IT’S NOT a place you’d expect all three candidates for district attorney — including the incumbent — to oppose the expansion of the local jail. But then again, Lawrence isn’t your typical Kansas town.
Earlier this year, county officials announced plans to move forward with a $30 million expansion of the Douglas County jail, flouting the will of voters who had rejected the plan twice before on ballot referendums in 2018. That’s when local criminal defense attorney Cooper Overstreet launched his campaign for DA. He described Lawrence to The Intercept as a “blue speck in a sea of red”: home to just under 100,000 people, along with the University of Kansas. On August 4, voters will effectively elect a Democratic sheriff, district attorney, and county commissioner, as no Republican has filed to run in those races.
The incumbent, Charles Branson, took office in 2005, and while he says there’s “no office in our state that is more progressive than mine,” his office has a history of mishandling cases concerning sexual assault. Suzanne Valdez, a special prosecutor and law professor at the University of Kansas, is also running, arguing that her experience chairing the state Crime Victims Compensation Board and handling high-level felony cases as a special prosecutor give her more applicable experience than either Overstreet or Branson, her former law school classmate.
In June, Overstreet and two candidates for Douglas County Commission launched the Douglas County Justice Ticket, a slate focused on bringing local efforts on criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and climate change into elected office. Overstreet is modeling his platform after two similar recent campaigns by progressive DAs: José Garza, who ousted the incumbent earlier this month in the Democratic primary in Travis County, Texas; and Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost in Queens, New York, last August.