Fifteen years ago, Mike Schmidt, J.D. ’08 packed his belongings and trekked west, leaving New Orleans in pursuit of his ultimate academic journey. An aspiring environmental lawyer, Schmidt was headed to Portland to attend Lewis & Clark Law School, home of the nation’s top program in that specialty. Over the course of his legal education, Schmidt realized that environmental law was not his area of passion, instead finding inspiration in criminal law. Today, as Portland reels from historic unrest and international media attention, 39-year-old Schmidt finds himself two months into his tenure as Multnomah County district attorney.
In May, Schmidt achieved a landslide victory over Ethan Knight, assistant U.S. attorney for Oregon, to succeed Rod Underhill as Multnomah County’s top prosecutor. Considered a progressive challenger to “business-as-usual” prosecution, Schmidt won 76.6% of the vote, despite Underhill endorsing Knight. Upon his election, The Oregonian described Schmidt as “the country’s latest criminal justice change agent to win a big-city DA race.”
Schmidt campaigned on progressive issues like decriminalizing poverty, creating restorative justice programs, opposing mandatory minimums and dismantling systemic racism and bias. In an interview, Schmidt discussed how his change-from-within mentality was shaped by his LC education.
“My schooling at Lewis & Clark really helped me think about things from that perspective,” Schmidt said. “Whatever profession you end up doing … get in there, get some experience and have that strong cultural ethic of community service. That’s what I brought with me from my time at Lewis & Clark.”
While he always planned to attend law school, Schmidt decided to join the Teach For America program immediately after graduating from Vassar College in 2003. That took him to New Orleans where he spent two years as a high school social studies teacher.
“I saw an opportunity to be a teacher and do the Teach For America program, and I thought that instead of going straight from school to school, I should take a break and get some real world experience,” Schmidt said. “It was a fantastic experience and was very formative for the way that I think about a lot of things now in the criminal justice system.”
During his second year of law school, Schmidt realized that environmental law was not entirely his dream of “kayaking, canoeing, hiking and suing polluters.” At a career fair, Schmidt was introduced to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, where he soon became an intern and, later, a deputy district attorney. As a law student, Schmidt was intrigued by criminal law and the possibility of bringing a progressive perspective to Multnomah County’s prosecuting arm.
“I remember being offered an internship at the district attorney’s office and the reaction of some of my classmates,” Schmidt said. “They were like, ‘you want to go prosecute people? Like, persecute people?’ I’ve always been a change-from-within person and I thought at the time that it was a great opportunity.”
After graduating from law school, Schmidt spent six years as a deputy district attorney until he became counsel to the state legislature’s two judiciary committees. In 2015, then Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Schmidt as executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, where, according to his campaign website, he “led projects that … made (Oregon’s) criminal justice system more transparent, fought for legislation that (decreased) racial disparities and (treated) addiction like a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.” His experience with the commission played a critical role in his decision to run for Multnomah County district attorney.
“I felt like my unique experiences as a director of a state agency that worked on criminal justice reform could be brought to bear in this position,” Schmidt said. “I could really help move the ball down the field on some of these very big issues.”
Schmidt’s campaign against Knight was the most competitive matchup for Multnomah County district attorney in decades. Both were liberal candidates, but Knight, endorsed by the outgoing district attorney, was the establishment favorite. However, Schmidt gained support from community organizers and progressive leaders across the state, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, B.A. ’70, J.D. ’76, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek. Ultimately, Schmidt’s landslide victory over Knight was interpreted as a referendum on how Multnomah County prosecutes its citizens, with the people choosing reform over a customary criminal justice system.
Schmidt’s vision of progressive prosecution was tested on Aug. 11 when, just days after becoming district attorney, he made the announcement that his office would “presumptively decline” to charge hundreds of protesters accused of low-level crimes. Specifically, demonstrators whose worst offense was violating a city ordinance would not be prosecuted by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. While some saw this action as the district attorney tolerating destruction and bodily harm, Schmidt made it clear that his office would not condone violence.
“While I will do what I can to provide protesters with a forum to make their voices heard, I will not tolerate deliberate acts of violence against police or anyone else,” Schmidt said at an Aug. 11 press conference. “Engage in that type of conduct and you should expect to be prosecuted.”
Schmidt and his deputies will not prosecute crimes including interfering with a peace officer, disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, escape, harassment and, in some cases, rioting. However, since the district attorney’s office and police are separate entities, law enforcement may continue arresting demonstrators for these offenses.
For months now, the district attorney’s office has received a massive amount of international scrutiny. While some have been pleased with the office’s work, its employees have also experienced an unprecedented amount of harassment and death threats. Schmidt, the face of the office, has been the subject of national media attention, from attacks on Breitbart and Fox News to a feature in The New York Times. Though his priority is transitioning into his new role, Schmidt acknowledges that the spotlight has been difficult and unusual.
“This is a unique and challenging time to step into this chair,” Schmidt said. “To be frank, the national attention and the way this city has been prominently featured in the president’s campaign and his fear mongering, I wasn’t anticipating that.”
However, he also believes that the media attention has positively impacted how the role of prosecutors is viewed in the criminal justice system.
“In some ways, I think it’s been really good because we’ve elevated the conversation and talked about what prosecutors can do and how our offices can be used in a way that is consistent with community values,” Schmidt said.
Originally, Schmidt was scheduled to become district attorney at the start of the new year, but Underhill unexpectedly stepped down at the end of July. Gov. Kate Brown, J.D. ’85 asked Schmidt to serve the remainder of Underhill’s term, which he agreed to. His official term will begin on Jan. 1, 2021.