Incumbent District Attorney General Tony Clark, left, and challenger Dan Smith participated in a public debate Tuesday night. (Becky Campbell/Johnson City Press)
District Attorney General Tony Clark and challenger Dan Smith faced off Tuesday night at a Tea Party-sponsored debate, complimenting each other at times and criticizing on other issues.
Both men said they support the 2nd Amendment, the death penalty and are against abortion, but acknowledged only one of those issues would come into play if elected to serve the next eight years as DA of the First Judicial District.
Some of the questions, such as the 2nd Amendment and abortion issues, were designed with legislative candidates in mind, according to moderator Kay White, but the debate didn’t include those candidates in Tuesday’s event. White announced there may be a legislative candidate debate later this month.
The questions were hard from the beginning; particularly it seemed on Clark as he was basically asked to defend how he does his job. That first question asked both about “mistakes” made by Clark and his office and how those have been remedied.
Clark acknowledged that he and his staff have made mistakes during his eight-year term, but it will happen in the future as well because “we’re human.” And learning from those mistakes is “how we grow,” he said.
Smith has campaigned hard that there should be an across-the-board manner to deal with cases between the four-county judicial district, which he said would cut down on mistakes.
“You have to have a process. You have to have everyone working off the same page,” Smith said. He has promised to have a more streamlined process in how cases are handled county to county.
“One of the biggest problems is the way we handle the sentencing phase,” Smith said. If a defendant gets probation against the state’s recommendation, “you appeal it,” he said. “Have everybody on the same page. I suggest that’s not going on in the District Attorney’s Office today.”
Another moderator question asked Smith about him identifying himself as a Republican but running for DA as a “conservative Independent.”
Smith said, as he has before, that he chose to run as an Independent for two reasons — first there was not a Republican primary held in Johnson County so those voters didn’t get a say in who the Republican candidate would be, and second, the DA does not make policy and therefore should not be a partisan office.
In response to that, Clark said he is a life-long Republican and he would not run a race any other way. He said it’s not about handling cases in a conservative or liberal manner, but that the job is about following the law.
Smith was asked about his experience with murder cases, to which he acknowledged that he has not tried one. Smith spent much of his law career as a Judge Advocate in the Marine Corps and as a federal prosecutor handling large drug cases.
Smith ended his answer pointing out, erroneously as it turned out, that until becoming DA that Clark had not handled a murder case. Clark corrected Smith and said he had actually tried several murder cases involving homicides at the state prison in Johnson County.
Another topic was child support and how the division is operated within the District Attorney’s Office. Clark said he’s proud of the work his two-attorney child support division does. He said there are currently 12,000 to 13,000 open child support cases and the division collected $13 million in the last fiscal year. He also said his office is required to contract with the Department of Human Services to handle child support in the district.
“Right now, 20 of the 31 DA’s have child support offices under their watch. The rest of them are privatized. I have no intention of changing that,” Clark said.
Smith said he has no intention of making any initial changes if he’s elected DA, but he questioned how well the office is handling child support.
“When you talk about 13,000 open cases, then you’re talking about a complete and total need for a process,” Smith said, adding that he would like to know how many cases were actually closed in the last six months instead of how many cases are active.
Clark said the problem is that he has two child support attorneys now, just as the office had 20 years ago. The need is for more funding from the Department of Human Services to handle the case load, he said.
Both men were asked if they had a “burning desire” to be district attorney. Clark talked about his family ties to the first district and how being DA is his dream job.
“I’ve been prosecuting for 20 years. All of that time has been in East Tennessee. That’s not to say anything about where Mr. Smith is from,” Clark said. “But I think that’s very important because I’ve established relationships with law enforcement here, Johnson, Unicoi and Carter County. I am very passionate about being the DA. This is my life. I’ve worked in the community for 25 years … I taught at East Tennessee State University; I attended East Tennessee State University. I’ve been here my whole life,” adding that his father’s family has been in Carter County seven generations and his mother’s family has been there for six generations.
“Knowing the people you work with on a daily basis … I have a relationship with those people,” he said.
But Smith, who has lived in Alabama, California and Texas before moving to East Tennessee, said being DA is not a “birth right,” and he moved here because he wanted to live here.
“I had no family, I had no friends. I sent my wife up here from Beaumont, Texas,” to see if she liked it. If so, he would seek a job in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greeneville. She liked it so much, he said, that she told him she was staying if he moved or not.
“I would never leave here. The reason I’m running for this job is I don’t want to retire,” he said. “This is what I do. This is what my life has been since I graduated from law school. This is what I’m very good at,” he said.
Early voting begins Friday, and the General Election is Aug. 7.
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