Politics & Government

Dan Dow defeats Tim Covello in district attorney race

Dan Dow celebrates at Cafe Roma on Tuesday night.
Dan Dow celebrates at Cafe Roma on Tuesday night. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Having been selected by his peers to lead an office coup, newly elected San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said he will now seek to restore morale in a troubled office that was further strained by an intense campaign.

“I’m anxious to begin the healing process in this office,” Dow said.

Dow, a deputy district attorney, defeated Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello on Tuesday to become the county’s top prosecutor. Dow had 53 percent of the vote compared with Covello’s 45 percent. Private attorney Paul Phillips, who entered the race late as a write-in candidate, had no impact on the contest.

The election began when several deputies, believing current District Attorney Gerry Shea was nearing retirement, recruited Dow to run, hoping to prevent Covello from becoming the county’s top prosecutor. As a manager, the deputies charged, Covello was unapproachable and micromanaged the office — charges Covello denied.

Meanwhile, Shea endorsed Covello, pitting top management against labor.

The 23 deputies, however, offered money and time to help defeat their boss.

“The deputy DAs have been walking precincts almost every weekend since January,” Dow said. “They risked a lot, quite frankly, to get involved.”

Covello said he had expected a closer finish.

“The other campaign obviously had a sizable head start,” he said, referring to Dow’s campaign, which began months before Covello entered the race.

While Dow, an Army veteran and eight-year prosecutor, said he had the people skills needed to raise office morale, Covello touted six years of management experience in the office and a bevy of high-profile trials he’d handled during his 21 years as a local prosecutor.

The district attorney investigates, evaluates and prosecutes crimes within the county and provides legal assistance to criminal investigations conducted by local law enforcement agencies. The position, elected to a four-year term, pays $190,964 per year excluding benefits.

During campaign debates, the candidates discussed issues that included gang crimes, drug offenses and how to prosecute lesser offenses in light of jail overcrowding.

While much of the early race contrasted management style against experience, Covello’s campaign shifted when he honed in on contributions Dow received from a local defense attorney while prosecuting that attorney’s client in a statutory rape case. In fliers and television commercials, Covello suggested it was unethical of Dow to accept two $2,500 donations from Jim Murphy while he was adding lesser charges to the case, setting the stage for a possible plea deal. Through May 17, Murphy gave a total of $23,500.

Dow said the donations were legal — as the Attorney General’s Office confirmed — and noted that he requested to be removed from the case when Murphy’s contributions became significant.

Dow said Covello’s negative campaigning backfired as he kept a positive campaign.

When asked if he would have done anything differently, Covello said, “It’s hard to second-guess, particularly at this point in time.”

Now that the race is over, Covello’s future with the office remains uncertain. As an at-will employee, he can be terminated without cause.

Although Dow said it’s too early to consider personnel changes, he said Covello’s 21 years of experience was valuable to the office.

“I have a lot of respect for Tim, and I could see the possibility of us working together in the future,” he said.

While Dow won’t take over as district attorney until January, he said he will work with Shea beforehand to ensure a smooth transition.

Covello said he’d help with the transition.

“I wish Dan all the best,” he said.