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Professor Ron Wright tells NPR DA campaigns often make it difficult for voters to make ideological differences among candidates

Nashville voters will decide on Tuesday who should replace longtime District Attorney Torry Johnson, who’s been the city’s top prosecutor since 1987.

Johnson has served as DA (a position that doesn’t have term limits) for three eight-year terms, and he decided not to finish his fourth.

Vying for the position are three attorneys who all have had some experience in the DA’s Office. Rob McGuire, who’s been an assistant DA for 13 years; Diane Lance, who worked in the DA’s office before focusing on domestic violence cases for the mayor; and Glen Funk, a prosecutor turned private defense attorney.

Funk is the pack leader in terms of campaign dollars, and some straw polls put Funk as the expected victor, though both McGuire and Lance have spent tens of thousands of dollars on TV ads.

Professor Ron Wright of Wake Forest University in North Carolina says DA campaigns often make it difficult for voters to make ideological differences among candidates. And he says though the races are often less high-profile than, for instance, a mayoral contest, the stakes are arguably higher than any in public office.

“There’s nothing more important than whether we’re going to put you away for five years, or ten years. And there’s nothing more important than the state does than securing basic public safety: preventing violence. It’s the first and foremost function of government.”

Often, he says, candidates in DA races dwell on individual cases rather than talking about larger patterns in local criminal justice — those stories, he says, like conviction disparities along racial lines, and what kind of crimes are prioritized or overlooked, are harder to create narratives around.

Wright says more needs to be done to keep a city’s chief prosecutor accountable for actions, which can help voters understand how an election can result in meaningful change in local courtrooms. He has some ideas about what DA offices can do to help the public out when DAs are up for election.

Listen to the interview here.