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Steller: Prosecutor LaWall faces tough Democratic primary challenge
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Steller: Prosecutor LaWall faces tough Democratic primary challenge

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall is going to have to fight for her sixth term in the job.

LaWall, a Democrat, is facing a primary-election challenge from local criminal-defense attorney Joel Feinman, who showed surprising strength in campaign-finance disclosures filed this week.

Feinman raised $100,990 in the period leading up to the Jan. 31 reporting deadline, his report says. LaWall reported she raised $33,739. When you add in the $29,262 her accounts already held and take out some expenses, LaWall had a total of $56,365 on hand at the end of last month.

There are a few caveats to Feinman’s report — one is that about a third of what he raised came from people named Feinman, including his father, Bob, who made his name in Tucson as a radio entrepreneur.

Another is that he has raised that money since February 2015, whereas LaWall’s first contributions were from October. And finally, he has spent a lot of it — $29,450 as of the end of the month.

Why would a fellow Democrat challenge LaWall?

When I talked to Feinman a couple of weeks ago, he said LaWall has been putting too many convicts in prison, as opposed to diversion-type programs, filing too many felony cases even as crime rates go down, and managing the office poorly, leading to a high turnover rate. As the county’s top prosecutor, he pointed out, “you’re defending the constitution, defending the law.”

In addition to having raised a lot of money, Feinman has the advantage that he made his campaign his full-time job on Sept. 1, when he left the Pima County Public Defender’s Office.

But he has a big Achilles heel: He has never been a prosecutor. You can count on LaWall to make her campaign about that factor.

“I am experienced, and experience matters,” she told me Thursday evening. “He has zero experience of being a prosecutor. He’s never prosecuted a case. He’s never worked on behalf of a victim.”

I asked Jo Holt, the chair of the Pima County Democratic Party, about the race, and she said, “You would think something like that would create some splits or divisions, but I haven’t seen it.”

Where the race seems to break down is on lines almost like the Hillary Clinton-vs.-Bernie Sanders divide in the race for the presidential nomination. The younger and more liberal Democrats support Feinman, while the older and more moderate Democrats support LaWall.

Longtime prosecutor Rick Unklesbay, who still works occasionally for LaWall’s office, defends her performance against Feinman’s accusations. For example, Feinman sometimes speaks of wrongdoing in the case of Louis Taylor, the man convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire as a teen.

A judge ordered that Taylor should receive a new trial, but instead LaWall and Taylor’s attorney agreed to allow him to plead “no contest” to the 28 counts of murder in the case and be freed on a sentence of time served, 42 years.

Feinman and others have criticized LaWall for not going further and exonerating Taylor for what many perceived to be a conviction tainted by racism and other problems.

Before LaWall arrived at the outcome, it was Unklesbay who reviewed the entire, six-week trial and made recommendations to her. He still feels they handled the case correctly.

“I was absolutely convinced that the jury came to the right verdict,” he told me Thursday. “We didn’t get the wrong guy on that. There was nothing to apologize for.”

State Rep. Randall Friese is among the younger generation of Democrats supporting Feinman — he’s Feinman’s campaign chair.

“This has nothing to do with Barbara. It has more to do with my enthusiasim for Joel,” Friese told me. “I think he’s motivated, enthusiastic, and has a good skill set for that office.”

Whether his qualities are enough for voters to favor Feinman over a woman who has made a career as a prosecutor ... I’m curious but skeptical.

Satanists win by losing

Tucsonan Stu de Haan and his merry band of Satanists said earlier this week they were in a win-win situation. On Wednesday, the Phoenix City Council decided which win to hand them.

In order to keep The Satanic Temple from giving an invocation at the Feb. 17 Phoenix council meeting, the council voted instead to stop the practice of having outsiders give pre-meeting prayers. Instead, a moment of silence will take place.

That’s one of the outcomes that de Haan and others had hoped for — either that representatives of every willing faith are allowed to give a prayer, or that none do. So Phoenix chose none.

How did Tucson come out in this? Reader and frequent correspondent Paul Discher put it to me this way in an email:

“Tucson has always been the bastard red-headed stepchild. … Now we’ll be the satanic bastard red-headed stepchild.”

Rogers finally runs

Jeff Rogers has long been a figure in local politics, but now he’s going to do it in a way he never has before — by running for office.

Rogers plans to run for the Precinct 6 seat held by retiring Justice of the Peace Paul Simon, who has been a judge there since 1997.

The rules for judicial candidates have put a crimp in Rogers’ usual way of doing things: He has resigned as a board member at Planned Parenthood and as an officer of the state Democratic Party. And when I asked for comment on political topics, he managed to bite his tongue.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at 807-7789 or tsteller@tucson.com. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

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