Mike Schmidt’s Challenger Says a Good Prosecutor Can Make the Streets Safer—and He Will

In an interview with WW, Nathan Vasquez says he’ll take a more hands-on approach to fighting crime.

Nathan Vasquez (Courtesy of Nathan Vasquez)

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has no shortage of critics. This week, WW sat down with his biggest: Nathan Vasquez, the veteran county prosecutor who is running to unseat his boss in the election next year.

Vasquez, 47, has taken Schmidt’s original campaign script and flipped it. While Schmidt promised to prosecute fewer misdemeanors to keep more people out of the criminal justice system, Vasquez says he’d do the opposite—and empower cops to amp up enforcement of low-level crimes.

Schmidt gave his performance an A when WW interviewed him last week (“Moving Target,” Oct. 18). Vasquez says the reformer DA, elected in 2020, has in fact earned an F. “Do people feel safe?” he asks. “The answer clearly is no.”

That’s in large part, Vasquez says, because Schmidt is an absentee boss whose prosecutorial inexperience is exceeded only by his lack of interest in the day-to-day workings of his office.

Vasquez says that by focusing on high-volume offenders and taking misdemeanors seriously, the DA’s office could make city streets materially safer. While that “broken windows” policing approach may sound appealing to Portlanders fed up with car theft and vandalism, it’s also sure to alarm progressives who’ve long argued its consequence would be severe racial disparities—a tough sell in a city as liberal as Portland.

Both Schmidt and Vasquez graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School and got their start at the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office prosecuting misdemeanors.

But while Schmidt departed after six years to pursue a gig at a state-government think tank, Vasquez never left. He has spent more than two decades prosecuting everything from domestic violence to child abuse, and now leads a specialized unit focusing on repeat offenders. While Schmidt was announcing the dismissal of most riot charges following the 2020 protests, Vasquez led the prosecution of the more serious cases.

Although Vasquez, who grew up in a small town in Northern California, was a registered Republican until 2017, he refused to say he’d be “tougher” on crime than Schmidt. Instead, he says, his strategy to increase prosecutions would be to forge a better relationship with police, whom his office relies on to investigate cases.

It’s no secret that, among prosecutors, Vasquez has a particularly strong relationship with Portland’s cops. “None of them pick up their phones—except that guy,” one told WW earlier this year.

Other supporters include Portland’s downtown business interests, which have largely bankrolled Vasquez’s campaign (he’s raised $272,000 to $150,000 for Schmidt).

In an hourlong interview with WW’s editorial staff, excerpted here, Vasquez offered plenty of criticism of his boss—and a few new ideas of his own.

WW: Mike Schmidt gave himself an A grade for his first three years in office. How do you grade him?

Nathan Vasquez: F, without question. It is highly insensitive—and a complete lack of empathy for victims—to believe that we are delivering a satisfactory system of public safety. It’s preposterous. To say that shows a complete lack of understanding of our system and what’s happening.

We asked Schmidt how to measure the success of his office. He cited the issuance rate, the percentage of cases his office charges, which has risen during his tenure. How do you think his office should be measured?

Using the issuance rate is a very poor measure of success. It should be more holistic. Do people feel safe walking at night? Do people feel that their car is going to be there when they wake up? The answer clearly is no.

Why would you make a better DA?

I have over 20 years of experience. Mr. Schmidt has never tried a serious case. In other counties, elected DAs take on murder cases. We’ve had a record number of homicides. Why has he not taken a single one of those? It speaks volumes.

Mike Schmidt ran on a platform of progressive policies. What’s your position on criminal justice reform?

You can have compassion—but you can also have accountability. Mike Schmidt threw accountability out the window.


In 2019, we charged over 12,000 cases. In 2022, we did less than 6,000.

Isn’t a lot of that the result of Measure 110?

It’s a portion. But a large portion is that misdemeanors are not being prosecuted. When the elected DA says he wants to greatly reduce prosecuting misdemeanors, and when you break a relationship with police and law enforcement, you’re going to see those drops. There is a lack of collaboration between our office with the criminal justice system as a whole.

Name something you’d change in the district attorney’s office.

One thing is to restore the community court system. At one point, people used to come from around the country to see it—and that’s gone. [Community court is a diversion program for low-level crimes. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 4,000 misdemeanor cases were sent to diversion programs. Last fiscal year, there were only around 200. —Ed.]

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made as a prosecutor?

I wish I could have bridged the gap with police officers when Mike Schmidt destroyed it.

What destroyed that relationship?

Mike Schmidt has indicated both in his campaign and in his actions that he didn’t want to prosecute misdemeanor cases. Has he been a good partner to police? Do they feel like he’s someone that is interested in public safety the way that they are?

Will you be endorsed by the police union?

If I asked for their endorsement, I think I could get it.

Why haven’t you asked?

They’re a hot potato. A lot of the community has a very skeptical view of the Portland Police Association.

Is there anyone who endorsed Mike Schmidt in the last election that is now endorsing you?

I don’t know of any.

How much money do you think you’ll raise?

Putting out a goal of $1 million makes my stomach turn, but this is an important race. I need to get my message out.

Your voting record is spotty. You’ve skipped quite a few elections, including the general election in 2012 and the 2018 midterms.

It was an oversight. I would encourage everyone to vote.

You were a Republican until switching to Independent in 2017. Why the switch?

With the rise of Trump, I didn’t feel the Republican Party mirrored my values. I am a strong believer in LGBTQ rights. I do not believe our two-party system serves our country well. I like to say I’m nonaffiliated because I think public safety is not about politics and shouldn’t be about politics.

Tell us who’s advising you. Name three people in your kitchen cabinet.

Let’s see, former deputy DA Amity Girt has been super helpful. Josh Lamborn, a former prosecutor, has been there. There are other people that I would love to say, but it’s been clear that Mike Schmidt does not take well to people speaking out against him.

What do you think of cash bail?

It’s a reform that Schmidt pushed forward and has had disastrous effects. Of course, I do not believe that the amount of money someone has should in any way impact whether they are put in custody or not. That is a founding principle. But from there, you have to craft and develop what we call a pretrial detention program.

He didn’t get rid of cash bail, he just gutted it and made the system entirely ineffective. Right now, it is a revolving door. Our pretrial release system is failing our community.

Would you lobby the Legislature to allow prosecutors to request preventative detention for nonviolent crimes?


Mike Schmidt says you haven’t come forward internally with new ideas. Really?

Well, that’s just false. One of the programs he touts the most is MAAP [the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office Access Attorney Program]. I came up with that acronym. My unit created that program.

What is it?

I was asked to transform the neighborhood unit into the Strategic Prosecutions Unit. I did that, but I always felt we lost connection with the community. So I lobbied to bring it back. [The neighborhood prosecution unit was created in the 1990s to address “quality of life” crimes. It grew to six offices across the city, some co-located with police precincts, until being cut from the budget in 2016. It was resurrected six years later as MAAP, which sends attorneys to work out of local community organizations. Schmidt’s spokesperson says the program was created “at his direction.” —Ed.]

What’s your current role?

I am the senior deputy over the Strategic Prosecution and Services Unit. Under [former DA Rod Underhill’s] guidance, I built this program. We use data to look at individuals that I have termed as high-volume system users.

I believe strategic prosecution should be something that should be throughout the office. Right now, it’s very limited. It could be in place in every single unit.

How many people do you currently supervise?

There are a total of 12 attorneys. One and a half are dedicated to strategic prosecution services. The other attorneys are all within MAAP.

What other things has Schmidt done that you have objected to?

I was infuriated when I saw the commutations that occurred in January. [In the final days of her tenure, Gov. Kate Brown reduced the sentences of 17 people charged in Multnomah County, almost all with Schmidt’s support. Schmidt had created a separate unit in his office to handle clemency appeals, called the Justice Integrity Unit, which, according to a spokesperson, “will take every measure possible” to contact victims. —Ed.]

I was shocked by the number and the lack of transparency. Schmidt created the JIU and specifically said, “You can’t go talk to that attorney that handled the case.” I have some serious concerns about whether victims were appropriately contacted in those cases. We saw immediately that they weren’t.

I knew that that was not an appropriate way to handle victims. I was speaking out so much that [Schmidt’s second in command, Jeff Howes] told me to keep it to myself. I was like, no, I think this is wrong.

If you lose, will you stay in your job?

I have no intention of losing.

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