Kirsten Naito picked an auspicious event to officially announce her candidacy for the Multnomah County District Attorney's spot: the 10th anniversary gathering on Sept. 29 of Emerge Oregon, a non-profit that prepares women to run for office.
Naito is entering a race that already features two strong candidates who have staked out distinct positions in the contest to replace District Attorney Rod Underhill, who is retiring.
Ethan Knight, an assistant U.S. Attorney and prior to that, a longtime prosecutor in the MCDA's office, has attracted the support of many former prosecutors who see him as the continuation of the regime that began when former DA Mike Schrunk took office in 1980 and continued when Underhill, a top Schrunk deputy, took over in 2012. He is the law-and-order candidate.
Mike Schmidt, also a former MCDA prosecutor, and now the executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, is the reform candidate. If anybody wasn't sure of that, Schmidt cemented his position to the left of Knight this week by announcing that, if he elected, he would not seek the death penalty in any circumstances.
In a state where Democratic lawmakers have been pushing aggressively to loosen drug laws, weaken mandatory sentencing and reduce incarceration for at least the past three sessions, Schmidt's staking out the left flank appeared to put him in a good position for the May primary (the office is nonpartisan).
Naito's candidacy, first reported by the Portland Mercury, complicates the picture. In her announcement, she noted not only that she's got diverse experience—she's worked as a prosecutor in Deschutes County, a defense attorney and now works for the Oregon Department of Justice—but she would also represent a new level of diversity in an office that's only ever been held by white males.
Rather than focusing on her legal experience, which although more diverse includes less time as a prosecutor than Schmidt and far less than Knight, Naito in her announcement highlighted her identity—she is a lesbian of Japanese descent (her grandfather was the property investor Bill Naito, and her mother, Lisa Naito, served in the Legislature and as a Multnomah County commissioner).
Naito referred in her announcement to Underhill's decision earlier this year to take down the photos of all the white men who had previously served as DA.
"We need to change more than the décor in the District Attorney's office," said Naito today. "We need to change the basic approach to fairness and justice, who is served and for whom we work. I'm not running to change the past, but because I am best suited to take the community's interests into the future."