Tori Verber Salazar
Tori Verber Salazar made history in 2014 when she was elected as the first female District Attorney of San Joaquin County, California. As the county’s top prosecutor, she served two high-profile terms before losing her bid for re-election in 2022. Though her tenure was marked by both reforms and controversies, Salazar left a significant imprint on the DA’s office and criminal justice in San Joaquin. This article will explore her background, campaigns, policies, defeat, and overall legacy.
Early Life and Education
Born in 1971 in Stockton, California, Tori Verber grew up in a working-class family. Her mother was a waitress and her father worked in construction. From an early age, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Verber graduated as valedictorian from Tokay High School in 1989. She went on to attend the University of the Pacific, excelling academically and graduating summa cum laude in 1993 with a B.A. in Political Science.
Verber then enrolled at the University of California, Davis School of Law. There, she continued her outstanding academic performance, serving as Editor-in-Chief of the UC Davis Law Review. She graduated Order of the Coif in 1996 with her Juris Doctor degree.
Early Legal Career
After law school, Verber took a position as an associate attorney with the prominent California firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. She specialized in employment litigation and honed her skills in the courtroom. In 2000, Verber left Orrick to become a San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney under DA John Phillips. As a prosecutor, she quickly gained attention for her work ethic and trial results. Verber prosecuted over 50 jury trials, including several high-profile homicides. Her colleagues noted her bold, aggressive style in the courtroom.
Election as District Attorney
In 2014, Verber set her sights on the DA’s office, running to replace retiring DA James Willett. She bested deputy DA Tori Somerville in the election, making history as the first woman to hold the position. Though new to politics, Verber brought star power as an experienced prosecutor. She vowed to reform what she saw as an outdated “good old boys club” culture in the DA’s office. Her campaign emphasized more progressive policies and community outreach.
Tenure as District Attorney
Changes and Reforms
As DA, Verber implemented significant changes. She created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review potential wrongful convictions. Verber also stopped seeking the death penalty, though she personally supported it. Additionally, she diversion programs and increased alternative sentencing options. Her office expanded outreach, holding over 500 community forums during her tenure. Critics saw her reforms as “soft on crime,” but supporters praised her progressive approach.
Controversies and Critics
However, Verber’s tenure was also marked by high-profile controversies. She faced backlash over several police shooting cases, including choosing not to charge officers who killed an unarmed Black teenager in 2016. Verber also drew criticism for filing charges against activists, including Rodney Brown, a prominent police accountability advocate.
Additionally, some deputies accused Verber of retaliating against internal dissent and maintaining an authoritarian atmosphere. In 2018, the Deputy District Attorneys Association issued a vote of no confidence in her leadership. However, Verber dismissed the criticisms as baseless attacks by a few disgruntled employees.
Re-election in 2018
Despite the controversies, Verber sailed to re-election in 2018, running unopposed in the primary. While critics remained vocal, Verber leveraged her high name recognition and fundraising advantage. She touted her experience and reforms, vowing to continue modernizing the office. This easy victory seemed to solidify Verber’s standing heading into 2022.
2022 Re-election Campaign
Primary Election Loss
In 2022, Verber faced her first real reelection challenge from Ron Freitas, a career prosecutor. While she was still favored, backlash over her tenure had grown. Freitas made reforming the DA’s office a key plank in his campaign. He lambasted Verber as an out-of-touch authoritarian who had lost the community’s trust. When primary results came in, Freitas had defeated Verber by nearly 9 points.
Reasons for Defeat
Analysts pointed to several factors in Verber’s shocking defeat. First, she faced worsening backlash from activists and deputies within her office. Freitas effectively highlighted the internal dissent and controversies. Turnout also played a role. With no contested statewide primaries, turnout was low. Verber failed to energize her base, while Freitas’ supporters turned out. Finally, general political winds had shifted. Voters seemed eager for change after Verber’s polarizing tenure. Ultimately, her once broad support eroded, with Freitas successfully positioning himself as the reform candidate.
Political Beliefs and Public Statements
Criminal Justice Views
Verber described herself as “tough but fair” prosecutor. While branding herself a reformer, she maintained traditional law-and-order views in many areas. Verber personally supported the death penalty and opposed measures like Proposition 47 to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes. However, she balanced those views with backing diversion programs and increased oversight. Her approach generally aligned with centrist Democratic prosecutors.
Comments on Police Shootings
Verber faced frequent scrutiny from activists over her handling of police shooting cases. For instance, she declined to charge officers who killed a fleeing 16-year-old, arguing their actions were justified. However, Verber rejected claims she was biased toward police, contending she thoroughly investigated each case before reaching a decision. She stated that she “followed facts and law, not public pressure” in reviewing such cases.
Family and Background
Tori married Paul Verber Salazar in 2001. Paul worked as a Stockton police officer before retiring after 20 years of service. Together they have three children – two daughters named Olivia and Sophia and a son named Paul Jr. According to Verber Salazar, her husband played a major role in inspiring her career change to public service. She has emphasized her working-class family background and how it motivates her prosecutorial approach.
Interests and Activities
Outside work, Verber Salazar enjoys exercising, hiking, and spending time with her family at their cabin near Lake Tahoe. She has participated in marathons and half-marathons throughout her legal career. Verber Salazar also serves on the board of a local children’s hospital and volunteers with organizations focused on at-risk youth. She often speaks of her faith and its importance in guiding her public service.
While Tori Verber Salazar’s time as San Joaquin DA was turbulent, she leaves a significant impact on the office and community. As the county’s first female District Attorney, she broke barriers and brought wider name recognition to the position. The policies Verber Salazar enacted modernized the office and pioneered reforms, even as they drew criticism from some quarters. And despite her upset loss in 2022, she maintains strong support from many who praise her as an effective and compassionate prosecutor. Verber Salazar’s career illustrates both the opportunities and difficulties facing reformist DAs. Though she fell short of reelection, her tenure will be remembered as catalyzing change in San Joaquin’s justice system.
What reforms did Tori Verber Salazar implement as DA?
As District Attorney, Verber Salazar created a Conviction Integrity Unit, expanded diversion programs, increased alternative sentencing options, stopped seeking the death penalty, and promoted community outreach forums. She aimed to build a more progressive DA’s office focused on prevention and rehabilitation.
What controversies did she face during her tenure?
Verber Salazar drew public backlash for declining to charge officers involved in high-profile shootings. She also faced accusations of retaliation against dissenting deputies. In 2018, the Deputy DAs Association issued a vote of no confidence. However, Verber Salazar disputed claims of an authoritarian culture in the office.
Why did Verber Salazar lose reelection in 2022?
Analysts cite worsening insider and activist backlash, low primary turnout that failed to mobilize her base, her polarizing tenure eroding support, and challenger Ron Freitas successfully portraying himself as the reform candidate. Her once broad support fell away after 8 years as DA.
What were some of Verber Salazar’s noteworthy personal qualities?
She was raised in a working-class family which she said motivated her prosecutorial approach. Verber Salazar participated in marathons/half-marathons and enjoyed hiking and spending time with family. She was also deeply guided by her Christian faith in public service.
What was Verber Salazar’s background before becoming DA?
She graduated top of her class in high school and college before attending UC Davis Law. Verber Salazar worked at a large CA firm before becoming a prosecutor in 2000. She quickly gained attention for her aggressive courtroom style, trying over 50 jury trials.