In a contentious Shasta County District Attorney’s race that featured plenty of verbal haymakers thrown by the candidates and their supporters, area voters have spoken for change as Steve Carlton defeated incumbent Jerry Benito.
Carlton collected 58.33 percent of the votes (19,982) to Benito’s 41.41 percent (14,186) to win in convincing fashion.
Carlton, 67, will return to a position he held as Shasta County DA from 1981 to 1990. Benito, 49, has been in the position since 2003.
Amid a lively group of supporters at the Holiday Inn, Carlton said he’ll usher in a change to the office that embraces justice for all, not just a few.
“The district attorney represents all of the people, prosecuting the guilty, but also exonerating the innocent,” Carlton said. “The (election) team I have is just awesome. They’re not there just because of me. They truly feel this is for the benefit of Shasta County. We all think for the good of the community we needed to make a change.”
During the campaign, Carlton attacked Benito on many fronts, including the high turnover rate in his office, which Carlton said represented more than 300 years of experience. He also accused Benito of being a poor administrator who was more interested in convictions and less interested in balancing justice.
Benito accused Carlton of being out of touch with the current demands of the DA’s office and unequipped to handle the current cash-strapped environment.
The campaign also included heated debate on some prominent cases on Benito’s watch. One such case was the decision to not prosecute a man who struck Adam Martinez in the back of the head in a 2009 incident in a Redding bar. Martinez was in a coma and later died from the incident.
Carton also questioned Benito’s decision to pursue manslaughter charges against a 16-year-old girl in the death of a friend who died from alcohol poisoning. A judge later dismissed the case.
Tuesday night, as early election numbers flashed up showing Benito significantly behind, he defended his record on those prominent cases and many others.
“We’re evaluating five or six of those level of cases right now,” Benito said. “We encounter those types of cases every day. What’s most important is that we make decisions based on the facts of the law and not based on public opinion. Every time we make a decision we agonize over it and take a tremendous amount of time to think it through. I have no qualms and no second guessing about those decisions. They were the right decisions then and they still are.”
Benito said he’s proud of the changes he’s made since stepping into the office, including cleaning up the “dysfunctional” portions of the department and getting “great employees” into their current positions.
“We brought in the best employees and I’m really proud of them and the work they’ve done,” Benito said. “One of the worst parts is I won’t be enjoying the fruits of that labor.”
Benito had wide support for area law enforcement groups, including current sheriff Tom Bosenko.
Former sheriff Jim Pope, however, was a Carlton supporter.
“I know (Steve) is a man of integrity and ability and he wants to be district attorney for all the people of the county,” Pope said Tuesday night. “You look around here and see how much of the legal system is represented here (supporting Carlton) and that says a lot.”
See more photos from Carlton’s and Benito’s election night parties.
Former Redding City Council member Michael Pohlmeyer, a Carlton supporter, called the evening a “great victory for the citizens of Shasta County.”
“Justice for all is not simply a campaign slogan,” Pohlmeyer said. “That will be a guiding tenant for his tenure as district attorney. God bless the voters of Shasta County for their good judgment.”
Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.