AUGUSTA — Rarely does a district attorney’s race get political and feisty.
In the contest to see who will be the top prosecutor for the next two years in District IV, Kennebec and Somerset counties, both those labels are accurate.
Democrat Maeghan Maloney and Republican Darrick Banda debated Thursday in a forum at the University of Maine at Augusta which was sponsored by the Kennebec Journal and the UMA Alumni Association and moderated by Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
More than 150 people attended the debate, including politicians, employees at the district attorney’s office, law enforcement officers, attorneys and party officials. Many of them submitted questions so Wathen could ask them, and at the outset he suggested the audience consider the format as “more of a job interview and less of a debate.”
Maloney literally took a stand in her opening statement, rising from her chair on the Jewett Hall auditorium stage and addressing the audience without notes, and advocating “being smart on crime.”
Banda kept his seat at the table, reading his introduction from notes, and saying the role of district attorney “has a greater impact on the lives of people in counties than many of the other offices on the ballot.”
Maloney emphasized her “breadth of experience” from other states and other countries.
Banda said he gained his trial experience all in Maine and half that in the district attorney’s office in Kennebec and Somerset. “This race is not about party, it is about experience,” he said.
In the domestic violence area, Maloney promised zero tolerance on domestic violence cases. “It has to do with going forward with every case,” she said, once it was determined that a crime was committed.
Banda said he handled domestic violence cases in Augusta, Waterville and Skowhegan.
“I’ve put more people in jail for domestic violence than I can remember.” He defended his work in the office and that of previous district attorneys: “The suggestion that this prosecutorial district has not done a good job is offending.”
He said a district attorney needs to find creative ways to get convictions so rehabilitation can begin.
Maloney said her experience as a guardian ad litem — representing the interests of children in family proceedings — gives her better understanding of people and a view behind the scenes.
Both candidates cited the relocation of former forensic patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center to group homes in the Augusta community as a safety risk and as a concern for the district attorney’s office, particularly if the residents reoffend or assault staff.
“Quite frankly, the jail doesn’t want them, and Riverview doesn’t want them. Nobody wants them,” Banda said.
Maloney advocated using specialty courts — those who deal with offenders with mental illness and substance abuse and veterans treatment courts — to rehabilitate people.
She said she wanted longer sentences for certain crimes including those who threaten people with weapons in their own homes.
Banda, too, said he would be tough on crime.
“You commit a robbery, you’re going to jail. No co-ocurring court, no veterans court, you’re going to jail,” Banda said.
The winner at the polls on Tuesday will face the challenge of rebuilding the prosecutor’s office.
Nine of the 11 prosecutors who were with the office in January have left or have notified the office they are leaving by Jan. 2, when the new district attorney is expected to be sworn in. In all they are taking with them more than 145 years of experience.
Both candidates said they regretted that situation and were disappointed with the departures.
Maloney said she has already received a promise of assistance from the attorney general’s office if it’s needed.
“I’ve had a lot of people approach me who want to work in those positions,” Maloney said. “I talked with the attorney general, and the attorney general told me he would be happy to have people in attorney general’s office working with me day 1.” She said she would handle whatever work needed doing to help the office run smoothly.
“I will fight for justice in our communities,” she said. “Because when you can’t feel safe in your home, you can’t truly be free.”
Banda said he would seek to find qualified people as assistant district attorneys. “Maybe some of the people who were there might come back,” Banda said.
Betty Adams — 621-5631