Jeff Jardine

November 20, 2013

Jeff Jardine: Modesto DA Fladager’s challenger Carson no shrinking violet

Two-term district attorney Birgit Fladager didn’t anticipate the need to crank up the campaign machine again this time around. Challenger Frank Carson changed all that.

This is going to be interesting.

As a criminal defense attorney, Frank Carson goes head-to-head with prosecutors from the district attorney’s office daily in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

He is suing the county in civil court, claiming he suffered “shock, humiliation and outrage” when DA’s office investigator Steve Jacobson allegedly accosted the defense attorney as Carson tried to take his picture in February 2010. The case is scheduled to return to court next month.

Now he’s challenging Birgit Fladager for her job as she seeks a third term as district attorney in the June 2014 election.

Carson fired the opening salvo Tuesday by slinging accusations and innuendo about the way she runs her department, immediately putting Fladager on the defensive. The irony is that it usually works the other way around. Fladager’s department files criminal charges. Carson defends his clients against them. But that’s not the way Carson works, in court or now in politics.

It has the potential to become the most volatile race since Mark Puthuff lost to Adam Christianson for sheriff in 2006, the same year Fladager beat Michael Cummins to become DA.

The 2006 sheriff’s race was down-and-dirty, and steeled Christianson for future races. He’d endured a bitterly personal campaign in which, among other things, Puthuff called him a “chubby Pinocchio” controlled by “Geppetto,” a shot at former Sheriff Les Weidman after Weidman switched his endorsement from Puthuff to Christianson. Christianson won by 24percentage points.

Christianson won a second term by defeating challenger Rob Jackson, now Turlock’s police chief, in 2010. And Christianson will face two declared challengers from his own department in 2014: deputy Tom Letras and Lt./Patterson Police Chief Tori Hughes.

Likewise, Fladager’s 2006 victory against Cummins was interesting in that it likely came down to a crucial campaign mistake. Cummins had been a superior court judge. Fladager came off of a huge victory as a member of the prosecution team that won a conviction in the high-profile Scott Peterson case. It was expected to be a very close race until Cummins’ campaign signs and literature blamed the district attorney’s office for failing to prosecute “Mall Killer” Jerry Lane Davis, who shot and killed a 57-year-old woman in the parking lot at Vintage Faire Mall in 1996, a crime witnessed by her 81-year-old mother. Davis pleaded to manslaughter and spent only 4½ years in prison. Fladager wasn’t assigned to the case. Regardless, politicizing such a tragic case repulsed voters, and Fladager won with 53 percent of the vote.

She went unchallenged in 2010, which means she didn’t have to assemble a campaign staff, raise money, walk precincts, chat up service clubs or post signs. She didn’t need to gut the qualifications, character and reputation of an opponent. Going unchallenged is every incumbent’s dream, and Fladager has kept a relatively low public profile for an elected official.

Until early this week, she thought she’d be living the dream again. But Carson’s candidacy changes all of that. As he’s shown in the courtroom, Carson has no fear and fewer filters. He was fined $200 after arguing with Judge Linda McFadden over a murder trial date earlier this year. He can be at times bombastic, curt, sarcastic, condescending and witty, doing whatever it takes to best represent his clients, and he’s handled numerous high-profile cases over the years.

Presumably, that will translate to his campaign style as well. Like any incumbent, Fladager can run on her record – promoting what she considers her strengths and successes. Carson gets the benefit of attacking Fladager – including her department’s orchestrated campaign to boycott Judge John Freeland – and anything else he perceives as a failing. Carson called her a “bully” regarding Freeland, which is pretty comical considering his own courtroom demeanor. But most everything in a campaign is fair game these days.

Fladager can criticize Carson’s lack of experience in holding public office – he has none – as well as his behavior at times in the courtroom. It remains to be seen how much community or financial support he can muster, testing his ability to win friends and influence people. She’ll have to dust off her old game plans and get back into fundraising mode.

The election is just over seven months away. It promises to be most interesting, indeed.

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