Albemarle County commonwealth's attorney forum

TYLER HAMMEL/THE DAILY PROGRESS

A crowd fills Lane Auditorium at the Albemarle County Office Building-McIntire for a commonwealth's attorney candidate forum on Thursday. Incumbent Republican Robert Tracci debated Democrat Jim Hingeley.

A candidate forum for Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney went off without a hitch Thursday despite some contention leading up to it.

The forum, hosted by the local League of Women Voters, was the fourth time Robert Tracci, the incumbent Republican, and Jim Hingeley, a Democrat and founder of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s Office, have faced off. Packed into Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building-McIntire, dozens of people sent up written questions and often raised their hands to show support for a candidate’s answer.

As with previous debates and forums the candidates have participated in, Hingeley and Tracci strove to argue how they would best serve the community, often getting lost in criticism of each other instead of the questions being asked.

Among the first issues to be raised was the role of a prosecutor, an issue that has repeatedly established a fundamental difference in viewpoint between the candidates.

In Tracci’s view, as an arm of law enforcement, a prosecutor has an obligation to enforce the law and not widely exercise prosecutorial discretion. Reading from the oath of office, Tracci said he did not have the choice, in most cases, not to pursue felony prosecutions.

“We faithfully apply the law and give voices to those harmed,” he said. “Political questions are addressed by legislators, not by attorneys.”

Hingeley has advocated for a broader use of discretion and avoiding felony charges when he views they are not necessary. By using this discretion, Hingeley said he would be able to more effectively prosecute and divert people into alternative programs, such as the therapeutic docket, which assists people with mental illness.

“Prosecution discretion is a tool to achieve justice, and I say we should use tools to achieve justice as much as possible,” he said.

Answering an audience question about whether they would support a civilian police review board for the county, similar to what Charlottesville is attempting to create, Tracci said he believes there are better ways, such as utilizing an inspector general.

“I don’t support a CRB and I think seeing how Charlottesville has failed to launch one shows how difficult it can be to create something like that,” he said.

Hingeley advocated for what he dubbed a “community oversight committee,” to hold prosecutors accountable and to present information to the community.

“This is a community office and that is one of the reasons that we have this election coming up,” he said.

As at previous events, the two attacked each other for what they perceived as a lack of experience.

Hingeley criticized Tracci’s “rookie mistakes,” again pointing to his failure to establish venue in a perjury trial against Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, who had claimed a man assaulted him on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, and then himself was charged with perjury after prosecutors saw surveillance video that contradicted his statements.

Tracci in turn argued that, as a public defender and defense attorney, Hingeley had no experience in prosecution.

The debate was nearly a single-candidate event after Tracci announced the day before that he would not be attending due to concerns that protesters would disrupt the forum.

A Wednesday post on Tracci’s election website criticized Hingeley for not agreeing to a forum that would “ensure the decorum and civility expected by Albemarle County residents.”

“In recent days, it became clear that Indivisible Charlottesville and other Charlottesville-based activist groups supporting the Hingeley campaign were planning to disrupt the candidate forum which had been planned by the League of Women Voters,” the post reads.

The post also noted that Hingeley had not attended a candidate forum in Scottsville earlier this week.

In a statement also released Wednesday, Hingeley accused Tracci of being unwilling to answer difficult questions.

“If Mr. Tracci finds the idea of voters submitting hand-written question on 3x5 notecards to be too disruptive or intimidating for him, then that is the decision,” Hingeley wrote.

Indivisible Charlottesville — whose members include residents of Albemarle County and other parts of Central Virginia — denied via Twitter allegations that it planned to disrupt the event.

On Thursday, Tracci confirmed via a post on his website that he would indeed be attending the forum, citing a confirmation from the debate host that “disruption will not be tolerated, and additional clarification of debate terms.”

Tracci also has called for a forum hosted by the Fraternal Order of Police at Thomson-Hall Lodge 5. No date has been set for that forum.

The election will occur Nov. 5.

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