Hannah Michelle Bussa
Dave Pantos is running for Douglas County Attorney against incumbent Don Kleine.
Pantos said there are two major reasons he decided to run this election season: need for criminal justice reform and the handling of the murder of James Scurlock in 2020.
“Douglas County is in desperate need for criminal justice reform,” he said. “We have a crisis and our prisons are overcrowded. We can’t keep staff working there. And it’s largely because of the fact that we’re stuck in a 19th or 20th century mentality in terms of criminal justice in our community, and we need to reform. We need bail reform, we need to stop prosecuting lower level marijuana offenses and we need to stop criminalizing poverty through fines and fees.”
He said a lot of people agree that criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” he said. “We have conservatives and liberals who want criminal justice reform, but someone who doesn’t want criminal justice reform is our current county attorney.”
In 2020, the current county attorney, Don Kleine, initially chose not to charge the killer of James Scurlock, a 22-year-old Black man killed during George Floyd protests downtown. A grand jury with a special prosecutor ended up indicting Jake Gardner that fall.
“The murder itself was a wound in our community,” Pantos said.
He said Kleine’s initial decision not to prosecute Scurlock’s killer exacerbated that wound. Then, Kleine made the correct decision to call a grand jury.
“But then, whatever good will came out of that, he scuttled by attacking the special prosecutor, who was a highly qualified attorney who came out of retirement to provide that public service,” Pantos said.
After the grand jury process, Kleine left the Democratic Party in a press conference with Republicans.
“That just served to further politicize that office,” Pantos said. “I think that was beneath the office of county attorney. I think the county attorney should be nonpartisan — it’s a partisan election for that race, for sure — but I think you’re supposed to run that office nonpartisan. So, I think all of his actions last year led to a polarization in our community.”
Pantos said his goal is to heal that wound and bring people back together.
“I think folks need to be able to vote and show their disappointment in the incumbent as it relates to those matters,” he said.
Ja Keen Fox, Activist and Racial Equity Strategist, helped lead the Justice for James Scurlock movement and is an advisor to Pantos’ campaign.
“Justice for James endorsed Dave Pantos because James’ father, James Scurlock II, endorsed Dave Pantos,” Fox said. “Our mission was always to be the community support to a family so incredibly wronged by Don Kleine that thousands of supporters demonstrated outside of his neighborhood for 36 days from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.”
Fox said the current Douglas County Attorney needs to be replaced.
“The communal understanding that Don Kleine is unfit for the office can’t be ignored, and Dave Pantos is acknowledging the moral obligation we all have to be the change we want to see by announcing his candidacy for Douglas County Attorney,” Fox said. “His body of work speaks very clearly of his willingness to defend vulnerable populations and create community-based solutions in partnership with those impacted by social injustice. These traits are essential to the office of Douglas County Attorney, and Don Kleine does not have them.”
Fox said Douglas County Attorney is an office with immense politically persuasive power.
“We see the impact of morally bankrupt prosecutors like Don Kleine and others throughout the state on the legislation that is developed and passed in the Unicameral,” he said. “While the policy decisions a new Douglas County Attorney like Dave Pantos can make would be instrumental in changing how our Black and Brown residents experience life currently, legislation is a stabilizing force in ensuring generations of communities of color are safeguarded from the whims of prosecutors like Don Kleine, who would politicize the office and use its power to enable white supremacy.”
He said the office of Douglas County Attorney dramatically impacts the future of thousands of Black Nebraskans like James Scurlock every year.
“As we saw throughout the saga of the Justice for James movement, the way Don Kleine was able to utilize the media to vilify James effectively was wholly because of James’ prior criminal record,” he said. “None of which had any bearing on James’ decision to protect other Omahans once Jake Gardner was discovered to be armed and dangerous.”
Fox said the group hopes to honor Scurlock by expanding the meaning of justice from retribution to real care.
“A care that extends to all residents of Douglas County, not just those who fit the narrative of victim that Don Kleine has created in his head,” he said.
Fox said beyond Scurlock, the Justice for James movement understands that the only route to sustainable change is a shift in who holds power.
“When someone has proven themselves to engage their position of authority in ways that enable white supremacist violence, like Don Kleine, it becomes imperative to the physical, emotional, mental, social and political safety of Black and Brown people to find another candidate,” he said.
Pantos said he is honored to receive the support of Justice for James. He reached out to James Scurlock’s father and met with him.
“I’m so honored to have that support, and I will honor that support through this campaign and as County Attorney,” Pantos said.
Pantos said the County Attorney for Douglas County, the largest county in Nebraska, has a few key roles: to prosecute felonies in Douglas County and domestic violence cases that are treated as misdemeanors, to act as the attorney for the county, to serve as the coroner for the county and to do work in juvenile court.
He said as Douglas County Attorney, he will use the power of that office to support legislation.
“Douglas County Attorney is the most powerful public attorney in the state of Nebraska,” he said. “And with that power comes, I think, a bully pulpit. And certainly, anytime the County Attorney holds a press conference or testifies in Lincoln on a bill or issue, he gets a lot of attention…I would use that influence and power to advocate on key areas of criminal justice reform, like the ones listed on my website.”
Pantos said he believes the reform that is most important in addition to the decriminalization of marijuana is the expungement law. Right now, Nebraska doesn’t have one, so the only way someone can clear their record is through a pardon, which is difficult to obtain.
Pantos said he will increase transparency as Douglas County Attorney and will focus on discussing this specifically throughout his campaign.
“There was a great example of this a couple of weeks ago, where local media outlets wanted to find out more about the data associated with disparities and incarceration in Nebraska,” he said. “The Governor was not releasing that information, and Don Kleine, who sits on the committee that’s looking at that stuff, did not release the information.”
Pantos said he would be more transparent with this type of data.
“I don’t think we should be hiding the ball when it comes to data on incarceration, or other areas of law enforcement in our community,” he said.
He said the current official county website has no information about data at all, just generic information about what each unit of the county attorney’s office does that has probably been on the website for decades.
“For an office that has 60 lawyers, most of whom get paid six figures, and all this staff and they’re doing all this really important stuff — the fact that there’s really no information about outcomes, whether or not crime is being reduced in our community, any disaggregated information about race or economic status or anything like that, there’s just no information at all,” he said. “I feel like any step we take in that direction toward transparency would be way more than we have now.”
Pantos said this position is about leadership.
“It’s about bringing people together, and again, I don’t see where Don Kleine’s leadership was last year during the Scurlock matter,” he said. “Whatever experience he had, he did not bring to bear, and he ended up serving to create a wound, or exacerbate a wound in the community, and that wound is still there. I want to heal that wound.”
Pantos has experience with leadership in the community through various roles, like being Executive Director for Legal Aid. He also has experiences with the nonprofits in the county. He also teaches Environmental Law and Policy at UNO, as well as Introductions to Sustainability.
One of Pantos’ listed principles for this position is justice. He said for him, justice means fairness and equity in the community that isn’t dependent on how much money, power or influence the person has in the community. Right now, there is a system that benefits the wealthy. He wants a system that benefits everyone.
“I think to really bring criminal justice reform, you need someone with an outside, independent voice,” Pantos said. “I haven’t been part of the current system of criminal justice. Although I have a tremendous amount of experience I can bring to bear to reform that system, I am an independent, outside voice.”
Fox said the changes that the Douglas County Attorney can implement in their office are immediate, and they don’t have to ask permission to change office policy.
“Things are bleak in Douglas County because that’s how Don Kleine has wanted them,” he said. “He has the discretion to do better by Black people and communities of color today, and every day he chooses not to. We should recognize that as a moral and ethical sickness.”
Fox said abolitionists should still be interested in this race.
“To successfully advocate abolition, you must always have a real pulse on the society you live in,” he said. “In my experience, activists seeking radical change are often the most self-aware and socially-aware folks I have met. The journey to abolition is only as real as the journey our society is on.”
He said a progressive prosecutor in office, similar to cities like Nashville, Tennessee, Washtenaw and Oakland County in Michigan, or Washington State, helps the layperson understand that criminal justice can be done differently and mitigate harm to everyone involved.
“2022 is our opportunity, as a community, to invite a braver Douglas County Attorney, Dave Pantos, into office and discover just how overdue we were for fresh leadership and intentional relationship,” Fox said.
Justice for James is going to host a conversation with Pantos, which will be announced on their Facebook.
“I think there’s going to be a huge role for young people in this race,” Pantos said. “A lot of folks are passionate about criminal justice issues and want to make a difference in our community. And I want to make sure that they know that there will be an active voice that they will have in this campaign.”
To learn more about Dave Pantos or volunteer for his campaign, visit www.davepantos.com