Our Opinion: County voters deserve clear field for DA race

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Paul Caccaviello, the Berkshire first assistant district attorney, may prove to be an excellent successor to retiring District Attorney David Capeless. It's a job he should earn in a fair and wide open election, however, and his appointment to fill out Mr. Capeless' term will almost assuredly mean that Berkshire voters will not get that kind of election this fall.

In announcing his decision to step down after 14 years in office, Mr. Capeless said he would depart on March 15 rather than serve out the rest of his four-year term (Eagle, March 2.) At the press conference, Mr. Capeless said "I'm taking this step now because I want Paul to be able to run as the district attorney, as I did 14 years ago."

The circumstances were considerably different 14 years ago, however. District Attorney Gerard Downing died in December 2003, leading to the appointment of Mr. Capeless. In this instance, Mr. Capeless is, by his own frank admission, attempting to give a considerable boost to his chosen successor.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which recently launched a campaign called "What a Difference a DA Makes" to encourage more contested races for the office, released a poll last year revealing that 38 percent of Massachusetts voters didn't know that district attorney was an elected position. Speaking to Commonwealth Magazine, Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, criticized this orchestration, saying that "That's why so few think it is an elected post — because you have appointments and transitions of power that take place like this."

It's unfortunate that Governor Charlie Baker chose to rubber-stamp this particular transition. A statement from the governor's office declared that "Mr. Caccaviello's years of experience and knowledge from the DA's office make him well qualified to serve in this position pending the results of the November election," which acknowledges that there is an election without acknowledging that Mr. Caccaviello has been given a leg up on winning it.

Sitting district attorneys don't always get a viable opponent, and when they do, they are still difficult to dislodge. The best opportunity for voters to get a full debate on the many issues that involve the office of district attorney — crime and crime prevention; the relative merits of punishment versus rehabilitation, in particular as it relates to drug abuse issues; safe injection sites to cut down on drug overdoses and the spread of hepatitis and other diseases; transparency or the lack of it on these and other issues — comes when there is no incumbent. The head start accorded Mr. Caccaviello could discourage other candidates from coming forward, which would deprive voters of that opportunity.

Governor Baker could have assured voters an open election with no incumbent by appointing someone to the position who would not be a candidate this fall. That precedent was established in the Berkshires in 1990 when Governor Michael Dukakis appointed Anthony Ruberto Jr., who served as the county's district attorney from 1979 to 1990, as presiding justice of Northern Berkshire District Court in North Adams. The governor then appointed Robert Carnes to hold the position until the special election in 1991 when voters elected Mr. Downing. In this instance, Governor Baker could have perhaps appointed someone like respected assistant district attorney Joe Pieropan to serve out the remainder of Mr. Capeless' term.

The governor still has time to rectify the situation, in particular if Mr. Capeless would agree to delay his departure. The appointment of a place holder to serve out the rest of Mr. Capeless' term would likely create a wider field of candidates for this important office and provide the kind of vigorous, issue-oriented campaign that Berkshire voters deserve.


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