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Contra Costa County voters will decide Nov. 5 between the status quo and something new for district attorney. Michael Menesini, the longtime mayor of Martinez and a San Francisco assistant district attorney, is running against Robert Kochly, the No. 2 in the Contra Costa office and retiring DA Gary Yancey’s hand-picked choice for the job. Menesini claims Kochly is the heir to a long line of conservative district attorneys who have kept the office in the technical dark age, have supported an unfair pay system that discourages lawyer retention and won’t prosecute scofflaw refineries. The Martinez mayor is running on a reform platform that promises to diversify the office, promote women into management and pursue environmental prosecutions of the county’s numerous oil refineries and their heavy industry ilk. Sounds good — on the surface. For starters, Kochly says Menesini’s claims that there are no women or minorities in the office simply are not true. Of five people in senior management, he says, one is a woman and another is Hispanic. Both candidates point to a case or two they claim their opponent has mishandled. But the cases appear fairly isolated rather than part of a pattern, and seem to be simply campaign red herrings. The fact is, Menesini has not made a compelling argument that the Contra Costa DA’s office needs change. And he has not made a compelling argument that he is the right vehicle for that change. Menesini has a reputation as a perennial candidate who has made unsuccessful bids for judge and county supervisor. He also comes across as a bit of a flake. In the current race, he dropped out at one point, only to miss a televised debate after he re-entered the campaign. Also, considering some of his backers — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, state Sen. Tom Torlakson and Assemblyman Joseph Canciamilla — his campaign has about it a whiff of a proxy fight for Democrats. A few weeks ago, the Recorder editorial board brought each candidate in for a question-and-answer session, excerpts of which we published earlier this week. In person, Menesini is charismatic, charming and a good storyteller. But the man couldn’t answer one question in a linear, cogent fashion. In person, Kochly is quiet and measured. After Menesini’s muddle, Kochly’s clear, precise comments were a breath of fresh air. Not that we didn’t like Menesini. He obviously is doing something right in Martinez, where he has held the mayor’s seat for 18 years. He seems to genuinely have his heart in the right place, and talks frequently about his desire to ensure that lawbreakers are appropriately punished while avoiding “shredding lives.” But a part-time job as a glorified member of the Martinez City Council doesn’t mean Menesini knows how to manage a 95-attorney public law office. On the other hand, his opponent is praised by his peers for his encyclopedic legal knowledge and his fairness in settling disputes within the office. With 29 years in the office, he is intimately familiar with its people and operations. And while he promises to retain the “core values” of his boss, who is backing his campaign, he makes it clear he is itching to get in the driver’s seat and do things his way, including launching gun violence and gang prevention programs in schools. He also says he would take defense lawyer input before bringing death penalty charges, which he forthrightly acknowledged would probably reduce somewhat the number of death cases in the county. Those are nice ideas, but if elected, Kochly could take a page from Menesini’s campaign book. He could do more than pay lip service to Contra Costa residents’ legitimate concerns about their industrial neighbors and take steps to ramp up the office’s profile in environmental prosecutions. His comment that other agencies have jurisdiction in such cases comes across as a bureaucratic excuse. Kochly also could stand to do outreach in the county’s outlying east and west areas, which are dominated by poor, minority communities that are home to the majority of the people prosecuted by the district attorney’s office. Those communities have the perception that the DA’s office is a white men’s club. Kochly says he wants to reach out, but he doesn’t help his case with his tin ear for how comments such as “The challenge is � to get people who are minorities to identify with our side of the criminal justice system” come across. We support Kochly’s desire to stick to the office’s mission of prosecuting criminals. We do think there is room to broaden the office’s perspective on that mission. The bottom line is, Kochly is more professional and more experienced than Menesini. He’s a better lawyer. He’ll probably do a good, yeoman job as district attorney. For that reason, The Recorder‘s endorsement for Contra Costa County district attorney goes to Robert Kochly.

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