In the wake of recent high-profile cases, the role of the elected prosecutor has taken on new scrutiny and attention. The debate over criminal justice reform, including what reform should look like, continues to be a polarizing topic in many circles. One positive, however, is more diverse candidates putting their hats in the ring for the position of elected prosecutor. Specifically, Black women began successful runs for elected prosecutor positions in the early 2000s. Though there are still very few, the numbers have increased since the 2016 election cycle. As of 2019, 73 percent of elected prosecutors were white men; women of color made up only 2 percent of those elected nationwide—39 of whom are Black women. Reflective Democracy Campaign, Tipping the Scales: Challengers Take on the Old Boys Club of Elected Prosecutors (Oct. 2019) [hereinafter Tipping the Scales]. That is more Black women than the amount who held elected prosecutor positions in 2014 (17)—but they are still underrepresented compared to the population. Reflective Democracy Campaign, Justice for All? (July 2015). More diverse candidates are running for elected prosecutor positions more frequently in recent years, with white women and men of color more likely to win elections than white men. Tipping the Scales, supra. Of note, however, is that this does not hold true for women of color; the number of Black women who are successful in winning elections is still low. It bears examining as to the reasons why. In order to get a full picture, it is critical to consider the challenges of running for this office, governing in the current political environment, and what the future may hold for others who seek this path—through the eyes of those who went through the process as candidates or strategists.
Elected district attorneys (DAs) face many challenges throughout their tenure as prosecutors. (Prosecutors may be referred to as district, commonwealth, state’s, or state attorneys depending on the jurisdiction. For ease of reference, we use the terms DA and SA depending on the title used in the state in which each elected is in office.) As the diversity of prosecutor’s offices continues to increase, more people of color and women are running for elected positions. The main issue is the perception of whom voters think should be in office as an elected prosecutor. With the majority of elected prosecutors being white men, there is a subtle (and, in some instances, not so subtle) belief that an elected prosecutor should be a white man—or, at the very least, a man. Tipping the Scales, supra. To better understand the challenges and criticisms faced by women of color in elected positions, we spoke with several Black female elected prosecutors—focusing on the election process, governing, and the future of the office.
Navigating the Election Process
One of the toughest hurdles for the Black female electeds to overcome in their quest for office was the election process itself. Qualifications were never a real issue on its face; the candidates had a deep history of service to their communities and had been practicing law for significant amounts of time. Lynneice Washington, who became the first female DA in Alabama history, ran in 2016 and won by 299 votes. She encountered sexism firsthand, where many people viewed being an elected prosecutor as a “man’s role” and questioned why she would even run. In the primary election, one of her opponents also had the last name of Washington (they were not related). The narrative became “vote for the husband.” DA Washington pointed out the flaw in the thinking—“what sense does that make? Why would we be married and oppose each other in an election?” The narrative later changed to “they’re brother and sister; vote for the brother.” Former 9th Judicial Circuit (Orlando, FL, area) SA Aramis Ayala shared a similar experience while running for state attorney in 2016. “When I ran, it was a time where it was shocking that a Black person, let alone a Black woman, would be running for this position.” The impression, she felt, was partially due to the belief that Black attorneys work solely in criminal defense. A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, an organization that hosts the program “Seated Together” that trains all women to run for office (with an emphasis on the New American Majority, which includes Black women), looks at the issue more pointedly. She notes that the first barrage of questions Black female candidates for elected prosecutor face include “Are you qualified enough? Are you viable? Are you electable?” For her, those are all code words for “straight white man” because “they are who we (society) see as viable.”
Viability becomes a topic in terms of how the announcement of a candidacy is received. While politics can be brutal between opponents, there is an additional layer when gender is in the mix. For Sherry Boston, it came in the form of an interview with the incumbent district attorney she was challenging for office. “The media went to interview the then DA and asked, ‘what do you think about Solicitor General Sherry Boston running against you?’ and his response was ‘Well, she has a very successful husband and a beautiful family.’ In that moment, I thought, I’ve been an elected prosecutor for six years running an office—my current office is bigger than most district attorney’s offices (with the exception of his) across the state; and his initial response to my decision to run for DA was that he wanted to compliment me on having a successful husband and a beautiful family. I said to myself, is he not taking me seriously as a lawyer, as an elected, as a prosecutor?” Contra Costa (CA) DA Diana Becton shared similar stories in terms of how she was received. She felt that the subtle messaging from her opponents (both white) was “we belong here and you don’t. We know how to do this job, and you don’t”—despite her having been a judge in criminal court for 22 years prior to running for office.
The viability discussion spills directly into the struggles of fundraising. If one doesn’t believe a Black woman can win or be successful in a position, why donate? All of the candidates struggled, making numerous calls to raise money. Outside funders often sat on the sidelines for fear that the candidates would not succeed. DA Washington spoke fondly of the faithful donors who would come through in a pinch but stated, “I had to invest in myself. I had to use my own funds.” SA Kim Foxx observed as well as experienced the fundraising shortage in comparison to white men and considers herself “lucky” to have received $400,000 in seed money from her former boss, which helped her on the path to raising $3 million. She was blatantly told, “You’re not getting traction in a race for less than $1 million.” In her 2020 re-election campaign, a wealthy white man challenged her and raised $15 million to her $3 million. She was able to succeed despite him outspending her 5 to 1, but it was a challenge despite the power of being an incumbent. Lastly, big donors will sometimes stay out of prosecutor’s races because they do not see the benefit, especially in the short term. DA Diana Becton noted one of the biggest challenges is that “people don’t understand what prosecutors do, and there are no promises that can be made as a prosecutor. You have to be fair and can’t advocate for special interests or certain donors over others. This keeps large donors out of these races.” For former SA Ayala, the battle was even in the shadows—including a whisper campaign urging donors not to support her, with veiled threats of what could happen to their individual careers if they did support her.
Finally, Black female candidates face being painted with the same brush as national issues. DA Boston found that she was well received in the majority minority district of DeKalb County, Georgia—where there are many Black female elected officials. However, her fights were not local; it was with officials in other parts of Georgia, or out of state altogether. After a recent radio interview about her work at Emerge, A’shanti Gholar shared how the vast majority of callers were white men who said varying themes of “Black women are not qualified to be in office; women of color and elected office bring too much race into things; Black women mayors are ruining all of the major cities.” SA Foxx reflected on her historic 2016 three-way race with all female candidates—a Latina incumbent, an African American challenger, and a white woman challenger, where race became the focus rather than gender. She found the pushback to be more subtle—“you came from a low income background, so will you see crime the same way we do? As if someone from a housing project would not care about crime the way a white person from the suburbs would!” She found success by centering her experiences as a crime survivor, an attorney, and growing up in an under-resourced community rather than running from it. “We could all read statute books, but what I brought to this (race) is a Black woman from public housing here in Chicago.” PA Kym Worthy faced this from another perspective. In 2004, she was elected to serve as Wayne County’s Prosecuting Attorney, which is a diverse county that consists of 43 distinct communities leaning predominately white and Democratic. Detroit is the largest city in her jurisdiction, which is predominately Black and Democratic. There are five other communities of color in her jurisdiction. At the time she was first elected, there was only one other Black elected prosecutor—now Vice President Kamala Harris, who was then the San Francisco DA. While running, Prosecuting Attorney Worthy was not liked by the police union as a result of convicting two police officers of murder. Because detractors could not target her on her qualifications, the narrative became that she hated police—which eventually fell flat with voters.
Governing as a Black Woman
Criticisms of DAs come from several avenues. It can come internally from colleagues who do not appreciate new policies or the changes in direction/leadership and externally from the media or other elected officials for potential political gain.
DA Boston faced little criticism on the local level; with her jurisdiction being majority Black and more politically liberal, she had support from the community and other agencies. However, criticism came from the state and national levels regarding her policies, under the guise of combating “woke” or “far left” prosecutors making communities less safe (despite the fact certain types of crime have been on the rise nationally across both progressive and conservative jurisdictions). Former SA Ayala, due to her stance on the death penalty, received nooses in the mail, as well as enduring an employee stating on social media that she should be “tarred, feathered, and hung from a tree.”
PA Worthy experienced pushback in 2004 against what would be viewed as mainstream programs today. “No one else was doing diversion programs or alternatives to incarceration in 2004,” she shared. “We were laughed at and ostracized, but now, everyone has similar programs. Jail does not always solve the crime problem. You can walk and chew gum—tough on crime but measured in terms of second chances.”
On top of other avenues, the media can feed off of negative stories, sometimes exacerbating the problem. SA Foxx spoke about the criticism that comes from how DAs handle high-profile or celebrity cases. SA Foxx found that she was defined by one case, whose resolution was not to the public’s satisfaction for two years; meanwhile, she vacated the convictions of over 240 wrongfully convicted Black men and women—which received less media coverage. DA Washington experienced a media nightmare surrounding the case of a pregnant young woman who lost her baby as a result of a gunshot wound during a fight that she initiated. Many people and media outlets used the tragic situation as a means of grandstanding their political platforms regarding women reproductive rights and abortion; DA Washington was confronted with death threats concerning the case before and after her decision to dismiss it. In contrast, DA Cy Vance openly chose not to prosecute high-profile celebrity Harvey Weinstein for very serious felony offenses. The media reaction to Vance’s decision was completely different in terms of the criticism at the time, with him only receiving a fraction of the outrage. It was only a decade later and after the advent of the #MeToo movement that Weinstein was finally held accountable for his actions.
Along a similar vein, DA Sherry Boston was heavily criticized for pledging not to prosecute women or providers for abortions. Boston joined 83 other elected officials in their continued fight for women’s rights by not prosecuting abortions. Press Release, Fair & Just Prosecution, Joint Statement from Elected Prosecutors (June 24, 2022). A vast majority of the elected district attorneys who signed the open letter pledging not to prosecute abortions were white, yet only DA Boston received widespread negative attention from the media. (While DA Boston faced media backlash, we acknowledge that SA Andrew Warren suffered adverse impacts for signing the same letter through gubernatorial action vs media backlash.)
The clear theme is that because negative media attention is impossible to avoid, having a solid media team who can work to highlight the DA’s position with data and facts is highly important. Having data showing real impacts helps, as does building relationships within the community. When DA Becton was accused of not promoting women, the statistics for her office showed not only were women being promoted, but they were also a larger majority of management than ever in the history of the office. Sometimes, the media attention is just about timing—SA Foxx experienced a new level of media attention compared to previous administrations coming into office in the era of the “progressive prosecutor movement” as a Black woman. It may not always be the actual role of the elected DA that generates media attention, but who is in that role. Regardless, the DAs had to put the attention out of their minds. As former SA Ayala puts it, “the attacks were only distractions from me getting the justice that I had committed to during my campaign.”
As women of color, these elected DAs have a different world view than others might. They each expressed feeling an extra responsibility to the users of the criminal justice system—victims, defendants, witnesses, and communities—because they know what it is like. More than one is a survivor of domestic violence; all personally know people who have been impacted by the system. By bringing their life experiences to the role, they have been able to use their positions as springboards for young people and their communities as a whole through programming including diversion for low-level and first-time offenders, internships for those pursuing law careers, and expansion of diversity in executive positions.
The Future and Sustainability of Change
The reality is that the future is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and uncertain—mainly because new leaders are elected by the people or appointed by the governor. Much like everything else, what people in different communities want can be heavily influenced by media coverage as well as local/national politics. Therefore, many of the prosecutors can only hope for an office that continues with the same goals they have established. “The hardest part in this journey is being able to walk away from an office and hoping that it can sustain itself,” DA Boston shared.
Many of the prosecutors agree that the key component of future change is expanding the group of Black elected prosecutors. In order to expand this group, the prosecutors believe strongly in the power of being a positive influence. The influence starts long before the prosecutors take office; it starts with getting the buy-in on the campaign trail by informing as well as influencing voters, and it continues once the prosecutors take office through influencing their staff. In doing so, the elected prosecutors hope to inspire collective change. Many hope that their successor will be a Black woman who has been working in their office and believes strongly in the goals and foundation that have been laid. DA Boston explained the concept of influence in her office as motivating the line prosecutors so that if they leave, they will take with them a desire to be an agent for positive change, building on the lessons learned in her office.
PA Worthy considers another facet of the role of Black female elected prosecutor—expanding the group by intentionally supporting a successor. Often, the communities that these prosecutors serve put their faith and trust in the incumbent, so when a prosecutor decides to leave office, it is likely that they can influence the community as to whom to support as the next person to serve in that role. As the longest-serving Black female elected prosecutor—not just in her jurisdiction, but in the entire country—her interest lies in not just being the first, but ensuring she is not the last Black female in this role.
Former SA Ayala points to transparency as a tool to ensure that changes survive from administration to administration. By engaging with the public and giving them regular updates about new policies—including data around the level of success—the community can feel empowered to demand that effective policies continue beyond the tenure of the currently elected.
Ultimately there is no one right or wrong answer on how to shape the future. Elected prosecutors around the country constantly consider how their present impact can lead to permanent future changes. However, the reality is that even though DAs can make policy changes during their tenure, they can be reversed when the next person is elected. Ultimately, the best solution for future change is to keep the community engaged in what changes are being made and earning their buy-in for continued support of policies that have been implemented.
Storm Clouds Are Brewing
However, there is a disturbing trend emerging in terms of the democratic process. In the majority of jurisdictions, prosecutors are elected. In general, elected prosecutors, as with all elected officials, can be removed for issues surrounding dereliction of duty—which normally has a very narrow construction. It has previously been seen in the context of an elected that is struggling with addiction or other health issues, somehow incapacitated and unable to complete their term. In Florida, we have seen the governor take a far more expensive view; in an unprecedented move, Governor Ron DeSantis removed Tampa area SA Andrew Warren because he disagreed with Warren signing open letters stating he (along with dozens of elected prosecutors across the country) would not prosecute doctors for providing abortions or transgender care. Rebekah Riess & Shaia Shelton, Florida Supreme Court Rules Against Former Democratic State Attorney Ousted by DeSantis, CNN (June 23, 2023). While neither scenario played out in terms of an active case before Warren’s office (or anywhere in Florida), the governor removed him from office and appointed a conservative attorney in his place. He has threatened to do the same to the Orlando area SA, Monique Worrell (a Black female); the public battle has weighed on prosecutor morale, brought uncertainty to victims of crime whose cases may be in the office, and harmed relations with local law-enforcement. Jennifer Hunt Murty, State Attorney Worrell Accuses Gov. DeSantis of a “Witch Hunt,” Ocala Gazette (Apr. 29, 2023). In Georgia, more of the same is percolating, with the conservative Republican legislature passing a new law that broadens the requirements that can be used to remove an elected prosecutor from office. Sam Levine, Georgia Governor Signs Bill That Allows Removal of District Attorneys, The Guardian (May 5, 2023). This is seen as a direct attack on Fani Willis, the Fulton County DA and a Black female, who is currently investigating a high-profile case involving the former president of the United States. This follows the Pennsylvania Legislature’s attack on Philadelphia DA Larry Krassner in which they attempted to impeach him—despite being duly elected twice by his constituents. Diamy Wang, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Impeachment Trial Indefinitely Halted, Daily Pennsylvanian (Jan. 17, 2023).
These attacks on prosecutors are a highly problematic threat to the rule of law in the United States. It gives the impression that the will of the voters does not matter and can have the long-term effect of discouraging voters from being at the polls since the person they elected could be removed due to partisan conflicts. There is also a chilling effect with the intent to dissuade elected prosecutors from taking on tough issues or politically charged cases. There is the fear that if you do not do what the majority wants, despite your oath to seek justice, you will be removed from your position. It will disproportionally impact electeds of color, but especially Black female electeds who feel a strong mandate to address systemic issues impacting communities of color in the criminal justice system.
Some of the challenges these DAs have faced are no doubt faced by others in the life of an elected DA, but some are unique to Black women in this role. Addressing these challenges can be achieved through a number of means. First, broader education is needed in school and in public discourse about the role as well as the importance of prosecutors. Understanding the role will encourage people to donate the same way they would to a congressional candidate or a presidential candidate. It will also help voters understand what is important to them in a prosecutor and could inform voting decisions. As Aramis Ayala puts it, “we have to teach people that there can be differing visions of justice.”
Along these lines, changing the narrative about what makes a good leader and that there is no one identity that is successful more than others can open voters to considering people from different backgrounds rather than maintaining the historical idea of what a DA looks like. More robust media feature stories about female DAs, DAs of color, and female DAs of color around the country focused on the positive work they are doing could do wonders in changing public perception, rather than running solely negative pieces—often in response to a single case. The more commonplace it is to see diverse DAs, the easier it is to support a Black female candidate for DA if that candidate’s agenda resonates with the voters.
Better engagement strategies for donors on the importance of supporting prosecutor’s races are sorely needed—especially in the wake of new attacks on the independence of prosecutors, as seen in Florida by gubernatorial action and Georgia by way of legislation. Campaign finance reform plays an important role here as well. Capping races at a certain amount of money would allow people with actual experience—such as the line prosecutor who never worked for a big corporation or firm—the same opportunity to compete and run. Often, prosecutor races involve one big-name candidate who arrives with a large campaign budget versus others, who, despite their best efforts, raise pennies on the dollar of their opponent. Until this change happens, DA Washington had some advice for those considering the path of an elected: “So what I would say to any woman whose successful election would place them into the status of a trailblazer for any elective position is to be passionate, be confident, be ready to fight for the cause, and be prepared to invest in yourself. Large contributors will not believe in you until you win.”
Finally, there is a need for better training opportunities like Emerge for Black female candidates and Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program to support Black female elected DAs. Such programs can help Black candidates structure their campaigns more efficiently and train them in how to avoid potential media pitfalls and the effective use of data to educate the community on the role of a prosecutor in their daily lives.
DA Washington faced an additional unique election challenge—one hundreds of thousands of women face each year. In a previous run for elected office, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, enduring chemotherapy as well as a double mastectomy. In her reflection of that time, she shared, “there were many nights that my pillow was wet, but … I wanted my son to see that in life you’re going to have obstacles. You’ll have barriers, but don’t allow it to stop you. You can go over. You can go under, even maneuver around. If you get tired, just walk in place. You must keep moving, and the best way to give him that lesson was to be a living lesson for him.”
It is this resilience and perseverance that can serve as a model to other Black women pursuing this path.
Special acknowledgment to the following women for sharing their experiences:
Aramis Ayala, Former State Attorney, 9th Judicial Circuit, Florida; Assistant Professor, University of Central Florida
Diana Becton, District Attorney, Contra Costa County, California
Sherry Boston, District Attorney, DeKalb County, Georgia
Kim Foxx, State’s Attorney, Cook County, Illinois
A’shanti Gholar, President, Emerge
Lynneice Washington, District Attorney, Jefferson County, Bessemer Division, Alabama
Kym Worthy, Prosecuting Attorney, Wayne County, Michigan