In a rapid-fire debate this afternoon, Humboldt County’s four district attorney candidates took turns addressing complex issues in one-minute sound bites, and they found time to take a few swipes at each other. 

The 45-minute debate, which was hosted by Eureka Rotary Club and moderated by the League of Women Voters, touched on some of the usual hot-button topics, including marijuana legalization, homelessness, public safety realignment and campaign donations. And while the differences between candidates were often more about style than substance, there was a distinct feistiness in the air, with candidates looking to poke at each other’s perceived weak spots.

For example, Deputy District Attorney Élan Firpo and former Deputy DA/current County Counsel attorney Maggie Fleming traded a few rhetorical elbows over their respective résumés. During her opening statement, Firpo touted “20 years of experience relevant to being the district attorney” and specifically mentioned her prior career as an executive in the high-tech industry, where she said she engineered products and managed employees all over the world. That type of experience, Firpo said, “is not a thing you learn in law school, and it’s certainly not a thing you pick up in the courtroom.”

Fleming shot back during her own opening remarks by outlining her courtroom experience, which she said involved trying “every imaginable case” and holding various leadership positions at the Contra Costa and Humboldt County DA’s offices. “So my experience of over 25 years and over 120 jury trials is both relevant and pertinent to what we need moving forward in this county,” Fleming said.

The debate questions were generated by audience members, and an early one seemed specifically crafted to benefit Firpo. It asked each candidate to name the largest number of employees he or she had complete authority over. Arnie Klein, Alan Dollison and Fleming (all former deputy DAs) referred to various oversight positions they’ve held, and Dollison mentioned his experience as an Army officer. Firpo again mentioned her high-tech job, saying she was responsible for hiring and managing as many as 50 employees while ramping up production in a Malaysian factory.

This sub-debate about experience culminated during closing remarks as Fleming again challenged Firpo, albeit indirectly. How, Fleming asked, is “being the manager for an overseas company that produces an item” relevant to “working in a small county where you have to have a collaborative team of prosecutors that handle crime?” And she challenged Firpo to name the companies she worked for, the dates of employment, her job duties and titles and her reasons for leaving.

Firpo took the microphone next and gave a few answers to what she called Fleming’s “attack” on her. She designed magnetic recording heads for computer hard drives, “which are practically like cassette tapes at this point,” she said. Firpo asserted that the experience was relevant because it showed she can manage a large group of employees.

(One quick note: For more on all candidates’ backgrounds, check their answers to reader questions in LoCO Elections.)

Klein, for his part, seems to have an arsenal of folksy aphorisms at his disposal, and he deployed a few this afternoon. “If wishes were horses, beggars would be riders,” he said by way of explaining the limited resources for the DA’s office. Regarding his ambitions for the office he quipped, “I’m not going there to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.” And regarding the viability of the four candidates he said, “At this table there are no dead fish.”

Klein also aimed a few barbs at his fellow candidates. After several mentioned serving as assistant district attorney, Klein chimed in, “I also was the ADA of Humboldt County. They pass that out like they would candy.”

And he wrapped up his closing remarks with another curious metaphor: “Just because you have managed a soccer team doesn’t make you a head coach in the NFL.”

Dollison also went after Fleming by pointing out a few areas of disagreement. Namely, he has called for boosting the number of deputy district attorneys to more than 20, saying he’ll go after grants to fund their salaries. And he categorically opposes the county’s current late-night jail release policies, while Fleming has said there are legal barriers to holding every offender overnight.

All candidates agreed that marijuana legalization is just a matter of time and that law enforcement should focus on large-scale grow operations, violent criminal activity and related environmental crimes. Dollison took the hardest line against marijuana, referencing a recent study linking pot use with brain changes and saying weed “introduces youths to drug culture.” Firpo called for “vertical prosecution,” that is, assigning a dedicated prosecutor to see through all stages of marijuana prosecutions. And Fleming said she’d prefer statewide legalization to a county-by-county legal patchwork, as with Prop. 215.

Asked what is the biggest problem in Humboldt County within the DA’s purview, Dollison said it’s the “explosion of crime in Eureka.” Fleming cited drug addiction and its connection to crime. Klein said it’s public safety, and he espoused a desire to “take back our community.” And Firpo said mental health problems — and self-medicating through drugs — are at the root of many local problems.

Asked what they’d change in the DA’s office, the candidates each offered ideas for improvement. Dollison suggested that the office has been mismanaged financially and promised to seek grant opportunities and prepare budgets for the Board of Supervisors (something he said hasn’t been done the last two years). Fleming said that the office needs more oversight because young, relatively inexperienced prosecutors are being given “carte blanche” to make plea bargains. Firpo said she’d institute vertical prosecution in a variety of areas, including marijuana cases, environmental cases and domestic abuse cases. And Klein suggested deputizing office employees as civil servants so they could resolve disputes in far-flung communities, outside of the formal courtroom setting.

Want to follow up with the candidates themselves? Ask them a question (or see if they’ve already answered it) over at LoCO Elections.