Political races in Albemarle County are usually pretty staid compared to Charlottesville’s—except for the commonwealth’s attorney race.
Prosecutors Jim Camblos (in 2007) and Denise Lunsford (in 2015) were both ousted after controversial, high-profile cases. And 2019 has promised to be another closely watched contest—even before incumbent Robert Tracci’s opponent received an unheard-of $50,000 donation.
Republican Tracci, 47, is a former federal prosecutor and U.S. House Judiciary Committee counsel. Jim Hingeley, 71, founded the Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender’s Office in 1998. Both men tout their experience—and their opponent’s lack of it.
“He doesn’t have any prosecution experience at all,” says Tracci.
“I’m proficient as a criminal trial lawyer,” says Hingeley, noting his more than 40 years as an attorney. A factor in his decision to run, he says, “was [Tracci’s] inexperience and the mistakes he made…When he was elected, he’d never tried a case on his own in state court.”
Hingeley calls Tracci’s failure to secure a perjury conviction against Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler “a rookie mistake. He failed to prove the perjury occurred in Albemarle County.”
“The court made a finding with which I disagree,” says Tracci.
The two men differ on their interpretations of prosecutorial discretion and on the role of money in the campaign, notably activist Sonjia Smith’s $50,000 donation to Hingeley.
Hingeley says he also decided to run because he disagrees with Tracci’s approach. “Mr. Tracci has, for the most part, the view that prosecuting people, convicting them, and removing them from the community is the way to address criminal behavior and solve crime in the community,” says Hingeley, who describes himself as a progressive.
For his part, Tracci says Hingeley is part of a “political prosecution movement in which the commonwealth’s attorney is a political activist rather than a legal advocate.” He is “already expressing a reluctance to bringing felony offenses and that has consequences that are not good for public safety,” says Tracci.
“We don’t have authority to summarily disregard the law,” says Tracci, who suggests Hingeley is running for the wrong job and should be seeking a seat in the General Assembly to change the laws with which he disagrees.
“I have a different approach,” says Hingeley. “I know a lot about what is driving criminal behavior.”
Mass incarceration is the “result of the kinds of policies Mr. Tracci has in his office,” says Hingeley. “I think we need to look at ways to keep people in the community.”
Both Hingeley and Tracci cite support for treating substance abuse and mental illness outside of incarceration. “Jails and prisons are not equipped” to treat those issues as well as the services that are already available in the community, says Hingeley.
Tracci says, “I’ve sought alternatives to prosecution, including the therapeutic mental health and drug dockets.” He says his is the first commonwealth’s attorney office in the state to have overall responsibility for sexual assault at UVA, rather than have cases handled as Title IX. “We were ahead of the curve,” he says.
And while he’s committed to enforcing laws as written, Tracci says some reforms are in order. “I’ve written the attorney general that it’s time to look at cannabis laws.” And he wants to see a uniform standard to determine cannabis impairment.
That was an issue Hingeley cites as an example of Tracci’s inexperience. When a train collided with a garbage truck on the tracks in Crozet in early 2018, Tracci tried driver Dana Naylor on involuntary manslaughter and maiming from driving while impaired because he had THC in his bloodstream.
The problem, says Hingeley, is that the science on THC, including results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is that “THC in the blood does not appear to be an indication of impairment.“ And when Tracci attempted to prove Naylor was impaired, “his own toxicologist said that’s not correct,” recounts Hingeley.
Hingeley has raised more than $150,000, the largest amount for any commonwealth’s attorney race in memory. That includes $50,000 from Smith, who also gave $10,000 to Andrew Sneathern, who, when he decided not to seek the prosecutor’s job, contributed those funds to Hingeley.
“I think it reflects the support I have gotten for change and for criminal justice reform,” says Hingeley.
Tracci thinks it reflects an “unprecedented” amount of campaign money in this district, if not the commonwealth, and that Smith’s $50K was almost equal to what he spent on the last election.
“The community should have the right to know what conversations were made before that contribution,” he says.
Tracci says he met with Smith, who disagreed with his support of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail’s notification of ICE when undocumented immigrants are released from the jail. “After that, I learned she wrote the $50,000 check,” he says.
Smith says she’d contributed to Hingeley more than two months before she met with Tracci at his request on April 1, and that her record as an active Democratic donor shows “that I do not support Republicans.”
Tracci says he didn’t do any fundraising his first three years in office, and as the county’s current prosecutor he doesn’t accept contributions from any defense attorney with cases that will appear in Albemarle courts. “I’m going to be outspent and I know I’m going to be outspent.”
Hingeley says he wants to find solutions that will break the cycle of racial injustice and the disproportionate number of minorities in prison. “I’m seeing a lot of interest in this community in doing things differently.”
“We don’t have the authority not to prosecute violent crimes,” says Tracci. That disrespects the victims, he says, “and there’s nothing compassionate about that.”
Tracci and Hingeley will face off at The Center on Hillsdale Drive on October 9 at 1:30pm.