A City, If You Can Keep It: The Politics of public defense

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By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

A Winters Express opinion column

Editor’s note: This column discusses content related to child sexual exploitation that may cause some people emotional distress.

A paid political ad for the District Attorney’s (DA) race has been circulating recently. It accuses Winters resident Cynthia Rodriguez of accepting “campaign contributions connected to a convicted child molester and a convicted child rapist in Yolo County.”

I had reservations about Rodriguez before reading this ad because of an incident where she seemed to intentionally skirt the rules for her own benefit. The first time I heard of her was when she put a float in the 2021 Tractor Parade, allegedly entered by someone other than herself, with some lights and a Cynthia Rodriguez for District Attorney sign.

Politics are not allowed in the parade. We have enough people who declare “rules of thee but not for me,” so we certainly don’t need a chief prosecutor engaging in it. It is possible it was a mistake, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

On seeing the political ad, I was curious if it was accurate. How could it be? I looked up the campaign finance records on the county website and, surprisingly, the allegations are true.

The details of the crimes of which these two individuals were convicted are especially shocking. One could have been ripped right out of an episode of Law & Order SVU.

There are five donations at issue. Four came from a male from Woodland who pled guilty to one count of a sex act with a nine-year-old. He donated a total of $5,000 to her campaign in four donations as recently as March 20.

This appears to be $100 over the legal individual donation limit of $4,900 per election. The total makes him the largest cumulative donor reported so far, responsible for 7.39 percent of her contributions received. To the campaign, perhaps, a highly-visible campaign donor.

The fifth is a $500 donation, who according to local media reports, is the brother of a notorious former Davis resident who was sentenced to over 378 years for 76 felony counts of rape and sexual assault of his adopted daughter. The donor confirmed to local media he is still advocating for a new trial for his brother. Ms. Rodriguez’s campaign initiated contact with him, and he met with her prior to donating, according to an interview he gave.

By chance, I spoke with a member of the Jury who convicted the donor’s brother. The juror stated “He terrorized his victim” and he “deserved every day of the 378 years” based on the testimony they heard.

Is there anything illegal about this? Emphatically, no. Criminals and relatives of criminals are allowed to make political donations. Even those convicted of the most offensive crimes in society. It is their right under the First Amendment.

I wouldn’t let these people near my daughter, in my home, or within 1,000 feet of a school but if they want to exercise their constitutional rights, I cannot fault them. I can, however, avoid associating with causes they support.

Should a candidate for District Attorney be accepting donations from individuals or family members thereof who have pending appeals?

The responses on social media are entertaining, most of them from Rodriguez’s supporters and friends asserting (wrongly) that the accusations are untrue or engaging in whataboutism. Honestly, I really didn’t care about the DAs race much before this kerfuffle.

I think this ad was in poor taste, and not directly germane to the race. The underlying facts still raise questions.

Seeing not one but two child molester-adjacent, above-average donors makes you wonder: Why would they support Cynthia Rodriguez for DA in our small county? What is it about her that gets them to make large financial contributions? Is she aware of their background, particularly her largest donor? Does she care? Now that she likely has found out, will she return the donations?

The Davis Enterprise reported that Rodriguez claims the ad is inaccurate, yet both donors confirmed their donations to the Enterprise and she has reportedly forwarded one of the five donations to a nonprofit.

Perhaps it is because these donors perceive Rodriguez to be in favor of policies similar to big city District Attorneys like Chesa Boudin from San Francisco and George Gascón from Los Angeles, and they feel she would be more lenient on their situations. Mr. Gascón recently pursued a very light sentence for a child molester.

Both District Attorneys have policies of declining to prosecute certain crimes and using discretion to seek lesser penalties for crimes they do prosecute. Policies that seem to have resulted in spikes in those crimes.

The year Mr. Boudin was elected, San Francisco burglaries increased nearly 50 percent and motor vehicle thefts increased nearly 25 percent. Both are crimes that he largely declines to try in court.

Only the donating individuals can tell us whether the larger-than-average donations to Cynthia Rodriguez’s campaign are attempts to gain influence and rapport with a potential new District Attorney for favorable treatment in future probation, parole, or new trial hearings. But it would otherwise seem odd to have such a convergence in a small inconsequential race, particularly with pending litigation for at least one of the two cases.

Correction: In his April 6 “A City, If You Can Keep It” column, Richard Casavecchia misstated the number of sex-crime convictions of a Woodland man who donated to the Cynthia Rodriguez campaign. The man pled guilty to a single count in 2009.

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