Polk Democrats choose Kimberly Graham to run for county attorney as 32-year incumbent retires

William Morris
Des Moines Register

Polk County Democratic voters chose Kimberly Graham on Tuesday as their candidate to replace retiring County Attorney John Sarcone.

Sarcone has held the county's top prosecutor job without opposition since he was elected in 1990. His announcement in 2021 that he did not intend to run again kicked off the first contested campaign for the position in three decades and the possibility of a generational shift in law enforcement priorities for Iowa's most populous county.

Graham, a longtime juvenile and recovery court attorney and former U.S. Senate candidate, came in well ahead of her two rivals: Laura Roan, a career prosecutor and current assistant county attorney in Sarcone's office, and former state legislator and Iowa House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy.

According to Tuesday's unofficial results, Graham won with 44% of the vote. Roan came in second and McCarthy third, each receiving less than 30% of votes counted. 

Polk County Election Results for June 7, 2022 | The Des Moines Register

Election results: See Iowa primary election results across the state

Graham will go on to face the sole Republican in the race, defense attorney Allan Richards, in the Nov. 8 general election. Democrats have swept countywide races in recent election cycles, making Graham the likely favorite.

For subscribers:'End of an era': Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who plans to retire after 32 years, leaves 'a big job' to fill

Graham said Tuesday night she was "excited" and looked forward to winning in November.

"Now we get to work on changing things for the better here in the justice system in Polk County, and we’re excited to get started on that in January," she said.

Regarding the general election contest against Richards, Graham said she intends to run a positive campaign.

"We plan to run the general exactly like we ran the primary. We have our values and priorities, which are ending racial and income disparities in Polk County’s justice system," she said. "I think we ran a really positive campaign for the primary, and we intend to keep doing that in the general."

Roan's campaign did not have any immediate comment. McCarthy said he called Graham about an hour after the polls closed to concede the race and wish her well.

"I took my case to the voters, I lost 40 pounds door knocking ... You can’t hit a ball unless you step up to the plate, so I congratulate Laura Roan for stepping up to the plate, and Kimberly Graham," McCarthy said. "We all stepped up to the plate, and sometimes you hit a ball and sometimes you don’t."

Candidates promise changes after Sarcone's long tenure

While campaigning, all three candidates spoke about how they would divert from the course Sarcone has followed in his 32 years in office.

Roan said she intended to hire a data analyst and establish special victim units for abused children. McCarthy, currently an attorney with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, wanted to create dedicated worker exploitation and anti-bullying task forces in the office. Graham likewise promised a focus on issues such as wage theft and said she wants to partner with academics to study disparities in Polk County charging and sentencing.

Kimberly Graham, candidate in the Democratic primary for Polk County Attorney, speaks at a meeting with Des Moines Register editors and reporters, on Thursday, May 12, 2022, at the Register's office, in Des Moines.

On drug prosecutions, Graham promised the most significant departure from Sarcone and her opponents, saying she would not prosecute low-level marijuana offenses and calling for leniency and treatment for users of harder drugs such as opioids. However, she promised continued prosecution of drug dealers.

Candidate questionnaires:Bidding to replace retiring three-decade incumbent, Polk County attorney candidates detail positions, plans

Roan also promised not to seek fines or convictions for marijuana cases but said prosecutors need to remain involved through programs like drug courts in cases involving possession of harder drugs, which she maintained represent public health risks. McCarthy said he would support deferred prosecutions for low-level marijuana charges and diversion programs for other drug offenses.

Kevin McCarthy, candidate in the Democratic primary for Polk County Attorney, speaks at a meeting with Des Moines Register editors and reporters, on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the Register's office, in Des Moines.

The candidates were united in promising not to pursue criminal prosecutions for abortion if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade and if Iowa passes new abortion restrictions. In the wake of the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, all three spoke about the need for stronger legislation restricting guns and offered suggestions such as gun buy-back programs.

Previously:Democratic candidates for Polk County attorney call for gun control after Texas shooting

They also promised not to prosecute journalists who are arrested covering protests, a reference to the 2020 arrest, trial and acquittal of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri.

Outside group spends $320K to boost Graham

McCarthy criticized Graham for accepting the support of an outside funding group, the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which he described as a "dark money" organization. 

Graham denied that characterization and said the group is meant to support candidates such as her who are from working-class backgrounds and lack the connections or financial backing others might start with.

Watch:Polk County Attorney candidates debate their platforms at May 24 forum

Campaign finance filings show Graham's campaign raised the least of the three, about $63,000 as of May 19, and spent close to $46,000. She was heavily bolstered, however, by the outside PAC, which according to finance filings spent nearly $320,000 to support her.

Roan both raised and spent the most of the three candidates' campaigns. She reported contributions of more than $180,000 and had spent about $115,000 as of May 19. Her largest expenses were for print and video advertising.

McCarthy raised more than $139,000 , and had the largest share of donors contributing more than $1,000. But he spent by far the least, barely $5,000, mostly to design his website. He had nearly $134,000 on hand going into the final weeks of the campaign.

Election Results:See Polk County election results as vote counts come in

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at wrmorris2@registermedia.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.