Saying the two lead candidates for district attorney offer a business-as-usual approach during a time of significant change, long-time defense attorney Paul Phillips has joined the race for the county’s chief prosecutor as a write-in candidate in the June 3 primary.
But as a late entry whose name won’t appear on the ballot, Phillips’s biggest impact could be as a spoiler for one of the two frontrunners, one expert said.
“The closer the race is between the two candidates, the more of an impact a third candidate will have,” said Michael Latner, assistant professor of political science at Cal Poly.
A third candidate could also extend the election of a new district attorney for months. In a two-candidate race, voters would be choosing the next DA on June 3. That may not happen now that a third candidate has entered the picture.
If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote in June, the top two vote getters square off in the Nov. 4 general election. That means spending more money and five more months campaigning.
The other two candidates — Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello and Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow — raised a combined $150,000 by the end of March and have been advertising heavily in what has become a heated race.
Phillips said he will mostly seek to relay his message via social media and forums — if he’s invited to participate. He plans to campaign on a theme of positive change.
“I wanted to give the community an opportunity to have a choice,” said Phillips, a San Luis Obispo native who began practicing law in 1982.
Covello could not be reached for comment Wednesday on Phillips’ entry into the race.
Dow’s response was brief: "I welcome more people to share their ideas on ways to improve the SLO County District Attorney's Office," he said in a text message.
As a defense attorney who also practices civil law, Phillips is the first candidate who doesn’t work in the district attorney’s office. All three are seeking to replace Gerry Shea, who decided not to run for re-election.
Phillips attended San Luis Obispo High School, where he played baseball and football before earning a degree in business from Cal Poly. After he earned a law degree from Pepperdine, he returned to his hometown.
He is a well-known defense attorney who has handled many big cases, including well-publicized murder trials.
Phillips officially filed paperwork to become a write-in candidate Friday, according to the county clerk-recorder’s office. To become an official candidate, he still needs to submit 20 signatures supporting his candidacy during the write-in candidate period, which ends May 20.
While his name won’t be on the ballot during next month’s primary, he thinks voters will choose to write in his name.
“Conventional wisdom would tell somebody not to do what I’m doing,” he said. “But I’ve been in this community my whole life, and I’ve been doing what I’m doing for 32 years. I’m not doing it for conventional wisdom. I’m doing it because I want to make a difference. I want this discussion to come out into the open. And I think I have a chance.”
Latner said Phillips’s biggest challenge will be to generate enough name recognition for voters to think of him when they’re casting their ballots. Even if Phillips doesn’t win, Latner said, he can impact the outcome by having a “spoiler effect,” taking votes from one of the candidates in a close race.
“In a partisan race, it’s pretty clear who is suffering,” Latner said, noting the example of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, which clearly cost Al Gore liberal votes in his race against George Bush. “In this case, it’s more difficult to determine who the spoiled would be.”
Phillips said both prosecutors would have difficulty running the district attoney’s office if elected. While Covello lacks the support of most of the deputies beneath him, Phillips said, Dow lacks the experience to lead the office. So far, he added, Covello’s biggest endorsements come from department heads while Dow’s come from union members.
“It looks like labor versus management,” said Phillips, 57. “How can we expect someone from within to solve that problem? So I’m the right person at the right time with the right skill set to fix things and to move our community forward.”
Both candidates, Phillips said, are hard-liners on crime. “They haven’t distinguished themselves with how they’re going to go forward with their job as chief prosecutor any different than it has been in the past except there has been some rhetoric about being tougher on crime,” he said.
State-mandated re-alignment — prompting more lower-level criminals to serve time in county jails instead of prison — is forcing new solutions to punishment, he said. That’s going to create a greater need for plea bargains and alternatives to incarceration.
“Plea bargain is not a dirty word,” he said.
Stiffer prosecution might keep jail numbers lower, he said, but it will still add to prison populations, which is what realignment seeks to address.
“We know that education is better than incarceration,” Phillips said. “And we no longer can afford to just lock everybody up. Because the reality is they’re a part of our community, and they’re coming back to our community."
Phillips, who taught business courses at Cal Poly for 28 years, doesn’t have the prosecutorial management experience that Covello has. But he said his experience as a defense attorney will give the district attorney’s office a needed fresh perspective.
“And it does not include putting my county at risk,” he said, adding that criminals will be held accountable if he’s elected.