Riverside County Superior Court Judge Burke Strunsky said Wednesday he will challenge incumbent Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin in the upcoming election.
Strunksy outlined a reform-focused strategy in a video released Wednesday announcing his bid to become the county's top prosecutor amid what he characterized as a "public safety crisis."
Strunsky, 49, has served as a judge at the Justice Center in Indio since 2017, and before that he worked as a prosecutor for both the Riverside and San Francisco district attorney's offices. He said he would take a leave of absence while running for office.
Strunksy repeatedly called out Hestrin in the video as a "bought" prosecutor paid for by police unions, who is mismanaging a ballooning budget of taxpayer dollars amid a claimed failure to file and prosecute cases. Strunksy emphasized that the DA's budget has grown by $53 million since 2015.
Strunksy also distanced his bid from progressive Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, who he characterized as prohibiting the use of legal tools meant to keep the public safe. Hestrin has repeatedly questioned Gascon's ability to serve as a DA.
"Neither of these radicals will best protect our communities or achieve a true measure of justice," Strunksy said in the video.
'Hestrin has failed...'
The focus of his campaign, Strunsky said, is simple: "Mike Hestrin, the incumbent district attorney, has failed."
"I feel I can no longer stand aside as Riverside County's homicide rate soars, as millions of your tax dollars are wasted, as the current district attorney's independence is compromised and as talented lawyers leave the office in droves," Strunsky said. "Mike Hestrin may sell himself as a 'tough-on-crime' prosecutor but he simply fails to be an effective-on-crime prosecutor."
Homicides have remained at or near a five-year high in the Coachella Valley for the past three years, Department of Justice records show. Over a similar time frame, Strunksy said citing county and state records, the DA's office budget has grown while the number of cases filed has dropped.
Strunsky said Hestrin received substantial backing from several law enforcement groups in the county, including the Murrieta Police Officers Association and the Corona Police Officers Association - contributions that Strunsky criticized in his video.
"I think it should go without saying that it is unprincipled for a prosecutor who is funded by the taxpayers to accept most of his campaign cash from a group over which he has mandated criminal oversight," Strunsky said.
The Riverside Sheriffs' Association, the deputies' union that contributed extensively to Hestrin and others in the 2018 election cycle, donated $200,000 to the district attorney in December 2020, by far the largest contribution Hestrin has received in the past three years.
The political action committee representing the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys' Association also has donated repeatedly to Hestrin, providing him with $15,000 in contributions in 2021.
Strunksy cited a 2017 University of North Carolina Law School study showing Hestrin was at the top of prosecutors who benefited from police union political contributions.
That support, Strunsky claimed, undermines the system's checks and balances: "The separation of powers between police and prosecutors is foundational to preserving the integrity of the entire criminal justice system."
With law enforcement unions rallying around the incumbent, Strunksy will certainly have to raise money quickly, something he didn't address in the video.
Contrasting with Hestrin's pursuit of capital punishment, Strunsky said he would not follow suit, calling the death penalty a toothless punishment that hasn't resulted in a condemned person's death in Riverside County since 1961.
Instead, he characterized himself as "one who always prioritizes public safety but who also understands that the scales of justice balance only when criminal cases are handled with compassion, clear-eyed realism, fairness and respect for the human dignity of every victim and every defendant."
DA race widens
Strunsky will not be the only candidate seeking to replace Hestrin later this year. Lara Gressley, a Temecula-based criminal defense and appellate lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged Hestrin in 2018, announced in late 2021 that she would again seek the position.
The district attorney position is nonpartisan, though the seat in Riverside County has historically been dominated by Republicans, including Hestrin, who first won the position in 2014 by defeating incumbent District Attorney Paul Zellerbach.
The pair of challengers will likely need considerable campaign funding to mount a serious challenge of Hestrin, who easily defeated Gressley by a 2-to-1 margin in 2018.
As of June 2021, Hestrin's campaign account reported roughly $358,000 in cash on hand, with sizable donations from a wide range of well-known groups, including the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and state Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore.
Riverside County's election is June 7, with the top two finishers advancing to a run-off if no candidate receives a simple majority of the vote.
Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him at @chris_a_damien.
Tom Coulter covers politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tomcoulter_.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Riverside County Judge Burke Strunsky to challenge DA Mike Hestrin in upcoming election