The race for county district attorney is shaping up as one of the most vigorously contested campaigns this primary season — marked by fiery debates, campaign signs dotting the countryside and more than $150,000 raised by the end of March.
After current District Attorney Gerry Shea announced in November that he would not seek a fifth term, Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow was the first to publicly announce his intention to run for the seat. Three weeks later, Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello entered the ring.
But the race actually began months earlier when deputies in the office actively recruited a successor to Shea, who they assumed was nearing retirement. While Covello is second in command, the majority of deputies supported Dow. Shea, meanwhile, supported Covello, pitting the deputies in the office against management.
The district attorney is the county’s top prosecutor, whose office investigates, evaluates and prosecutes criminal violations committed within the county, provides legal assistance to criminal investigations conducted by local law enforcement agencies and advises the grand jury.
The district attorney earns $190,964 a year.
While both candidates share a desire to prosecute crimes and keep the county safe, Dow argues that he can better lead the office of 100 employees with a more approachable, collaborative management style. But Covello says he has much more relevant experience, both as a trial lawyer and as a supervisor within the office.
While all 23 deputies who have endorsed a candidate have supported Dow, Covello has noted that the office’s 31 deputies represent just a portion of its roughly 100-member staff.
The two candidates agree on some issues, but their priorities differ.
Leadership and management
During the campaign, Dow has stressed that Covello’s management style has not been popular with deputies, who have claimed Covello is unapproachable and micromanages.
“Our office shouldn’t have a dictator at the top who gets to bark orders and say, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do,'” Dow said. “The person needs to lead as a collaborator — somebody who earns the trust of colleagues and subordinates.”
Collaboration, he said, makes for better-informed decisions. If elected, he said, he will best collaborate with his employees and outside agencies, including police.
Covello has rejected claims that he is unapproachable, saying he had been inaccessible while prosecuting the time-consuming Dystiny Myers murder case.
“By top-down, I’m not sure there’s another way for there to be management,” he said in February. “If there’s going to be accountability and somebody has to take responsibility for what’s happening in the office, that actually starts at the top.”
Covello said the cases he’s handled locally over the past 21 years have included virtually every issue a deputy can face, including change of venue, death penalty and appellate issues.
“How do you supervise someone and assess the quality of their work if you’ve never been there?” he said. “I’ve learned an enormous amount every year I’ve been here.”
While Covello has handled many headline-grabbing cases, Dow said Covello has only handled one case — the Myers murder trial — in the past six years while he has handled thousands of cases, many of which included complicated sex crimes. Still, he added, the position of top prosecutor is more about management.
“This isn’t about electing the best trial lawyer,” he said, noting that Shea has not tried a case in 16 years. “This is about electing a leader who represents our criminal justice community.”
Covello has more years as a prosecutor and has worked as a manager in the office for six years. Dow, an 8-year prosecutor, says he has a breadth of experience, having previously worked in tech industry sales and having served in the Army and the California Army National Guard.
Priorities and issues
Covello’s priorities have more to do with the way the office works. Currently, he said, too many cases are being plea bargained, and tougher penalties could be extracted by factoring more enhancements and prior offenses into sentencing.
He thinks the office organization should be restructured so some deputies aren’t overburdened. And he has criticized some deputies for showing up late and leaving early.
Dow said police officers should be trained to recognize gang members, so that gang enhancements can be added to crimes they might commit. He also said growing cyber crime and financial fraud cases deserve greater attention, suggesting the creation of a cyber crimes task force.
He also thinks the office should crack down on heroin dealers, who are putting the county’s youth at risk.
Prison realignment, which is sending more minor criminals to county jails to reduce prison crowding, is a major issue both candidates frequently address. Covello said harsher sentencing of more serious crimes will keep more hardened criminals out of the county jail.
“We need to do less plea bargaining with serious cases,” he said.
As the number of local inmates grows, Dow has suggested the county might use empty barracks at Camp San Luis Obispo to house low-risk inmates for a possible work program.
Dow has also advocated for the creation of a domestic violence court, so one judge could offer uniformity in how those cases are handled.
“A domestic violence court will invest in someone who knows these cases inside and out,” he said.
Covello said the idea was worth exploring, though questions would have to be asked beforehand. That’s exactly what happened, he said, when Dow promoted the veterans treatment court for military vets who commit crimes they can attribute to service-related emotional issues.
Through the campaign, Dow has charged that neither Covello nor current District Attorney Shea supported the court.
“There was no support from management for the Veterans Treatment Court,” he told The Tribune. “And yet, in my opinion, there was zero political downside.”
Covello said any time a new project, such as the veteran’s court, has been proposed, questions have to be asked to ensure it is necessary and can work. But, he said, because he and Shea asked questions about the statistics for veteran’s crimes, how victims would react and other issues, that does not imply they did not support the program, which was ultimately approved.
“When you do a collaborative court like that, you do address lots of issues,” he said.
At a recent forum, both candidates were asked whether they had ambitions beyond district attorney. Neither said they did.
Covello, who has entered his name to become judge on multiple occasions, noted that he’s been in San Luis Obispo for 21 years and prefers to stay here.
“After a couple of decades, I think it’s clear I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Likewise, Dow, who ran unsuccessfully for Assembly more than a decade ago in Alameda County, said he has no interest in living in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than San Luis Obispo.”