’s need for so many attorneys, and suggested perhaps more general fund investigators were needed. He said that apparently the DA’s office had plenty of lawyers — “a lot of fat in his office” because Benito and his top investigator didn’t even enter the courthouse (a dig about Benito’s alleged disdain for removing his shoes before going through the courthouse metal detectors).

Carlton said that without a good district attorney in office, the “machine” wouldn’t work.

In closing, Benito asked if the audience had ever watched television and seen bad things happening, and if so, if they’d wished they could do something to make a difference.

“I’m the one who gets to make a difference,” Benito said, adding that he wouldn’t have to make candidate promises, because he was already doing them. Benito said that his family was his motivation to succeed, because he wanted his family to be safe, too.

Although Carlton asked for the final question to be repeated (it wasn’t a question, but an invitation for a closing statement), Carlton recovered by saying that he’d entered the DA race in an effort to return credibility to the Shasta County District Attorney’s office. Carlton said he had twice Benito’s experience, and wrapped up by saying, “I can assure you …”

We never heard. The time was up, at least for the debate.

After that the crowd thinned and Benito and Carlton each spoke in smaller, more casual settings in two different classrooms where groups of people, both sitting and standing, asked questions.

(Note: I went back and forth between the two rooms, so I wasn’t able to hear all of either talk.)

In Carlton’s room he was asked about Benito’s dig about not being “afraid” of guns, to which Carlton said he wasn’t afraid of guns, he just never grew up shooting them. Carlton went on to say he was a supporter of gun rights for law-abiding citizens; it was the criminal gun-owners who most worried him.

As Carlton spoke, a group of apparent Benito employees flanked the room, and contradicted some of Carlton’s negative statements about low morale and high turnover under Benito’s leadership.

At one point, when Carlton mentioned that Benito doesn’t go inside the courthouse, several Benito staff said that wasn’t true, that Benito did try cases in the courthouse, to which Carlton asked if Benito had set foot inside a courtroom since the memo in which Benito allegedly said he refused to go through the metal detectors — because, Carlton said, Benito objected to removing his shoes.

Crickets. Not a further peep of disagreement from Benito’s camp regarding that point.

Someone else asked if Carlton felt “up to the job” — to which he looked somewhat exasperated and replied, “Why does everyone ask that?”

He said that if Ronald Reagan could serve as president at his advanced years, Carlton, at only 67, shouldn’t have a problem.

When a woman shared her impression that Carlton was only running for DA because he didn’t like what was happening under Benito’s administration, Carlton said she was correct.

Carlton added that he’d actually been the one who hired Benito back in the ’80s, that Benito was a good trial lawyer, and that Carlton didn’t have any issues with Benito until he took the DA position. After that, Carlton said, Benito abused his power, and caused an exodus of lawyers to leave the DA’s office.

Meanwhile, back in Benito’s room, he defended his considerable staff turnover by saying that he got rid of “dead wood” staff — that he frowned upon the kind of employees who’d sit around and play solitaire.

If Carlton was under fire by Benito supporters, Benito was feeling the heat from a handful of people who had axes to grind about specific cases, such as those critical of Benito for not charging Lennart Schauman with manslaughter in the death of Adam Martinez. As a way of explaining his reasoning, Benito demonstrated on a woman from his DA staff how Martinez allegedly approached Schauman’s girlfriend with unwanted advances. This only seemed to stir up the group. After others in the audience complained that they resented the meeting being taken over, the group left.

By 8:30 p.m., Benito was still talking to the remaining group about such subjects as a new program he’d initiated to contract with private vendors to help citizens regain driver’s licenses. He also said Carlton didn’t have the facts straight about Benito’s conviction rate, that anyone could find the correct information about Benito’s record on the DA website.

Down the hall, Carlton’s room was empty, the meeting over by the prescribed time.

As I left the building, I heard one man sum up his take on the night’s debate between Benito and Carlton:

“No contest.”

Click here for anewscafe.com’s January story about Steve Carlton stepping into the DA race.

Click here for anewscafe.com’s November story about Jerry Benito running for office.

Click here for a historical overview of Shasta County’s District Attorneys.

Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Northern California in the tiny town of Igo.