Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and his challenger, former Deputy District Attorney Ralph Kaelble, participated in a February 23 candidates’ forum in Porterville, hosted by El Centro Mexicano American Latino. The event was a question-and-answer exchange between the audience and the candidates.
In response to the first question, a request that each candidate introduce himself and share his goals, Ward repeated a theme in his campaign, that his district attorney’s office is no more aggressive on one type of case than another, whether it is a gang case or a rape case. “That’s our job,” he said. “Our focus is improving the customer service for the most vulnerable victims.”
He noted his accomplishments, including his office’s “98% conviction rate.”
Kaelble talked about his 14 years in the D.A.’s office, where he was involved in prosecuting “every single kind of crime.” He also explained why he is a candidate. “I really feel law enforcement gets in your blood. This is what I want to do.”
When asked about the new $93 million courthouse in Porterville, which could be closed because of a budget shortfall, both candidates praised the facility and explained that the state provides its funding, so keeping it open is a state decision.
“The courthouse is a beautiful facility,” said Kaelble. “It’s great for the City of Porterville and the surrounding areas. Crimes that happen here can be tried here.
“There are rumors it’s going to close,” he continued. “That would be a terrible waste of money if that happens, but there is nothing the district attorney’s office can do about it.”
The next question was about endorsements, which led to as much excitement as the mostly cordial forum offered. Kaelble, who claims the endorsement of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, the Tulare County Corrections Association and police officer associations in Visalia, Exeter, Lindsay and Dinuba, explained why he believes those associations support him.
“I have a history when I was at the district attorney’s office that I worked closely with law enforcement, because I believe we’re really all one,” he said. “We need to understand what they’re doing. They need to understand what we’re doing.”
Ward, however, sees things differently.
“I think it’s a little misleading to say it’s a full agency,” said Ward. “It’s my understanding that it’s not going to a full vote. Three to five people made those decisions.
“I have the endorsement of the Tulare County Police Chiefs Association,” he continued. “The leadership of law enforcement backs me because we have better communication than ever before. We made sure that every agency has an organizational chart of our office with telephone extensions. If you have a question or concern about a crime type, you know who to go to.”
The candidates were asked what they are doing, or what they would do, to make business owners feel safer and keep repeat offenders off the streets.
“We’re doing everything we can to work with law enforcement,” said Ward, “but we’re not first responders. We’re not going to respond to a 911 call.”
“Certain people we can send to prison, certain people we can’t,” said Kaelble, who talked about a person who committed a series of car burglaries, a crime that does not result in prison time, but who also committed a residential burglary, which does. He said the district attorney’s office made the person an offer “and the first degree burglary charge was tossed out,” keeping him from going to prison.
Responding to the “keeping business owners safe” part of the question, Kaelble said, “We need to keep not only business owners safe, but people safe in their homes.”
The candidates were asked what they would do if it was determined that Sheriff Mike Boudreaux’ gun raffle campaign fundraiser was a violation of the law.
“There’s no official in the county who is above prosecution,” said Ward.
Kaelble agreed. “If you commit a crime and I’m the district attorney, we’re going to prosecute – if it’s the kind of case we prosecute,” he said.
The discussion then focused on what each candidate would do for the issues that concern Porterville.
Kaelble said he would target areas such as gang violence and domestic violence “all through the county, not just in Porterville. Porterville is not so unique from the entire county.” He said that he would work with local legislators to make sure the new courthouse stays open. “It’s really difficult for victims and witnesses to get to Visalia.”
Ward talked about the auto theft task force that is a joint effort between his office and Kern County law enforcement, as well as increasing access for the underserved and remote areas of the county. “I want to make sure that they have access not just to our office but to victim advocates,” he said, adding that he “sent more staff here than anyone in history.”
The candidates were asked about the case of Kamhen Saleh (whom the district attorney’s office has been prosecuting for shooting and killing two men with multiple felony convictions as they allegedly tried to run over Saleh after stealing a backpack with $44,000 in cash from his car).
“I have an ethical obligation that I cannot disclose the facts of the case,” said Ward. “We filed the charges that were asked for by the Porterville Police Department when they came to us. The judge made a ruling and we challenged that ruling.”
“Filing a case is very daunting,” said Kaelble. “If you file a case on an individual, you can ruin his life. Just because you can file a case doesn’t mean you should.”
After the forum, the candidates were asked if they would participate in additional forums or debates. They both said they would participate in at least two similar events that are currently being planned.
Four days after the forum, El Centro Mexicano American Latino announced its endorsement of Kaelble on Facebook.