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Heckert leads Patridge, Hoppe in DA race

Early returns show Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert with a commanding lead in the district attorney's race.

Heckert had 15,981, or 55.5 percent, of the votes tallied at 10:15 p.m. Challengers Rob Patridge, district director for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., had 27.8 percent with 8,004 votes, and Deputy District Attorney David Hoppe was at 16.6 percent with 4,790 votes.

District Attorney Mark Huddleston will retire in December, leaving the top spot in law enforcement open for the first time in two decades.

(Correction: The length of Huddleston's tenure at the office has been corrected in this story.)

If one candidate emerges with more than 50 percent of the votes in final results, that person will be the new district attorney. Otherwise the top two candidates will face off in the November election.

Heckert was pleased with her numbers. She thanked voters and volunteers for their support. But Heckert said she would wait for the final returns and was unwilling to claim victory as the county's first female DA.

"I want to see one more round come in," Heckert said.

Patridge expressed disappointment in the early returns. But he also was "watching to see what happens" with the later numbers.

"We have another 10,000 votes to count for sure," Patridge said. "Maybe double that."

The trio has been battling for votes in public forums for the past several weeks, blitzing the airwaves with commercials and blanketing the countryside with their campaign signs.

Huddleston gave his endorsement to Heckert, describing her as "extremely qualified," and noting she has extensive trial court and administrative experience.

Heckert has been with the prosecutors' office for 23 years after being hired immediately out of law school.

A lot has changed since Heckert began in the DA's office, she said. Formerly a "man's world," the office now is about 50 percent female, Heckert said. More and more women have entered the courtroom as attorneys and taken the bench as judges, she said.

Heckert said she'd be proud to be the county's first female district attorney. But added she has earned her way to the top spot in law enforcement. While grateful for the support she has received from Huddleston, Heckert said she would make changes to the office, including offering clearer guidelines for plea bargains, particularly in domestic violence cases.

All three candidates voiced support for addressing drug and alcohol problems through treatment programs, rather than incarceration. They also agreed on a need to find mental health solutions for those who are ill and caught up in the criminal justice system.

Patridge, a three-term state representative who served as majority whip for the GOP in the Legislature, spent about three years as a Jackson County deputy district attorney in the late 1990s. He also served on the Medford City Council and was general counsel for Pacific Retirement Services, operators of the Rogue Valley Manor and other retirement centers.

Patridge was endorsed by Walden, numerous current legislators, Medford City Council members, Jackson County commissioners and Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters and the Mail Tribune editorial staff.

Patridge called for major changes within the DA's office, stating law enforcement is frustrated with the status quo. Patridge also stressed a need to update the technology in the office, including adding electronic filings and notifications.

Patridge said the DA's office has an antiquated data retrieval system, and it needs to become more collaborative with local nonprofit groups, such as the Southern Oregon Meth Project, and provide free legal training for police officers. Patridge also said he wanted to hold town-hall meetings to work with neighbors and community leaders on crime prevention.

Heckert and Hoppe hammered back at Patridge's criticism, calling him a career politician with little prosecutorial experience.

Hoppe has worked in the District Attorney's Office for 11 years. He was the first winner of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training Child Abuse Prosecutor of the Year Award, and he served as chairman of the Jackson County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council. He is the prosecution representative at Sexual Assault Resource Team meetings and trains reserve police officers on sex crimes.

Hoppe said he's still waiting for the final tally, but said he is pleased to see his colleague was so far ahead of Patridge.

"Obviously I'd be pleased if a professional prosecutor won this race," Hoppe said.

Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.