April 08, 2020

Counties’ cultures, workloads topics of spirited DA debate

MACHIAS – How can a district attorney who spends most of his time in an office in Ellsworth ever understand the culture of Washington County?

That was one of a dozen questions put to Republican Michael Povich, the incumbent district attorney, and independent Steven Juskewitch, his challenger, Thursday evening at a debate between the DA candidates, hosted by the University of Maine at Machias.

Simple, Povich responded. Having served both Hancock and Washington counties continuously as the DA since Jan. 1, 1975, “I have the same commitment to Washington County as I do to Hancock County,” he said. “For 31 years I have served you, and I know the culture.”

Juskewitch had a different answer.

“I grew up poor,” he said. “My mother, by the time she was 18, had three kids, one miscarriage and a divorce.”

Juskewitch is now an attorney living in Dedham and practicing in Ellsworth. He has been the only person ever to challenge Povich for his position, losing as a write-in candidate in the general election in 2002.

The debate, which drew nearly 100 people to the Portside room at UMM, presented voters with a choice of agendas and styles between the men.

Povich was formal. He reminded voters that “last week was a good week for Washington County” because he had spent five days in Washington County Superior Court prosecuting James Schmidt for having stolen nearly $30,000 from the city of Calais.

He also noted that Tom Wallace, a former choir director in Bar Harbor, was sentenced to seven years in Hancock County Superior Court last week on sex charges.

Juskewitch was edgy. He wore a bow tie and leapt up at every question to stand closer to his audience.

“I was appointed by the court to defend Tom Wallace,” Juskewitch responded, “and I gave him the best defense possible.

“I also have defended a guy who sat in jail for 11 months before he was acquitted of sex charges.”

Back and forth, the two took questions on crowded court dockets, Washington County’s drug problem, methadone clinics and fair justice for all.

Povich gave credit to his staff of 21, stretched across both counties, for the DA’s office handling 4,000 cases a year between the Ellsworth, Machias and Calais courts. The staff of 21 has seven assistant district attorneys, four victim-witness advocates, one detective and nine support staff.

“We don’t care if the cases here are fish and game complaints or attempted murder,” Povich said. “Every case will be prosecuted.”

Juskewitch drew on his five years experience early in his career when he worked in the district attorney’s office of Cumberland County. Later he worked locally for 12 years under Povich before turning to defense work five years ago.

“Cumberland County handles 20,000 cases a year, and we handled them all,” Juskewitch said. “The DA’s office calls for management skills.”

Povich didn’t buy the Cumberland County example.

“This district is not Cumberland County,” he said in closing. “We are not going to deal cases [offer plea bargains] because of crowded dockets. If people are in possession of OxyContin, we will prosecute, because that’s what the people deserve.”

The debate lasted one hour. No similar forum has been scheduled for Hancock County audiences, Juskewitch noted.

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