State’s Attorney Race: Thiru Vignarajah Addresses #MeToo, Race, Residency, and Money

In the second part of our interview with former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah talks about a controversial hidden video, persistent rumors, and a contentious residency hearing.

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Story Transcript

BAYNARD WOODS: In Baltimore City the top prosecutor is called the state’s attorney, an elected position, and one of the most important jobs in the criminal justice system. We’re sitting down for interviews with all of the candidates, including incumbent Marilyn Mosby, and Ivan Bates, a defense attorney seeking the position. Today, for the next installment, we sit down again with Thiru Vignarajah. In addition to his work as deputy attorney general, Vignarajah has served as a prosecutor at the state and federal levels. In he first part of our interview we talked about the Adnan Syed case, which went viral with the Serial podcast. Today we talk about some of the political challenges that Vignarajah might face, including a controversial residency hearing and a Project Veritas sting video.

So this has been a really hotly contested contested race. The last one between Gregg Bernstein and Marilyn Mosby was also, it seems like that’s the normal in Baltimore at this point. But some strange things have happened. Last week both you and Ivan Bates had residency hearings in the city. And so I asked him about his residency, and want to just sort of clear that up. How was that suit brought, and what’s going on with two of the three candidates having these accusations made?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: You know, unfortunately I think that this is sort of the politics today. And I really think it’s important to focus on the issues. In some respects it’s good to have these challenges behind us. But I also think it’s important to remind people that roots in Baltimore matter.

I’m the only candidate who’s actually from Baltimore. My parents, as you mentioned before, are retired city school teachers. My mom, you know, was teaching at Poly before I was born. She finished her career at Morgan State. My father taught for decades in Baltimore City Public Schools at Edmondson and Douglass. He was at Southern before and after it was Digital Harbor. And he retired just last year from Western. When he retired he was the oldest teacher teaching in the state of Maryland at the age of 80. That’s the tradition I was raised in. And so Baltimore has always been the centerpiece of my life, not just my career. And I think that matters because you want to make sure that people are doing this because they deeply care about the city.

I’ve been trying to run a positive campaign. It’s an idea focused, I mean a campaign focused on ideas, on solutions. Not just complaining about the mess, as I said before, but having a plan to clean it up. I also think, though, it’s important to look at the concrete differences between the candidates. And politics is contested these days, and I think this is a really important race and I hope people will take the time to learn about each of the candidates and their positions.

My opponents, I think, are quite regressive in their policies with respect to criminal justice reform, from advocating for mandatory minimums to supporting the bail industry. I think that’s a real troubling concern for Baltimore City in 2018. But I also think that they’re very different in the sense that they’re not seasoned as prosecutors. I’ve spent my entire career as a prosecutor, first as a federal prosecutor then as a city prosecutor. I’ve tried murder cases. I’ve tried wiretap cases at the federal level, at the city level. That really matters because this is not a job, unfortunately, as we’ve learned the hard way these last couple of years, where you can learn it on the fly. It’s a hard job.

I’ve had the privilege, as you mentioned, of having some extraordinary opportunities in my career. I was the president of the Harvard Law Review, I clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court. I was the deputy attorney general for Maryland. But this is the hardest job I’ll ever have. And there’s no job I want more. It really matters for the future of Baltimore what we do with crime, and the state’s attorney has got to be at the center of the solution.

BAYNARD WOODS: So is it weird for, I mean in terms of the politics, was it a weird political move or a decision for you to decide to represent the plaintiff who was challenging your opponent’s residency? I mean, I partly asked that because it seems like it’s led to some further complications. I guess there was yesterday a criminal complaint filed for witness intimidation. That e-mail was sent to one of your former campaign workers, I believe, who was subpoenaed. And so, you know, is, was that maybe in retrospect not a good move, to be involved in the politics of it to that extent?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: So I think this is, in some respects, a very straightforward question about whether or not Mr. Bates was a resident of Baltimore City. And in the course of doing due diligence, talking not to Mr. Bates but to his neighbors about whether he was a resident or not, was ordinary due diligence. I think the reaction has been, unfortunately, the kind of politics that I want to avoid, the politics of pointing fingers and raising all kinds of spurious allegations. I don’t think that’s what Baltimore wants to hear about today. I think citizens want to hear about the concrete problems of murders happening in East Baltimore and west Baltimore and South Baltimore and North Baltimore with far too great frequency, and what we’re going to do about it.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: But it’s not just that. It’s also how do we restore faith in the police, how do we restore faith in the system. And so I think whenever we start talking about those things, and I know the other candidates want to do it. But I’m going to really avoid doing that because I think that kind of stuff is a distraction, and we’re going to stay focused on the problems and the solutions, the diagnosis and the cure. That’s what I’m going to go.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, the only reason I’m asking is because the complaint is one of witness intimidation, which would be one of your biggest concerns as the top prosecutor in the city, would be dealing, asking witnesses to, in many cases, risk their own safety, their own, and assuring them that in some way they would be safe. And so, yeah, I’m just, I want to know how you would, how you respond to this idea that someone who was subpoenaed to come to your, to a very minor, unimportant in many ways as you’re saying thing, feels intimidated by that. Is that-.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. I really don’t know the underlying basis of this, and so I’m not in a good position to comment. And I, I just, I don’t know what, where that comes from or where that characterization would come from. But I want to stay focused on the issues.

BAYNARD WOODS: So I mean, one of the big other issues that, you know, that we’re in the moment of #MeToo and of Time’s Up, and the sort of political stance, and I asked Ivan about this too, because none of us as men know what it’s like for a woman in the U.S. today, and especially in Trump’s America. But you know, you have this video, this Project Veritas video that came out a couple years ago. And they’re, of course, an incredibly unsavory organization.

But I think that it’s something that, especially that maybe women voters would want to hear about. How do you respond to that and assure people that, you know, that women who are working as prosecutors in your office will feel safe, that there aren’t any sexual harassment allegations. How do you how do you address that video, at this point?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. I mean, you know, that kind of characterization of the video I think is, is, you know, just not true. This is a group that is an arch conservative group, it’s gone after progressive causes, it’s gone after progressive individuals for years. And they did in this particular case what they always do. They manipulate and doctor and frame it to serve their agenda in ways that are just flatly untrue. And I think that the citizens know better. I think that they realize that these kinds of tactics have been tried for years, and they’re willing to look at the reality of what’s what’s unfolding. I’m very very proud of my career. I served as a federal prosecutor with distinction, as a city prosecutor, as the chief of major investigations, as the deputy attorney general. And that’s the record I’m going to be running on. I can assure people that those kinds of concerns are unwarranted, and I think it’s really important to focus on the substantive issues instead of the sort of politics of personal destruction which is what groups like Project Veritas trade on.

BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. I mean, I hate to even mention them at all. James O’Keefe has done some terrible things in Maryland and in general and is, is a vile person. But I do think that the culture of sexual harassment, or, so there also been a number of rumors of advancing people’s careers because of personal relationships and stuff. Could you also assure voters that like, that’s not something that you would do and that women would receive the same treatment as men, and that that your office would be a safe place for people to work in?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: I mean, I think that those kinds of things are just, again, a feature of politics today, unfortunately. There’s no merit to those kinds of claims. And I think they’re destructive not just of women in an office but of culture in an office. Everyone is going to be treated fairly and appropriately in the State’s Attorney’s Office. And everyone should be judged by the work that they do, by the hard work that they put into this work.

You know, the State’s Attorney’s Office has a really important job, and it needs to be filled with prosecutors that are doing that job every day, that are coming in early and staying late. Hard work every day. Because the sense of urgency that that office needs is reflected in the streets every day, but I’m not sure it’s reflected in the office. And I think that is something that we have tried to instill as public servants our entire career in the federal prosecutor’s office, the city prosecutor’s office, in the attorney general’s office, and that’s what I’m going to always do every day.

BAYNARD WOODS: And do you have a plan that, I mean, last week in the Charles Smith’s case this really awkward and weird moment came up where both the prosecutor and the defense had to put an officer on the stand and ask him about sexually harassing a clerk in the hallways. And so it’s clearly something that is, it disrupted the entire case. And it’s clearly something that’s going on in our legal system. Would you have a plan as the state’s attorney for dealing with anything like that, from prosecutors in your office or criminal complaints about that kind of stuff, to deal with it differently?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. I mean, look, we have to do a lot better as a society to recognize what women in particular, but minorities in general, have faced for years in the office, in the classrooms, in a lot of different contexts. And I think it’s really important to just be clear that this is not acceptable, that this is not going to be tolerated. And to make sure that when we have allegations of this that they’re taken seriously and responded to promptly and addressed appropriately. That’s what I think offices that I’ve been a part of has used as their benchmark forever, and that’s certainly what I would do as well.

BAYNARD WOODS: One of the really interesting things about this case is that there aren’t any white men running for a prosecutor job like this. But both of your opponents are black in a majority black city. Do you think that that, how would you address people that are concerned about that, or feel like that, that may be an issue?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: It’s a really important question. And it’s an important question because I’m not just running for elected office, I’m running for an elected office that involves criminal justice. And criminal justice does have racial overlays. But I want to be clear: crime is affecting every corner of this city. White, black, every part of the city. And I think you have to have more faith in citizens. I think that citizens understand that we can see beyond the superficial to the substantive. You know, when I’m in front of a jury, I don’t talk to one set of jurors differently than another set of jurors. I don’t talk to jurors from East Baltimore differently than West Baltimore, or older jurors, or black jurors, or younger jurors, or white jurors. They’re just a jury of our peers.

And that is what I think we have to embrace in Baltimore. This is one city. It is one problem. And there are challenges in criminal justice that affect minorities, African-Americans in particular, in acute and palpable ways. It’s been happening for decades. And if we don’t reckon with that, I think we make a real mistake. But be clear, my campaign is everywhere. We are campaigning hard in West Baltimore, in South Baltimore, East Baltimore, and North Baltimore, and everywhere in between. Community associations, church basements. I think that’s the kind of campaign that folks are going to respond to. I think that’s the kind of candidate that folks are going respond to. And when we have a moment like this with unprecedented rises in murders, an all-time low in trust in police, I think we need a proven prosecutor. I think we need a proven progressive. I think we need people that are ready on day one to not only make the changes that are needed, but to get the job done. And I’m really looking forward to doing that.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, it’s such a difficult job. Like you said, the hardest job that you’ll ever have after the jobs that you’ve had. And I’ve been asking everyone sort of why you would want this job. And it’s also, I mean, it’s an expensive, it’s expensive to run a campaign. And I think you have the most money raised at this point, but it’s largely through a loan from from yourself. And I mean, as, as a public, largely public servant all of your life, I have to ask the question of, of how do you have that kind of money? And you know, is it worth spending it on a campaign like this?

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: You know, I am facing a person in the State’s Attorney who’s been essentially running for re-election for three and a half years. And I think it’s really important for a campaign to have the resources to get our message out, to get our name recognition up, to make sure that we are competing for votes everywhere, to make it clear what the deficits in the current office are and what the strengths of my candidacy are. That’s something I want to invest in.

I have been a public servant my entire career. I’m currently a partner at a law firm. And this is an important race. I want to make sure people know that it’s important to me personally. It’s important to the city, it’s important to the future of the city. And you’re right, it’s a job that I think is really important and one that I desperately want because I believe that if we don’t solve this problem of crime, the future of Baltimore is always going to be limited. And conversely, if we can solve this, if we can not only cut murders in half but do it in a sustainable way, do it in a just way, we’re not relying on mass incarceration, we’re not relying on zero tolerance, we’re not relying on mandatory minimums, we’re not relying on a cash bail system but instead are doing this the right way, what an extraordinary narrative, what an extraordinary reality that would be for Baltimore. And it could become a blueprint for cities like Baltimore across the country.

It’s a really important job, and it’s one that I am prepared to work very, very hard to get, and work very, very hard to achieve the kind of results and the kind of justice that I promise and pledge to do.

BAYNARD WOODS: Well, as you know, we’re hoping to hold a debate here between all of the candidates. I believe you’re the only one who has confirmed so far, but hopefully sometime in the next month or so we’ll have all three of you in here to continue this conversation. But thanks so much for coming through.

THIRU VIGNARAJAH: I look forward to it. And if I’m the only one here, I’ll still be here. Thank you so much. Take care.

BAYNARD WOODS: Thanks. For the Real News, I’m Baynard Woods.