Moran Shifts Endorsement to Dehgani-Tafti

Key new endorsements have spiced things up in the heated Democratic Primary race for Arlington-Falls Church Commonwealth Attorney. With the June 20 election day now just three weeks away. Incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti won a major new endorsement in the last week and challenger Josh Katcher added two new ones, as well.

Former Congressman Jim Moran withdrew an earlier endorsement of Katcher to back Dehghani-Tafti. “Originally, a friend was raising money for Katcher,” he told the News-Press, “but when I told my wife, Deborah Warren,” who is a deputy director of the county Human Services Department, “she told me Parisa is very competent and doing a good job. So I listened to Parisa speak and would [be] up [to] agreeing to switch my allegiance.”

Meanwhile, Katcher picked up endorsements from the Arlington Coalition of Police and two longtime Arlington County officials, former Clerk of the Circuit Court David Bell and former Treasurer Frank O’Leary. In similar emailed statements, the two Democrats said they were taking an unusual step of opposing a Democrat “not suited by skill, experience or inclination” for the job, as Bell put it.

As the June 20 Democratic primary day nears, the two candidates for Commonwealth’s Attorney and their backers are exchanging ever-angrier ripostes depicting the incumbent’s record on personnel vacancies and indictment policies.

Current office holder Dehghani-Tafti‘s restorative justice reform agenda, pursued with national media attention since 2019, has drawn fire from her former deputy Katcher, who accuses her of lax enforcement and dishonesty.

“Crime is up and indictments are way down,” read Katcher’s May 24 press release quoting campaign manager Ben Jones. “According to the FY 2022 and FY 2024 Arlington County Proposed budgets, in the two years prior to Dehghani-Tafti taking office Arlington County saw 2,172 and 1,747 felonies reported, resulting in 1,045 and 713 criminal indictments brought, respectively. In 2021 and 2022, despite 2,054 and 1,800 felonies committed, only 449 and 274 indictments were handed down, meaning that more crimes in our county are going unpunished than at any point in recent history.”

“In 2021, only 21 percent of felonies that were reported in the county resulted in a criminal indictment and last year only 15 percent,” the statement continued. “Serious crime is no longer being taken seriously.”

Asked by the News-Press to respond, ParisaForJustice campaign manager Josh Artis released Dehghani-Tafti’s statement saying she “has successfully eliminated the practice of overcharging of felonies.” The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office can only indict on a crime when police have successfully identified a suspect. Unfortunately, overall arrests have been down 24 percent since 2019 as police face staffing shortages like so many departments nationwide. Additionally, felony indictments are down in my term because unlike the prior administration, my office does not engage in stacking charges to force plea deals or the immoral practice of overcharging. For example, in the prior administration, a man was charged with a felony for misspelling his last name to the police. My office would not take that draconian approach. The last administration charged very low-level drug possession cases as felonies. Our office does not engage in this punitive `War on Drugs’ approach which increases felony indictments without increasing public safety. We work to divert people with substance abuse issues to treatment.”

The Katcher campaign on May 17 hit the incumbent with new numbers on staff vacancies—portrayed as a sign of disgruntlement with her management — obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It said her office “currently has 16 unfilled full-time positions in an office with 53 total giving it a 30 percent vacancy rate. These vacancies include nine Assistant Commonwealth Attorneys out of the 24 the office would have if fully staffed.” Back on April 28, Dehghani-Tafti said her office had only two permanent full-time vacancies. She “is either unaware of how many critical vacancies exist in the office she manages, or is intentionally trying to mislead Arlington County residents.”

In rebuttal, Dehghani-Tafti said she is “proud of her honest and open campaign based on her successful first term….and is most proud of the team” she has assembled. “Katcher has created a campaign based on false narratives, personal attacks, and according to at least one newspaper, `sexist’ innuendo,” Dehghani-Tafti argued, saying many post-pandemic agencies nationwide—including the Arlington sheriff’s office—are down in recruitments. “Katcher’s politically-driven narrative about staffing shortages has been addressed time and again. Like all agencies, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is fluid, with staffing changing,” she added. “Katcher isn’t ignorant to this nationwide and local staffing shortage, yet purposely misleads the public.”

On the consumer listserv Nextdoor, Katcher backers promoted a cable TV ad featuring Rose Kehoe, the mother of Washington-Liberty High School basketball player Braylon Meade, who died last November at the hands of a drunk, under-18 driver. Kehoe has faulted Dehghani-Tafti’s handling of her tragedy as too concerned with the perpetrator at the expense of the family victims.

To the incumbent’s defense on Nextdoor came Brad Haywood, chief of the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington and Falls Church, who published detailed results of research in the courthouse community. He concluded that the decision not to try the defendant as an adult and the final sentence—one year detention and three years probation—were typical for Arlington due to the challenges of proving guilt in court. They were the result of the probation officer and judge more than Dehghani-Tafti, who had requested three years detention, Haywood wrote. “No outcome is truly ‘just’ in a situation like this,” he said. “I just don’t see how the outcome would have been different under” her predecessors among Commonwealth’s Attorneys.