The race for Cumberland County district attorney will likely be decided in the June 14 Democratic Party primary since there is no Republican candidate.
Incumbent DA Jonathan Sahrbeck of Cape Elizabeth and Jackie Sartoris, an assistant district attorney in Kennebec County who lives in Brunswick, are the candidates in the unusual campaign where Sahrbeck, formerly a Republican, was elected four years ago as an independent before enrolling as a Democrat last September.
Sahrbeck was elected in 2018 with 27 percent of the vote in a three-way race against the Democratic candidate, Jon Gale, who later dropped out of the race after allegations of past sexual misconduct. Republican Randall Bates also dropped out.
Sartoris, who calls herself a “lifetime Democrat,” has expressed doubts about just how Democratic her opponent’s values are. She claimed Sahrbeck knew she was considering running before he switched parties.
Sahrbeck denied he was aware she was a candidate.
“I truly believe that the DA should be an apolitical position, so when you do go out to talk to people, they’re just looking at that individual and the person,” he said.
Cape Elizabeth enrollment records from 2005, 2012, and 2017 confirm Sahrbeck was registered as a Republican before becoming an independent for the 2018 election.
He said he discussed the possibility of converting with the former party chair, Seth Berner, and Andrew Robinson, then DA for Androscoggin County, and Maeghan Maloney, DA for Kennebec County.
“If there’s a narrative out there that (I) started enrolling because of my opponent, that’s just false, and the timeline proves it,” Sahrbeck said. He said he’s always viewed himself as moderate, regardless of his party affiliation.
Sartoris argues that Cumberland County’s vote in 2018 – 73 percent for then-candidate Gale – is proof of the electorate’s desire for a Democratic DA.
“It was really time for us to put somebody in that position who was going to wield that power in a way that was more passionate and responsive, and solves problems,” she said.
Besides their disagreement over who is a Democrat and who isn’t, the candidates also have different views on how to use the power of the DA’s office.
The responsibilities of district attorneys in Maine include prosecution of all criminal cases except murder as well as charges like traffic infractions and civil violations.
Sahrbeck however, said in a recent online debate for Brunswick, Harpswell, and Bowdoin Democrats that he views the DA as a “people position.” He said he feels it should extend beyond the courthouse, working on crime prevention and reducing recidivism in the community.
“I could sit by in my office as DA and wait for everything to come to me and as the DA be reactive,” Sahrbeck said. “(But) I want to be proactive, that’s what I’ve been, and that’s what I want to continue to do.”
Sartoris told the debate audience she doesn’t think crime prevention should fall under the purview of the DA. Her primary concern, she said, is using the DA’s power to respond to crime.
“The request from the public has been repeatedly for public policies to be developed,” she said.
When it comes to a position like this, where the work is meant to be done out of the public eye, she said it’s even more important that the values of the DA line up with community needs.
Sartoris said she’s committed to the underdog when it comes to fighting for justice issues that are traditionally undercharged, including crimes against women and people of color, and is aware that she is very much an underdog in the DA race against the incumbent.
Part of the problem, she argued at the debate, is a lack of data and transparency in Cumberland County regarding traditionally undercharged cases. “Without careful data,” she said, “it’s very hard for us to have conversations about those issues.”
Before his election in 2018, Sahrbeck had said he wouldn’t plan to keep data based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, because the DA’s office wouldn’t prosecute cases based on that information, and he wasn’t planning to collect the data.
He admitted that before his election he wasn’t sure about the importance of having case data, but said a new data system has been in development since 2019. After two stalled attempts, Sahrbeck said, his office is moving to a new case management system in hopes of improving its ability to track data.
He said he hopes to have a report from 2017 to the present by the end of the calendar year. “I’ve hit two walls so far,” Sahrbeck said. “Hopefully the third is working.”
Upcoming forums with the two candidates include May 4, at 5 p.m., in the Russell Conference Room at the Falmouth Memorial Library; an online event, hosted by the Portland Center for Restorative Justice and the University of Southern Maine on May 10, and another on May 18 hosted by Maine Youth Justice.