Whatcom County voters will choose between two newcomers for Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney this year and several community groups see the election as a chance for criminal justice reform.
Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran announced his retirement in April after 11 four-year terms in office. The republican ran unopposed in all but two of his elections.
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey and Bellingham Senior Assistant City Attorney James Erb are both running for the partisan position as Democrats.
Because it’s a partisan race, the two candidates will appear on both the primary and general election ballots. The results of the general election determine the winner.
A coalition of social justice groups is hosting the two candidates at a public forum this week in advance of the Aug. 7 primary election. They plan to focus on hot-button issues facing the criminal justice system, such as rising incarceration rates and an overcrowded jail, crime linked to mental health issues and substance abuse, racial profiling and jailing the poor, among others.
“There are concerns and really critical issues that a lot of people in the community, especially people impacted by a lot of the policies and practices and decisions that come out of the prosecutor’s office, don’t generally get addressed very well,” said Junga Subedar, community lawyer for the Whatcom Civil Rights Project, one of the forum sponsors. “These are really important steps in the democratic process for the soon-to-be-prosecutor to hear from the community about what issues they need to be most concerned about.”
Other forum sponsors are the Racial Justice Coalition, Whatcom Peace and Justice Center and Imagine No Kages. Partner organizations include Red Line Salish Sea, HomesNOW!, Latino Advocacy, Black Lives Matter and Northwest Detention Center Resistance.
The forum is Thursday at the First Congregational Church at 2401 Cornwall Ave. Tabling will begin at 6:30 p.m., and the forum is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. It’s open to the public. Candidates will field questions from coalition panel members.
Subedar said she’s hoping the forum provides an educational opportunity for the public to become informed about who to elect. It’s a way for people to learn how the candidates plan to address community problems and bring change to an office that’s had the same leader for more than 40 years, she said.
“How do we increase public safety together? I think, just like everybody else, these community members want to live in peace and safety and they want to know how that’s going to be done, how the prosecutor, in his role, is going to do that to the best of his abilities in that office,” Subedar said.
Meet candidate James Erb
Candidate James Erb said he’s anxious to hear from the various groups and be able to provide his view for what he thinks the prosecutor should be doing to address the issues.
“I think it’s really important to make myself available to all members of the community who want to talk about this important race,” Erb said. “In my opinion, I believe this is the most important race on the ballot in 2018. Who is going to be the next county prosecutor is going to determine a lot over the next four years and beyond and determine criminal justice reform in Whatcom County.”
Erb said he believes there needs to be a cultural shift in philosophy related to criminal justice and hopes to use data provided by the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force and the Vera Institute to create more jail alternatives, such as bail reduction, and provide treatment for people suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. This would put the county on the forefront of criminal justice reform, Erb said. He also said that if the underlying issues are treated, recidivism rates and costs will decrease.
Erb has raised more than $39,000, including $2,000 from the Lummi Indian Business Council, and has received endorsements from the 40th and 42nd Legislative District Democrats, the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, Whatcom County Democrats, Young Democrats of Western Washington University, Equal Rights Washington, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, former Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas, Port of Bellingham Commissioner Michael Shepard, as well as various current and former members of the Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council, and tribal council members.
Erb is assistant city attorney for Bellingham. He has worked in the civil division for the last eight years, after initially being hired to work in the criminal division. Prior to that, he worked as a Nooksack tribal prosecutor and Indian Child Welfare attorney for roughly two years. Before moving to Whatcom County in 2007, Erb was one of three attorneys assigned to a special division for prosecuting sexually motivated crimes against children in a judicial circuit in Florida. He said he was approached last year to run as head prosecutor for Whatcom County.
“I realized there’s not a lot I can do for some things that are happening on a national level, but this is something I’m uniquely qualified to do to create positive change in our community,” Erb said. “I represent real change for the office. I’ve never worked there and am an outsider who wants to come in and be a change agent.”
Meet candidate Eric Richey
Candidate Eric Richey, who is Chief Deputy Criminal Prosecutor for Whatcom County, said people and defendants within the criminal justice system need to be treated better and more humanely regardless of ethnicity, race or socioeconomic status. He said the criminal justice system needs to address its biases toward certain groups of people and events like the forum are a way to start the discussion.
Richey said he’d like to implement a program in Whatcom County, like the ones in King and Snohomish counties, where law enforcement is able to divert people to programs or treatment before they go to jail, such as for those who have mental health or substance abuse issues. People need treatment more than they need incarceration, Richey said.
“A lot of folks need to have a new approach so that the entire community feels safe and these people can end up doing better with their futures,” Richey said. “Equal treatment is an important issue when talking about criminal justice. You have to treat people right so they end up having a future for themselves and that protects our community more.”
Richey said he believes he can make the needed changes to the criminal justice system more quickly and efficiently because he’s worked in the prosecutor’s office and understands what’s happening there, and is already working with law enforcement.
Richey has raised more than $40,000, including $1,000 from the Whatcome County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, and has received endorsements from the Bellingham Police Guild, the IAFF Local 106 for Bellingham/Whatcom County Firefighters, Whatcom County Corrections Deputies, Lynden Police Officers Association, the Riveters Collective, Washington Teamsters Legislative League, Sheriff Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran, as well as several members from the Whatcom County Council, the Bellingham School Board, other county prosecuting attorneys and mayors.
Richey has worked as a prosecutor in Whatcom County for the last 25 years. Previously, while in law school he interned in three counties in Oregon. He’s lived in Bellingham for 30 years, represents the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys on a statewide board regarding sexual assault at colleges, and runs a weekly special assault meeting for law enforcement and community members.
Richey said he hopes people understand that he recognizes the issues that need to be addressed and has an open mind in listening to how the county can do better.
“I think this race is important because people are considering who might be leading law enforcement forward in the future and how law enforcement is addressing situations in the future. I am the candidate who is working with law enforcement and supported by law enforcement and I have the relationships to make the changes that we’re all talking about,” Richey said. “I feel like I’m the right person for the job. I feel like I have the experience and like this is something I need to do to continue serving Whatcom County.”
About the office
The prosecuting attorney is elected every four years. The position is partisan because the prosecutor’s duties are established by the state constitution and statutes.
The Whatcom County prosecuting attorney manages a staff of forty-eight, including 23 attorneys assigned to administration, victim-witness, district court, juvenile court, superior court, civil, family support and appellate divisions.
In 2017 the County Council approved a pay raise for the prosecuting attorney to $172,402 for 2019.
About the 2018 election
The top two candidates from the Aug. 7 primary — regardless of party affiliation — will advance to the Nov. 6 general election.
Primary election ballots will be mailed July 18.
Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked no later than Election Day, Aug. 7. The cutoff time for daily postmarking varies by office. The post office recommends mailing your ballot one week before election day. No stamp is needed. Washington state is paying the cost of postage this year in an effort to increase voter participation.
Ballots can also be returned in an official ballot drop box up until 8 p.m. on Aug. 7. Ballots deposited in a drop box do not need postage. All 18 drop box locations are printed on the insert that will be enclosed with the ballot.
Ballots now require voters to mark their ballots by filling in an oval rather than connect the arrow.