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Blank vs. Fruehauf for DA

It’s been a quarter of a century since Douglas County has had a contested district attorney election. And, as with the 1990 contest, this year’s race between challenger Mark Fruehauf and incumbent Dan Blank will be decided during the primary Aug. 9.

Both men are running as Democrats.

For Superior native, Fruehauf, it would be a return to his roots. He went to law school to be a prosecutor.

"I have a passion for criminal law," Fruehauf said. "I’ve always wanted to serve this community."

The challenger offers voters new ideas, energy and perspective. Fruehauf has worked in private practice as a defense attorney and spent two years as an assistant district attorney under Blank.

"I’ve seen how the system works from all sides and I think that really helps when it comes to crafting policies and procedures to make sure justice is served," Fruehauf said. "No disrespect to Dan, but I think that after 25 years, it’s a healthy thing, it’s a good thing to get a new set of eyes to look at the way criminal prosecution is done."

The top three qualities Fruehauf said he would bring to the office are perspective, dedication and his skill as a trial attorney.

Blank said he’s running again because he loves the job.

"I love serving people in some of the most difficult, messy, complicated situations in our community," he said. "I’ve got more to give. There’s unfinished business."

Blank stands on his record — 25 years of "dedicated, guaranteed on the record success and effective prosecution" — as well as a passion for the job.

"It has been enjoyable, rewarding, good, hard — credible citizenship at its best," he said. "And I’m not doing it for pats on the back. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do."

The top three qualities Blank said he brings to the office are dedication, integrity and independence.

Managing justice

A change Blank would like to see is an increase in the stability and longevity of assistant district attorneys. He’s currently making his 10th hiring decision in seven years after the resignation of assistant district attorney, Erica Ellenwood.

"One of my goals is to stabilize things, although the tough thing is that I have almost no control over that and we don’t have local attorneys applying for the jobs," Blank said. That lack of local applicants is a "real awakening for us that generally public service has been devalued."

He’d also like to encourage more diversity in the office and focus on specialty courts — expanding the drug court program to include more court involvement, initiating a veterans court to connect veterans to services they need if they are arrested and prosecuted, and wrapping community and family involvement into juvenile cases.

"Let’s have them feel more accountable to the people who mean something to them," Blank said of young offenders.

If elected, Fruehauf would like to bring some changes to the office. In particular, he said, he’d like to put in place defined internal policies that offer guidelines for the lower level, more routine cases that come through the system.

"The hallmark of the criminal justice system is to make sure that similarly-situated people are treated the same," Fruehauf said. No two cases are the same, but the guidelines would be flexible, offering a starting point for possible plea offers based on the offense.

"With a caseload that’s that big, you have to have plea bargaining," Fruehauf said, or cases could take five to six years to be resolved. "So having an efficient plea bargaining system where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, basically, every time you want to make an offer; I think that’s important."

He would also like to see a change to the plea bargaining system that would allow prosecutors to make an opening offer and provide discovery to defendants at their initial appearance, instead of waiting until the fifth or sixth court appearance.

"If you could move those cases through the system a little more quickly, I think that’s justice for everybody," Fruehauf said. "Justice delayed is not good for anybody."

If possible, he’d like to expand specialty courts like drug court or a veterans court.

Challenging job

"It can be a real thankless job, you know, you can’t make everybody happy in the system, you just can’t," Fruehauf said. "But if you do your job, you are contributing to protecting the community and I think that’s really important. It’s rewarding, I would say."

Fruehauf also sees drug abuse as one of the office’s top challenges, along with property crime and the high office caseload. Walking to lunch at Shorty’s Pizza and Smoked Meats about a month ago, he saw a bunch of emergency personnel in the parking lot dealing with a person who was overdosing.

"People are dying from this stuff," Fruehauf said.

"It’s an art, not a science and sometimes it takes a lot of patience and willpower to make a big decision when you know that at least half of the people affected are going to be wildly dissatisfied and will speak about it publicly all day, every day," Blank said. "It takes a lot of guts to do this job, and do it right."

The biggest challenges facing the office, the incumbent said, are the constant turnover of assistant district attorneys, heroin and the apparent animosity against the office from members of law enforcement.

"The one big thing for me most practically is the turnover in assistant DAs," Blank said. "That affects the whole community and the processing of the work we need to do. The biggest issue for the community, I think, is this influx of heroin and the addictiveness of it and the people — the regular kids and families — that are getting sucked into this flushing their lives down the toilet lifestyle."

What is justice?

Blank said justice is a multi-step process.

"First serving victims with dignity and respect; next, assessing all the factors in the equation that would add up to justice and finding a way to get there to that just result," he said. "It’s listening to all sides of the situation, sort of valuing the pieces of evidence and input and then considering the community impact and community voice and then in the end using legal expertise and common sense to get to the bottom line."

The incumbent said he leads by example, gets to the point and makes decisions with the best information possible. Although he doesn’t micromanage, Blank said he does ask to be involved in complicated, detailed or unusual cases.

"It’s a team effort," he said.

"I think justice is making sure that every person that comes into the system gets treated fairly," Fruehauf said. "Ultimately, I think justice requires balancing a person’s prior record, how serious the offense is and what kind of need is there for public protection, and then crafting a sentence you can recommend that you think is fair and appropriate."

He said it also means doing everything you can to make the victims whole and leaving the public with the sense that they are safe in Douglas County.

Fruehauf said he would be a flexible leader, willing to adjust as needed. He’d also like to have specific policies in place for staff to follow.

"If I get elected my name is going to be on everything that happens in that office so I want to know that people are doing it the way that I think is best, since that’s what I would be there to do," Fruehauf said. "But at the same time, I wouldn’t call myself a micromanager, somebody who’s going to scrutinize every single case that my assistants are handling."

A new domestic violence policy adopted by the District Attorney’s Office last week will be implemented regardless of which man gets the most votes.

"I’m aware of and have reviewed the plan, have talked about it with several members of the team, and have no intention of undoing the work that the team has done in putting it together," Fruehauf said.

Role of the DA

"The simple answer is the district attorney decides what cases are going to be charged, what cases are not going to be charged," Fruehauf said. "The district attorney decides what kind of a plea deal, if any, is going to be offered to a person and then ultimately has to craft a sentence recommendation and a plea deal that calls for that, that is fair to the offender and fair to the community as a whole."

It’s ultimately, he said, a role of protection.

"When you’re crafting sentences, you’re sending messages to a specific defendant, trying to get them to stop committing crimes, but you’re also sending a message to the community as a whole, first of all to people in the community that might be thinking about doing that kind of behavior that maybe you should think again before doing that but also to the majority of the community, the law-abiding citizens in the community, so that they know that justice is being served and people are being held accountable," Fruehauf said.

"First and foremost, to be a district attorney is to be a prosecutor," Blank said. "The other part of it is kind of having your finger on the pulse of the community … being accessible."

It also means running the office in a fiscally responsible way, staying within budget and working to change things for the better.

"I’ve got more work to be done, there’s things to finish ... I feel like there’s a great chance that the next couple of years could be some of the groundwork that’s been laid for years coming to fruition," Blank said.