Rosemary Lehmberg, whose office includes Texas’ Public Integrity Unit, also helped launch hate crimes task force after anti-gay attacks in 2010
AUSTIN – Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg is one tough lesbian. As the first female DA in the county’s history, she’s made a name for herself as someone who stands up for justice, but her Democratic primary opponent may put up a tough fight.
Lehmberg joined the Travis County DA’s office in 1976 with the grand jury and later as a trial attorney, serving as chief of the career criminal, major crimes and public integrity divisions. She was elected DA in 2009 after serving as First Assistant District Attorney from 1997 to 2009.
Lehmberg’s primary opponent, Charlie Baird, didn’t respond to interview requests. He served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for nearly a decade before serving as judge for the 299th Criminal District Court, according to his campaign website. In 2010, he established the criminal law section of The Fowler Law Firm, PC. There are no candidates on the Republican side.
“I have a broad range of support from around the city at grassroots organizations, and some union support and public safety support,” Lehmberg said. “I’m feeling really good about the momentum of the campaign.”
As director of the Family Justice Division in 1988, Lehmberg created the Center for Child Protection, which remains one her proudest moments with the DA’s office, she said.
Other highlights include her work with the innocence project and starting a metal health team that helps nonviolent individuals get into services and out of jail faster.
Under Lehmberg’s leadership, the DA’s office was able to win a conviction in the money laundering case of former House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And despite attempts to move the public integrity unit over to the attorney general’s office, Lehmberg has maintained control of it.
“We’ve had some high-profile public corruption cases and we have a good many in the mill right now, so it’s going to be pretty important that someone with a reputation for being independent and taking a look at those cases in a nonpartisan way stays in office,” she said.
After her swearing in, Lehmberg started looking for funding for a full-time prosecutor in the environmental protection unit, because her office has statewide jurisdiction over environmental and water codes.
She said she would expand that effort in her next term because the workload is more than one prosecutor can handle. She also wants to work with school districts to create programs to keep kids in school, she said.
Lehmberg also wants to expand the “strong hate crimes task force” she created in 2010. After the brutal beatings of two gay men in Austin went unsolved in the spring of 2010,
Lehmberg said she wanted to use her experience with discrimination to help increase awareness and reporting of hate crimes.
“[My sexuality has not] been an issue in the community because Austin’s just like that,” she said. “But it certainly gives me a perspective on things because I grew up in a time when there was lots of hate and lots of bias and I know the sting of discrimination. I know how that feels.”
Growing up in the small town of Taylor, Texas, Lehmberg said she heard plenty of anti-gay dialogue, which stayed with her as she discovered who she was.
“It was at a time when being gay was not something anyone talked about, but we’ve changed and my town has changed and the world is changed,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I think it probably made me a better person.”
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which has endorsed Lehmberg, said it “is irreplaceable to have authentic voices speaking about our issues from a position of power.”
He said voters entrust politicians with the power of government in their community, allowing them to speak out for every part of the community.
“It also gives that person a platform to talk about not just things that the entire community is interested in, but things that the LGBT community is missing in the law and policy,” Dison said.
Karen Gross, director of the Anti-Defamation League in Austin, said the Austin/Travis Hate Crime Task Force officially launched in December 2010 and has about 60 active members from school districts, city councils and numerous other organizations. “Rosemary has been very involved in this process from the beginning,” Gross said. “She was very pragmatic.”
The task force is continuing its work on valuing diversity in schools with the “No Place for Hate” initiative. Gross said a new initiative in companies is likely to start this fall to help workforces learn from and appreciate the diversity of their co-workers.
“There’s really a need to find out where we’re coming from to build on our strengths,” Gross said.
With training police officers to recognizing and investigating hate crimes, as well as working on possible changes to the state’s hate crime law, Lehmberg said the task force is not “one of those sit-around-and-talk task forces,” especially with an effort to tackle the workplace with a “Community of Respect” initiative.
“You can work in the schools all you want, but if you don’t start working on the adults, too, you’re not going to get very far,” Lehmberg said.
While raising the punishment for the state’s statute is pointless, as the enhancement cannot be used on a first-degree felony because it has the maximum sentence, Lehmberg said she wants to think of ways for possible education options to go with the punishment to stop the hate.
“I think we need to start figuring out some programmatic things to increase sensitivity,” she said. “If it’s young people who we can save from their bias by doing some other things, I think people need to get creative and do that and make it part of the penalty.”
Although her work with the hate crimes task force is just one of the things that makes her an LGBT activist, Lehmberg said her support for the community and advocacy are prominent parts of her life and position as DA.
“I support our rights, I advocate whenever I can, I do things like start a hate crime task force,” she said. “I’m not out on a protest line, but I am active in gay rights.” •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2012.