Oregon Cities

Nathan Vasquez has sizable lead over Mike Schmidt in race to be Multnomah County district attorney

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez speaks to supporters at the election night party at The Hoxton Hotel in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024. Early results showed Vasquez with a sizable lead over Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez speaks to supporters at the election night party at The Hoxton Hotel in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024. Early results showed Vasquez with a sizable lead over Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

Longtime Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez has a sizable lead in his attempt to unseat his boss, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

With potentially thousands of votes yet to be tallied, Vasquez led with 56% of the vote as of 12:15 a.m. on Wednesday.

Related: Primary election updates: Get the latest news and see who’s leading as votes continue to be counted

Speaking to supporters after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, Vasquez said once the votes were counted, he was confident he would be elected district attorney. ”I am committed to ending the open-air drug use – to ending the open air drug dealing that we have suffered from as a community,” Vasquez said to a cheering crowd of supporters. “I am also committed to restoring that idea that it is OK to hold people accountable and do it in a compassionate manner.”

Vasquez is a senior deputy district attorney in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, where he has worked since 2001. His bid to replace Schmidt has centered on his experience in the courtroom and leaned toward more traditional “tough on crime” policies than his opponent.

While Schmidt’s campaign has focused on continuing progressive reforms to the criminal justice system, Vasquez has pledged to go further than his boss to hold people accountable for lower-level crimes and improve the office’s collaboration with law enforcement.

At The Hoxton Hotel in Old Town, Vasquez supporters gathered around hotel lobby bar. The crowd cheered and clapped just after 8 p.m. when the television playing election results showed Vasquez in the lead. Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who is running for mayor, greeted Vasquez with a warm handshake in the hotel lobby around 9 p.m. and congratulated him on the early lead. Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, who came out to support Vasquez, said he was encouraged by the early returns.

At Schmidt’s event on the other side of the Willamette River, the mood was less optimistic.

“This has been a hard fought campaign and we’re still counting. Regardless of the outcome tonight I’m filled with so much deep gratitude. This is a movement, and it continues on tomorrow,” Schmidt said shortly after 9 p.m.

The job of district attorney is nonpartisan, but the campaign grew political — and combative — ahead of election day.

Mike Schmidt addresses supporters on election night at the Jupiter Next Hotel in Southeast Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024. Schmidt is seeking reelection in the Multnomah County district attorney race.

Mike Schmidt addresses supporters on election night at the Jupiter Next Hotel in Southeast Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024. Schmidt is seeking reelection in the Multnomah County district attorney race.

Alex Zielinski / OPB

Vasquez, a longtime Republican, registered as a member of the Independent Party in 2017. Yet Schmidt, a Democrat, has painted him as a conservative in campaign mailers, pointing out that several of his donors have also given to Donald Trump, and noting that Vasquez, a gun owner, previously voted against gun control measures.

Vasquez has, for his part, chastised Schmidt for taking money from the New York-based organization that backed Measure 110, the controversial ballot measure that decriminalized small amounts of drugs in Oregon (which has since been pared down by the state Legislature).

In his remarks on Election Night, Vasquez reiterated that he was committed to connecting people to treatment. Under his leadership, he said the office would also always make victims a top priority. ”I vowed to stand up for this community and to fight for victims,” Vasquez said. “And as I stand before you tonight, my commitment to fight for this community and to stand up for victims is unwavering and unchanged.”

Vadim Mozyrsky, who is running for Multnomah County Commission and appeared headed for a runoff against Meghan Moyer, congratulated Vasquez around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, while also acknowledging the race had not yet been called. ”What we’re seeing right now, however you look at the numbers, no matter how you add all that up, people are looking for change,” Mozyrsky said. “People realize what we have right now isn’t working. And this is part of that coalition that we’re bringing together. Part of that coalition of what’s going to work down the road.”

It appears to be a decided turn from the tone of four years ago.

Schmidt sailed into office with an overwhelming 77% of the vote in 2020, pitching himself as a reform-minded progressive prosecutor focused on reducing incarceration rates and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Much of his work was put on hold by overlapping crises that took precedence over the past four years — ranging from months-long nightly racial justice protests to the COVID-19 pandemic to record gun violence and homicides. He’s also faced turmoil from within; Several women in his office have accused Schmidt of sexism, saying more opportunities have been given to men. Schmidt has rejected those claims.

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, left, is congratulated by Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez at The Hoxton Hotel in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024.

Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, left, is congratulated by Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez at The Hoxton Hotel in Portland, Ore., May 21, 2024.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

Political insiders say the race serves as a referendum on public safety policies that have shaped the past four years, regardless of whether or not Schmidt was responsible for them.

Vasquez has earned the support of six major law enforcement unions in Multnomah County and is endorsed by the union representing Multnomah County prosecutors, which he is a member of. He’s collected more than $1.1 million in donations from local deep-pocketed business leaders, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight, real estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, and developer Greg Goodman.

Schmidt is endorsed by several public employee unions and some of the state’s top Democrats, like Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, former Governor Kate Brown, and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. While he was initially trailing Vasquez in financial contributions, Schmidt has since matched Vasquez in donations. The bulk of his contributions have come from the Working Families Party of Oregon, a left-leaning party financially linked to George Soros, the philanthropist who traditionally supports progressive candidates.

The candidates used these funds to run equally divisive campaigns, fueled by negative campaign mailers and digital ads. This campaign style may set the tone for the months of heavy politicking to come ahead of the general election.

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