Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/391 Thu, 20 Jun 2019 13:22:04 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8618-max-murphy-podcast-breaking-down-the-queens-district-attorney-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8618-max-murphy-podcast-breaking-down-the-queens-district-attorney-race queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


June 19, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race

Journalists Emma Whitford, who has written for Gotham Gazette and other outlets, and David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle joined the show to discuss the Queens District Attorney race, just days before the June 25 Democratic primary vote.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race Wed, 19 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8577-should-a-top-prosecutor-have-prior-prosecutorial-experience-qualifications-debate-rages-in-queens-district-attorney-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8577-should-a-top-prosecutor-have-prior-prosecutorial-experience-qualifications-debate-rages-in-queens-district-attorney-race District Attorneys New York City

Four sitting New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Does the top prosecutor for one of New York City’s most populous boroughs need to have prosecutorial experience? Should the top prosecutor have spent significant time -- years, maybe decades -- arguing in court proceedings? Do they need to know how to put people in prison? Do they need to know to keep them there?

That’s part of the “qualifications” debate ignited in recent weeks in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, an election to replace the late DA Richard Brown. Seven candidates are on the ballot for the June 25 election: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; City Council Member Rory Lancman; former State Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; and Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

All of the candidates are, of course, licensed attorneys; some are former prosecutors without elected experience; two are elected officials without prosecutorial experience; and one is a public defender that has been neither an elected official nor a prosecutor but has been operating in the trenches of the system. The election is taking place amid record low crime and a criminal justice reform movement that aims to shift the paradigm of what a district attorney can, and should, do with the powers at their disposal.

Key to the race in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough of over 2 million residents is an evolving view of the qualifications for district attorney, and questions not only about what experience someone should have before becoming a top law enforcement official with immense powers to forever alter people’s lives, but what exactly the Queens electorate wants in its first newly-elected DA in almost 30 years.

District Attorneys have broad (some say overly so) discretionary powers over how laws are enforced in their county. They can bring -- or decline to bring -- criminal charges as well as initiate civil cases. Their decisions can influence whether police arrest people for specific crimes. Among the city’s district attorneys, Brown was slow to adapt to the evolving conversation on restorative and alternative criminal justice approaches.

His office did take efforts to provide some alternatives to incarceration and clear thousands of open warrants for low-level crimes, but often only after others had done so, refused City Council funding to create a dedicated wrongful conviction review unit, and continued to prosecute low-level offenses such as marijuana possession and fare evasion while some counterparts announced policies not to.

The candidates running to replace Brown have pledged to different degrees to break from that tradition, making broad promises to refuse prosecutions for various minor offenses. Most have said they will not seek cash bail for a majority of crimes, and over the course of the race have taken positions on issues that would have been unheard of a few years ago, including pledging to decriminalize sex work (though candidates vary on how they would approach that particular issue).

Last week, the Queens Daily Eagle reported, the Queens County Bar Association gave its ratings to the seven candidates in the race, finding five of them “qualified” except for Cabán and Lugo. The Bar Association judiciary committee said Cabán was “not approved” while Lugo was the only candidate to not appear for an interview. Lasak was found to be “well qualified” for the position.

The New York City Bar Association, which conducted interviews simultaneously with the Queens Bar Association, released its own ratings for the candidates on Friday, giving all candidates except for Lugo an "approved" rating. Eric Friedman, a spokesperson, said in an email to Gotham Gazette, “We have a policy of not commenting regarding the specifics of our evaluation process.” Friedman noted that the process is “essentially the same” for evaluating judicial candidates.

The Queens Bar Association’s ratings immediately drew strong reactions from the campaigns. Lasak quickly began to fundraise off the designation, sending out an email with the subject line, “well qualified,” followed soon by a mailer – viewed by some, including Katz supporters, as a sexist attack – in which he juxtaposed himself with Katz, the perceived frontrunner in the race.

Lancman, who was rated “qualified” along with four others, tweeted the night of the interviews, “Purported gatekeepers for most diverse county in USA. About 40 lawyers. Every single one white. Not a person of color in room. Eyes roll when I discuss #racism in criminal justice system, no surprise.”

Cabán’s campaign quickly pushed back against the Queens Bar Association’s assessment, citing her years of work as a public defender. Throughout her campaign, the 31-year-old Latina, who identifies as queer, has painted herself as the most qualified to carry out what she believes is the right mission of the District Attorney’s office: to decarcerate and target the socioeconomic drivers of crime. What’s she outlined is little short of a revolutionary approach to the position, but one that career prosecutors like Lasak scoff at as unrealistic, indicative of her lack of experience.

The question of qualifications is far from simple. Former prosecutors say that, in order to do the job, a candidate should ideally have done it in some form before, perhaps as an assistant district attorney. But principles, management ability, and leadership skills are far from evident from a resume. Reformers and advocates argue that a former prosecutor may be the furthest from what Queens needs, and wants, in its top law enforcement official, after nearly three decades of having lived under tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately target the low-income communities of color who make up large, and growing, parts of the borough.

“It’s definitely important to have criminal law experience,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School. “You can obviously have that experience on either side. You can have it as a prosecutor, you can have it as a defense lawyer.”

Rodgers acknowledged the now widely-recognized trend of prosecutors running as progressives, focused more greatly on restorative justice and decarceration. The victories of progressive district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston signalled the beginning of that shift. (Krasner, a former public defender and longtime civil rights attorney, came to Queens to endorse Cabán on Thursday. “There are an awful lot of people who have said they’re progressive. And yet their deeds, their history, does not match their words. Tiffany’s history matches her words,” Krasner said.)

In the Queens race, all the candidates have promised they will reform the office and its punitive policies, though Cabán’s promises go the furthest (earning her a coveted New Yorker profile published on Tuesday, among many others), with Lancman and his legislative record of criminal justice reform not far afield. But Rodgers noted that even longtime prosecutors have successfully transformed their systems of criminal justice, pointing to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as a prime example.

Gonzalez was named to and then won the position after the death of Ken Thompson, who himself was a reformer and put into place progressive policies of his own. “[Gonzalez] is a lifelong assistant district attorney, the sort of person that people might look at and say, ‘Well look, this guy is just kind of poisoned from having put people in jail for his whole career. He’s never going to see the benefit of these sorts of policies,’ and yet he does. And a lot of prosecutors now are more like him,” Rodgers said.

Of the other current district attorneys, both Manhattan DA Cy Vance and Bronx DA Darcel Clark worked as assistant district attorneys before ascending to their top prosecutor jobs. Staten Island's Michael McMahon did not have prior prosecutorial experience before being elected DA, though he "was a practicing trial attorney for 30 years, appearing in courts at all levels throughout New York State," according to his website, as well as a member of the City Council and member of Congress.

Of the seven candidates in Queens, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán are the only ones who have not been prosecutors. Increasingly, the race is being viewed as a two-way battle between Katz – the establishment candidate with a solid base as borough president, strong union support, deep campaign coffers, and even the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo – and Cabán, who has built a grassroots campaign, received thousands of individual campaign donations outnumbering her opponents’, and pulled in prominent endorsements from progressive organizations and elected officials, including Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Lancman’s campaign argues he has a path to victory that includes Jewish and African-American voting blocs, including from the areas he has represented in the City Council and state Assembly, and the crucial battleground of predominantly-black southeast Queens. Lasak, who was a prosecutor in the Queens DA office for 25 years before becoming a judge, has received many endorsements from law enforcement unions.

“I would not say 100% that a chief prosecutor must be a former prosecutor but I would say there should be a strong presumption that that person be a former prosecutor,” said Daniel R. Alonso, managing director and general counsel at Exiger, and formerly a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Alonso conceded that there are examples of lauded prosecutors who previously had no prosecutorial experience. For instance Robert Morgenthau, who was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in 1961, had not previously prosecuted cases. Alonso worked under Morgenthau, who went on to become the longest serving district attorney in New York State. Even Richard Brown, when he first became Queens DA, had not been a prosecutor but rather a judge, Alonso pointed out.

But, he said, “It is a very difficult job and in any job, it’s very hard to do it for the first time as the person who is in charge, particularly for something as specialized as prosecution. So you have to be constantly making decisions, weighing evidence, deciding some issues of policy but those issues of policy have to be informed by real experience in the criminal justice system and understanding what makes a good case and a bad case.”

That’s a measure that Lasak, Malik, Nieves, and Lugo have used to pitch their campaign.

Lasak’s success at homicide prosecutions in the Queens DA’s office earned him the moniker “Mr. Murder” -- mentioned in a New York Times profile in 2003. He also touts his work to set up a wrongful conviction review team, and his experience later as a state Supreme Court judge.

“Judge Lasak is the most qualified candidate in this race, bar none. And that qualification is of the utmost importance when seeking a job where lives are on the line - lives of victims, of witnesses, and of defendants who are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bill Driscoll, Lasak’s campaign chair, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Judge Lasak has spent his career keeping us safe and freeing the innocent. The District Attorney’s office is no landing pad for a term-limited politician, nor is it a launching pad for bids for higher office.”

Some of Lasak’s opponents, chiefly Cabán and Lancman, argue he’s a relic of the old-school approach to public safety that led to mass incarceration, especially of poor people of color.

At a March 12 candidate debate, Lugo said, “My entire life I have been involved with the criminal justice system.” She emphasized her work for the Nassau County DA, Manhattan DA, and Albany County DA. Nieves, at the same debate, said he is an “18-year progressive prosecutor.” “I chose to go into criminal justice not because I wanted to charge or incarcerate, but because I wanted to change the system,” he said.

Malik, in a statement, said, prosecutorial experience is “absolutely essential” to become Queens DA. “In fact, it should be a prerequisite. You would not go to a podiatrist if you have a heart problem; you’d go to an experienced cardiologist,” she said, noting her two decades of experience, including managing staff at three different agencies and working both as a prosecutor and defense lawyer.

“We cannot play with the lives of 2.4 million Queens residents when it comes to criminal justice and the safety of our communities,” said Malik, who has at times pointedly compared herself and Cabán to highlight differences in resumes. “To be the highest ranking law enforcement agent in Queens, experience matters.”

Though they have been on the defensive at times, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán, have in some instances tried to flip the script, emphasizing the fact that they have not served as prosecutors.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Katz emphasized her experience as a licensed attorney for 30 years, including litigation, her time as a local and state legislator, and her work as borough president. She has not practiced in criminal court before. “But I'm not a career prosecutor who spent their career perpetuating our broken criminal justice system,” she said. “Instead, I'm the only candidate in the race with experience managing a Borough-wide office, with trusted relationships from every corner of Queens, who can walk in on day one knowing exactly how to implement the reforms we need.”

Grant Fox, a Katz campaign spokesperson, also took a shot at Cabán, her “unqualified” (really "not approved") rating from the Queens Bar Association, “her incredibly short career” and her “reckless and dishonest campaign to cover up for her total lack of managerial experience.”

Katz’s campaign has a deep bench of endorsements from elected officials and prominent unions, including 32BJ SEIU, the buildings services workers union that is also a potent political operation. “Throughout her extensive career in public service, Melinda Katz has always protected the rights and safety of the most vulnerable in our community and we are confident she has the skills and experience to continue doing so as District Attorney,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, in a statement. “Prosecutors only know how to prosecute and it’s these prosecutors who created the broken system that Melinda Katz plans to fix.”

Lancman has made a similar argument for his candidacy. “The next Queens District Attorney must have robust legal experience, be a proven public official, and boast a track record of criminal justice reform,” he said in a statement, pointing to his record representing victims of workplace harassment, wage theft, and on-the-job injuries.

As with Katz, Lancman has served as both a state and local elected official, and he touts his advocacy for closing Rikers Island jails, ending cash bail, police reform and accountability, and fighting against sexual assault. Lancman has chaired a City Council committee with oversight of the city’s five district attorney offices.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform the criminal justice system here in Queens, but it requires a District Attorney with real litigation, public policy and criminal justice reform experience to get the job done,” he said, in part as an apparent attempt to contrast himself with Katz and Cabán.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which endorsed Lancman, said three qualifications are necessary for the next DA: “One is experience as a practicing attorney involved in litigation, because you’re running a huge law office and you need to be familiar with the courtroom and you need to be familiar with litigation. The second is to be involved in criminal justice issues. And thirdly, you have to have the right values and the right ideas for what you want to do with the office...I think that Rory has those qualifications.”

Cabán’s campaign has drawn a clear distinction from both Lancman and Katz. “As a public defender, Tiffany Cabán is the only one who has defended over 1,000 clients in court who couldn't afford to defend themselves—who are sent to Rikers simply because they couldn’t make bail; because they jumped a turnstile; because they struggled with mental health issues or substance use disorder,” said Monica Klein, a campaign spokesperson, in an email.

“Her opponents are career prosecutors who worked to throw people in jail, and career politicians that thrive in the very system they say now has to be reformed,” Klein continued. “Tiffany knows better than anyone what it will take to bring real justice to working people in Queens—because she's the only one who has been doing this work on the front lines for years.”

Several criminal justice reformers say their best hope of achieving key goals lie with Cabán.

Assemblymember Dan Quart, who endorsed Cabán and is rumored to be considering a run for Manhattan District Attorney next year, said in a phone interview that prosecutorial experience is not a prerequisite for becoming a district attorney (Quart has no prosecutorial experience but was a criminal defense attorney). “Each individual county’s bar association is allowed to operate under whatever rules they want but any reasonable view of Tiffany’s qualifications, she is certainly qualified. To say otherwise is ridiculous,” he said, referencing the Queens Bar Association’s ratings. “I think they made a mistake in judgement. Look at Tiffany’s experience. Seven years as a public defender...that is significant experience. Certainly significant litigation, courtroom experience that under any definition of the word ‘qualified’ would satisfy it.”

None of the candidates in the race, he pointed out, can rightfully claim to have managed an office as large as the Queens District Attorney office, with its 600-odd lawyers on staff. “So to single Tiffany out seems extremely selective to me,” he said.

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which also endorsed Cabán, said the debate around prosecutorial experience “comes from a place of gatekeeping and a desire to maintain a status quo that has fueled mass incarceration, that has perpetuated racial disparities in the criminal legal system and comes with a mindset that punishment is prioritized over finding real solutions to repair harm and create stronger communities.”

Alonso, the former federal prosecutor, did not take a position on any specific candidate but he did issue some notes of caution. He said he’d be “deeply skeptical” of someone without any courtroom experience -- a distinction that only applies to Katz in this race. And he added, “The nightmare scenario is that somebody who is an elected official or has a constituency decides, ‘Boy it would be fun to be DA.’ Unlike being a legislator and unlike being other kinds of elected officials, this is a professional job where you have to actually do a very specialized job day-to-day. It’s not primarily a policy job.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with the New York City Bar Association's ratings for the Queens DA candidates, which were released after this article was published.

]]>
Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race Thu, 06 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8555-the-money-picture-in-the-queens-da-race-one-month-till-primary-day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8555-the-money-picture-in-the-queens-da-race-one-month-till-primary-day queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


Candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney have filed their first pre-election campaign finance disclosures since January, showing their fundraising and expenditure from the last four months with just under a month to go until the all-important primary.

There are seven Democrats competing in the June 25 primary to replace the late Queens DA Richard Brown, who passed away earlier this month. Brown had already announced his intention to resign, prompting the first competitive primary for the seat in nearly 30 years. The candidates include former prosecutors and those without any courtroom experience at all, well-funded politicians with big money donors and first-time candidates with grassroots support.

Presumptive favorite Queens Borough President Melinda Katz outraised her opponents, bringing in just over $560,151 and spending $512,224 over the last four months. Though Katz closed out the fundraising period with $907,000 in the bank -- in part owing to large transfers that she made from separate state and city fundraising accounts -- she owes $306,000 in unpaid bills, mostly to Red Horse Strategies, a consulting firm, making her actual balance as of the filing closer to $600,000. She has received about 300 donations from individuals for her DA campaign.

Council Member Rory Lancman raised $246,158 in the same period and spent $655,371. He had $529,116 left in cash on hand (Lancman also transferred funds from separate accounts late last year and in January) as of the filing. Lancman reported just 101 individual donors to his campaign.

Gregory Lasak, a former state Supreme Court judge and long-time prosecutor in the Queens DA office, was the most prolific spender among all the candidates. He raised $445,314 in the period but spent $747,849 since January, leaving him with $380,571 in cash on hand. He spent massively on digital and television ads, polling, and campaign mailers. Lasak has received donations from nearly 600 individuals.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán has emerged as the insurgent progressive in the race and has picked up several prominent endorsements in the last few days, including from Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cabán reported raising a relatively impressive $256,673 from many more individual donors than her competitors, and showed a comparatively small expenditure.

The filing shows her campaign has spent about $105,317 on the borough-wide race, leaving her with $151,356 with just a month to go. A spokesperson for Cabán indicated that the campaign is driven by volunteers and running a bare-bones grassroots effort, bolstered by well over 2,000 individual donations, and that there are no outstanding bills to be paid other than the spokesperson’s own invoice coming in the next few days. The numbers also don’t reflect the expected ‘AOC bump’ that the campaign anticipates given the star-congressional representative, whose district spans parts of Queens and the Bronx, has now sent multiple emails asking for donations for Cabán and the endorsement news itself likely generated significant interest in the race and Cabán.

An analysis of Caban's fundraising by THE CITY, however, shows that several donors gave many times in small amounts, inflating the number of individual contributors the campaign claimed -- the actual number is 1,822, still well above the field. But THE CITY also showed that most of Caban's money is coming from outside Queens, in part showing her status as a progressive rising star, but raising questions about the actual depth of her support in the borough she needs to win, though she still has more in-borough donors than all of the other candidates have donors.

Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor, was a late entrant to the race but she has raised $608,644 and spent $543,748 already, with $64,896 left in her campaign account as of the filing. She does, however, have $210,000 in liabilities, all of which were personal loans she and her husband made to the campaign. Malik reported more than 350 individual donors.

Jose Nieves, an army veteran who formerly worked in the state Attorney General’s office, raised $69,647 over the disclosure period and spent about $76,438, leaving him just $5,339 in cash on hand.

Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney, raised about $97,627, spent $76,562, and has a balance of $21,064 as of the filing.

The final weeks of the primary campaign are expected to see a blitz of spending from candidates, to the extent they can afford it, with fundraising throughout. It's unclear to what extent candidates will purchase targeted television airtime, which can be the most expensive form of advertising, as they try to reach all corners of the vasy borough of Queens. The winner of the Democratic primary on June 25 is widely expected to cruise to victory in the general election given how heavily blue Queens is, though it is unclear how the general election may play out, especially with an extended timeline after the primary was moved from September to June starting this year.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max & Joey Fox contributed to this story.

Note: this article has been updated with information based on the analysis by THE CITY.

]]>
The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8518-campaign-ads-queens-district-attorney-candidates-provide-video-evidence https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8518-campaign-ads-queens-district-attorney-candidates-provide-video-evidence queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves


There is just over a month till the June 25 Democratic primary election for Queens District Attorney, which will effectively decide who wins the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough.

Seven Democratic candidates are vying for the open seat -- long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown recently passed away at the age of 86, just short of his planned retirement date.

The seven candidates have been appearing at many local forums and debates, and each has released at least one short video ad of some kind to make their campaign pitch. The better-funded candidates have been able to afford commercials more suited to television airtime and may air them in the expensive New York City media market, while the upstarts in the race -- Tiffany Cabán, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, and Jose Nieves -- seem to hope that social media will effectively get their message out despite the cash advantage enjoyed by Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, and Greg Lasak.

Here’s a look at video ads put out by the candidates so far:

Tiffany Cabán
Cabán, a public defender, is undoubtedly the most progressive and furthest to the left in a race where most of the candidates are running as reformers. With a campaign focused on “people-powered reform,” Cabán is pitching a vision of restorative justice and a need to move away from the punitive practices that have defined the Queens DA’s office for decades. She promises to pursue a “decarceral” approach to law enforcement.

“On day one, by changing policy, you can change lives,” Cabán said in a minute-long video on Twitter in January. “You can have a very real impact, not just on the criminal justice system but on education, on healthcare, on housing.”

She has promised “full transparency and accountability” and emphasized that she would work to “decriminalize” poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, sex workers and the sex work industry. She is also a fervent opponent of ICE, the federal customs enforcement agency,

“We’re not trying to get convictions, we’re trying to do justice and what that means is strengthening and stabilizing communities,” Cabán said in the video.

 

Melinda Katz
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz is the candidate most closely associated with the borough’s Democratic establishment, and she has the funding that comes with it. But she has seemed to downplay that association, perhaps acknowledging it could be somewhat toxic after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of former Rep. and Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley (Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Cabán).

In fact, in a campaign ad running just over two minutes that is heavy on personal biography, Katz emphasizes that she was an outsider when she first successfully ran for the City Council, which preceded her election to the state Assembly and the borough presidency.

Walking the streets of Queens, Katz speaks in the video of the personal experiences motivating her to run -- her mother’s death in a car accident involving a drunk driver, and her father’s struggle with cancer before he died. “I wanted to use the law to bring justice to people in a way that I never got,” she says.

Though she lacks prosecutorial experience, Katz pitched her record as a legislator and as borough president, and she touts her work for women’s rights, worker protections, anti-gun initiatives, her push for sealing convictions and clearing outstanding warrants, opposition to President Trump, and, her top stated priority, protecting immigrants.

“We need a way to keep our kids out of jail, out of the system as well as give them fairness and equity while in the system,” she says.

Rory Lancman
New York City Council Member Rory Lancman has touted himself as an aggressive reformer, leaning on his legislative record in the city and previously in the state Assembly. He argues that his agenda for the district attorney office is nearly as progressive as Cabán’s. Lancman, who like Katz has no prosecutorial experience, has been a frequent critic of the NYPD, and its policing practices that have disproportionately harmed communities of color.

After NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014, Lancman introduced a bill to make it illegal for police officers to employ chokeholds to restrain a subject (they are currently banned by department protocol, though they are still used).

Lancman has put out two video spots: one with more biographical and resume information, and another about his work holding the NYPD accountable. His advocacy has earned him the endorsement of Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, who appears in a 30-second spot released by Lancman’s campaign. “He’s the candidate who will fight for reform. He’ll fight for all of us,” Carr says in the ad.

Greg Lasak
A veteran prosecutor, Greg Lasak rose up through the ranks of the Queens DA’s office. His tough-on-crime attitude and his successful record in prosecuting homicide suspects earned him the nickname “Mr. Murder.” Most recently, he served as a State Supreme Court Justice.

Lasak has emphasized that he is the best candidate to reform the DA’s office because he is intimately familiar with its inner workings and that he’s alway had a reformer’s streak -- but that he will also keep the borough safe. He has also pointed to his work on reversing wrongful convictions when he worked for the Queens DA, leaning heavily on that aspect of his career in a campaign ad that features a family that benefited from his efforts. “Greg Lasak is my family’s angel, in our time of need, in our time of despair and time of darkness,” says Dwayne Palmer, whose relative was set free by Lasak’s unit.

Betty Lugo
Betty Lugo is a former Nassau County assistant district attorney and founding partner at Pacheco & Lugo PLLC, the city’s first Latina-owned law firm. She also previously worked for the Manhattan and Albany DAs.

She is running on a campaign theme of “True Justice For All” and promises to be “firm but fair” in fighting crime. “Everyone, whether they’re victims, defendants or community groups, the District Attorney must represent them all,” Lugo said in video on Twitter.

Mina Malik
Harvard professor Mina Malik is another candidate with experience in the Queens DA’s office, having served there as an assistant district attorney. Malik has had a variety of experience, including as head of the city’s police oversight Civilian Complaint Review Board.

In a Twitter video, Malik stresses her diverse experience and the fact that she is a first-time candidate as positives for her campaign. “I’m not a career politician...I have spent decades working in our criminal justice system, fighting for fairness and an often deserved second chance, while being tough on violent criminals who prey on women, children and the elderly,” she said.

Jose Nieves
An army combat veteran and community leader, Nieves was formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General. He has also worked for the New York City Department of Correction and, before that, the Federal Aviation Administration.


The DA’s office “is not just about charging and incarcerating. That’s one aspect of what we do. The other aspect is trying to empower the community,” he said in a video posted to Twitter.

 

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate Gotham Gazette:

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


The candidates for Queens District Attorney are becoming increasingly clear about where they stand on key criminal justice issues and how they would run the office if elected later this year. Queens is home to its first competitive district attorney election in decades, with long-time District Attorney Richard Brown set to retire and a crowded Democratic primary set for June 25. The general election will be in November.

There are seven candidates currently running, all in the Democratic primary, and six of them met last week for a fast-paced and detail-oriented debate sponsored by the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition, made up of many community and advocacy groups, hosted at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, and moderated by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max.

The candidates for the borough’s top prosecutorial and law enforcement position spoke to roughly 200 attendees and others watching a live-stream, explaining their qualifications for the job and stances on a wide variety of policy issues, some of which they would have control over as district attorney, others that they would be able to influence. Queens, home to more than 2.4 million people, is known as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country.

Several questions at the forum were asked by community leaders, on topics ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline to police accountability, such as Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by police in Queens, and Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker, who have affiliations with groups in the sponsoring coalition.

Six of the seven candidates were in attendance. Mina Malik was sick and unable to participate in the forum, though she released a video on Twitter saying she was sorry to miss it and looked forward to engaging with those participating in the event. The six candidates present at the debate were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves.

[For background on the candidates and the race, read: ‘We’re in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Become the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

As they have at other race events, in their campaign materials, and during interviews, the candidates largely agreed that the Queens District Attorney’s office is in serious need of change, in a general sense of modernizing its practices and culture, but also on key practices. The candidates also mostly found broad agreement at the debate that change is needed on a wide variety of topics like cash bail, sex work prosecutions, Rikers Island, and what to do about police misconduct, but the candidates often disagreed on the solutions. In an email exchange with Gotham Gazette, Malik provided her answers to debate questions, which are also included below.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Vision for the Office
At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked how they envision the DA’s office and how it would work under them.

Cabán, a public defender, said she would change the “metrics of success” for the office, claiming there is currently “a system based on gamesmanship” favoring convictions over justice. Instead, she would focus on lowering incarceration and recidivism. Katz, the Queens borough president, envisions the district attorney’s office as a leadership position and that her primary responsibility would be implementing policies and reforms.

Lancman, a City Council member, called the office “more than just a place that processes cases that police bring” and “responsible for public safety in Queens.” He said he would decline to prosecute people with mental illnesses and drug addiction and focus on preventing crime.

Nieves, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the DA’s job is to protect residents and know how and when to prosecute cases. Lugo, an attorney and former prosecutor, cited her campaign theme “true justice for all,” and said the officeholder needed to understand “complexities of the whole system” and “prioritize prosecutions.”

Lasak, who worked in the Queens DA office for many years before becoming a judge -- a position he resigned from to run this year -- called the DA the “chief law enforcement officer for the borough,” and a position that works with the police department.

Violent Crime
The candidates were asked how they would handle prosecutions of violent crime if they were to become the Queens District Attorney, and how that approach may or may not fit into larger calls to reduce the jail population. Teachout noted that the number of people incarcerated in New York for non-violent crimes has steadily dropped over the past two decades, while the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes has remained stagnant.

Cabán took the strongest stance in favor of change, saying that her office would “think of criminals as victims of trauma themselves” and that she considers violent crime to be a “public health problem.” Lancman similarly said that it is imperative to “confront the issue of violence” to achieve decarceration, and that prosecutorial reform “cannot exclude violent crimes.”

Katz noted that disparities in violent crime prosecution have a “disproportionate effect on people of color” and that her office would work for “fair and equitable prosecutions.” She also said that she would focus resources on diversion programs and access to mental health care, working with the community.

Nieves said prosecutors often overcharge defendants to secure a plea deal and that he would end that practice, in addition to engaging in “alternatives to incarceration,” such as diversion programs. Lugo said that the process should focus on care for the victim and the DA’s office should hire social workers for victims of violent crime, but she did not directly answer the question.

Unlike the other five candidates at the debate, Lasak cautioned against changing how the office handles violent crime. He said that the DA’s “main job is public safety” and that “we have to be careful when dealing with violent crime.” The statement was one piece of a pattern throughout the debate, and the broader race, where Lasak has staked out more moderate positions in the field, though at times he is joined by other candidates and he consistently says he would make some progressive changes.

All candidates present answered affirmatively when asked if they thought current sentences for violent crime were too long in general.

By email, Malik said, "Ensuring that violent criminals are held accountable must be a top priority for any District Attorney, but it must be an accountability that keeps our communities both safe and whole." She highlighted her experience in Queens prosecuting "human traffickers, serial rapists, child molesters and violent, repeat offenders," but said she also has "the reform experience of having implemented restorative justice, diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for first-time violent offenders, so that one mistake doesn’t take a person further down the wrong path."

Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The six candidates were asked whether they would commit to not prosecuting victims of domestic violence and interpersonal conflict for self-defense or acts of survival. All six candidates present committed, with Katz asking “who wouldn’t?”

Malik also made that commitment, and added: As a former Special Victims prosecutor, I worked with countless women who were victims of abuse and assault and I am adamantly committed to ensuring the Queens DA’s Office protect victims, not retraumatize them."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police/Prosecutorial Misconduct
Representatives from the grassroots organization Vocal NY asked what the candidates would do the deter police and prosecutorial misconduct and what would be the career consequences for Assistant DAs that commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence. Later, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, asked what the candidates would do to ensure fair prosecutions of crimes involving police officers -- like the trial involving officers who shot and killed her son -- and that misconduct investigations were swift, thorough, and unbiased.

Cabán said that public defense offices already have lists of “bad officers” and that as DA she would publish these lists and not rely on those officers’ testimony in cases. She also said that prosecutors should undergo retraining to prevent misconduct and that “anyone who wears a badge and commits a crime should be held accountable independent of conflicts of interest.”

Katz vowed that misconduct “won’t be stood for in my office” and that prosecutors would have to follow her reform policies. She also said that the state attorney general’s office should investigate police brutality accusations, not just police killings of unarmed individuals as is currently the case based on an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lancman cited the City Council hearings that he has held on police misconduct and the history of misconduct in the Queens DA office. He asserted that “reforms prevent wrongful convictions” and that he would implement a broader code of conduct. He would use personnel in the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, he added.

Nieves said that Assistant DAs that commit misconduct “would be fired” and that he would create a civil rights bureau within the office to investigate police misconduct with personnel from the DA’s office. He also said that police officers who commit perjury should be prosecuted. Lugo said that her office would have “no tolerance for discrimination” and “firm but fair prosecutions.” On the issue of investigations, she said that Assistant DAs “should know the communities they’re prosecuting in” and this would make investigations more equitable.

Lasak brought up his previous experience in the DA’s office, saying that “prosecutors under me knew they couldn’t [commit misconduct]” and that his leadership would set the example for his office. He also said he would use the DA’s investigators in police misconduct cases, not the NYPD.

Malik wrote that she will work to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. "As District Attorney, I will institute agency-wide trainings on Brady, discovery, witness interviews and preparation, suspect interviews, implicit bias, cultural competency and anti-racism." She promised a DA's office that is "for the first time, representative of the community it serves at the leadership level and hire a dedicated ethics officer to assist in ensuring our attorneys are always above reproach when practicing law."

Sex Work Decriminalization
Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker and member of Make the Road New York, asked the candidates for their views on the decriminalization of sex work. The Queens DA would potentially be able to decline to prosecute sex workers, as well as their customers and others involved in sex work, like landlords. Most of the candidates agreed that the DA’s office needs to change how it handles sex work crimes, mostly with a focus on the sex workers themselves, though they spoke about sex work in varied terms.

Cabán committed to declining to prosecute sex work-related offenses, including sex workers and those that participate in the sex work industry. She also said that the trans and sex work communities need to be protected. Katz said that sex work offenses should be “diverted into human trafficking courthouses.” She would not prosecute and make resources available to prevent recidivism, she said, while also indicating a belief that all sex workers need to be helped to find a different line of work and path in life.

Lancman would also decline to prosecute and would direct sex workers to diversion programs, in addition to focusing on sex trafficking and human traffickers.

Nieves would similarly decline to prosecute, calling sex work “a non-violent and consensual crime” and that he “won’t waste resources” on it. He would also create a human trafficking unit.

Lugo would consider declining to prosecute and instead implement a diversion program. She also brought up the need to focus on sex trafficking. Lasak was the only candidate against fully declining to prosecute, saying that “the impact on the broader community needs to be looked at” and that sex work lowers the quality of life for residents in affected neighborhoods.

Malik wrote her "position to decline to prosecute for sex workers and to vacate prostitution records is informed by a career of defending women suffering sex abuse and working with victims to come forward. We should be investing in resources to help sex workers get treatment and services where needed, while diverting enforcement toward those who profit off of, prey on and traffic sex workers."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Bail Reform
The topic of bail reform also generated a wide consensus among the candidates. Though there are ongoing negotiations in the state capital around major bail reform that could impact the next Queens District Attorney, the candidates were asked about what their policies would be if no changes are made at the state level.

All the candidates agreed to reduce the use of cash bail for at least minor and non-violent offenses, with some candidates saying that they would end the practice entirely.

Cabán pledged to end cash bail “to the fullest extent” and that her office would “release people as often as possible,” including on some violent alleged crimes. Katz agreed to end cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies automatically, but for violent felonies supervision should be looked at as an alternative. Lancman committed to never asking for cash bail and would expand eligibility for release “to the maximum extent of the law,” noting that Kalief Browder was kept on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail upon being arrested for what is essentially a non-violent crime of stealing a backpack, for which he never formally faced charges and was eventually released, later killing himself.

Nieves committed to no cash bail for all offenses and that he would use appearance bonds instead of cash bonds. Appearance bonds usually stipulate that a defendant would pay a fine if they do not appear for their court date. Lugo said she would handle the issue on a case-by-case basis and that non-violent crimes would not have cash bail, except for “major drug cases,” like El Chapo.

Lasak agreed to no cash bail for minor offenses, but would keep the policy in place for other charges.

Rikers Island Closure and Proposed New Jail in Queens
The candidates were asked if they support the closure of Rikers Island and also if they support the proposed new community jail in Queens.

Cabán was the only candidate to support the closure of Rikers Island and also oppose the new community jail in Queens. She said that she did not support building new jails because she “doesn’t want them filled.” Perhaps along with Lancman, she has outlined the most aggressive decarceration plan in the race, though he said that Rikers must be closed and also supports the new community jail.

Katz supports closing Rikers Island and also the construction of a community jail in Queens.

Nieves supports the closure of Rikers and opposed the construction of “mega-jails” in Queens. Lugo said she wants to see the current facilities on Rikers Island closed, but wants new facilities on the island that would separate violent and non-violent offenders. Lasak wants to keep the jails on Rikers Island open.

Malik wrote that she believes "it is critical that the community in Queens has its voice and concerns fully heard" but that "the closing of Rikers should also be taken as an opportunity for us as New Yorkers to totally reject the violent culture of Rikers by designing new detention facilities that treat everyone with dignity and aggressively support their reentry. Community detention centers that treat people with dignity and allow people to have more regular contact with their loved ones and support systems have proven to result in reduced recidivism."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police in Schools/School-to-Prison Pipeline
The candidates were asked about their views on police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline by an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Cabán asserted the “need to get police officers out of school” and that “students of color have been criminalized.” Her position is that her office would “decline to prosecute children whenever possible,” and instead “engage in restorative justice.”

Katz said “police officers aren’t the only answer to school safety,” but may be necessary in some cases. She believes that diversion programs could work better and that there are currently “too many officers” in schools. Lancman committed to not prosecuting “low-level offenses from schools” and that these would be handled in schools and youth court.

Nieves compared over-policed schools to Rikers Island and said his office would give students opportunities instead for low-level offenses and deal with felonies in family court. Lugo said that low-level offenses “should be handled in school,” but supports police being present in schools.

Lasak also said that he wants police in schools and that his office would instead focus on “bridging the gap between the community and the courthouse,” through education programs involving young people.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Immigration
On the topic of immigration, candidates were asked if they would consider mitigating immigration consequences in prosecutorial decisions. Immigrants, including legal residents, could face deportation for certain offenses or even based on what prosecutors say in court statements.

Cabán vowed to “keep ICE out of courthouses” and “make sure the DA’s office doesn’t do anything to further deportation,” including taking immigration status into consideration for pleas, charges, and court statements. Katz promised to have “deportation-neutral” charges and pleas. Lancman suggested that the office would hire a “collateral offense officer” to look at mitigating the immigration consequences of prosecutions.

Nieves noted that immigration is an important factor for both victims and suspects, saying that victims and witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. Similar to other candidates, he committed to mitigating the immigration consequences of the office’s prosecutions. Lugo vowed to block ICE from courts and to set up an immigration affairs bureau, which would include interpreters. Lasak promised to mitigate immigration consequences only for minor offenses.

Malik wrote that she "will implement an immigrant hardship plea policy. Whenever compatible with public safety, I will direct prosecutors to consider collateral consequences when charging noncitizens. We have to ensure the sentence matches the offense and that we are not tearing families apart or leveling disproportionate sentences."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been updated with Mina Malik's responses.

]]>
Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate alyssaguilera vocal

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


Six of the seven candidates for Queens District Attorney gathered for a debate on Tuesday, March 12 at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, sponsored by a broad range of reform groups that have formed the "Queens for DA Accountability Coalition" and moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max and Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout. This year, Queens will elect its first new District Attorney since 1991. The Democratic primary is June 25. The six participating candidates at Tuesday's forum were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves. The seventh candidate in the race, Mina Malik, was unable to attend due to illness.

Listen to the full debate via the embedded audio below, or you can find it in the "Max & Murphy" podcast stream from Gotham Gazette wherever you get your podcasts. [Read more about the candidates and the race here: 'We're in a New Era': Inside the Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney.]

 

]]>
LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) Thu, 14 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda dwamhvfwoaejtul

Queens Borough President Katz swears-in community board members (photo: @QueensBPKatz)


Uncontested for seven terms spanning more than a quarter-century, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has hung back while his counterparts in Brooklyn and Manhattan join a growing national conversation about criminal justice reform and the power of prosecutors to decarcerate jails. While the retiring Brown is a “dear friend,” former New York Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman told Gotham Gazette recently, “it’s time for a new prosecutor with new, up-to-date modern views.”

Answering that call, six of seven announced candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are campaigning as the best progressive reformer for the job. Even the exception, self-described “middle of the road” attorney Betty Lugo, has aligned herself with the pack in promising fewer low-level prosecutions and condemning a surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests outside Queens courts.

The June 25 election will almost certainly determine Brown’s successor and reset the prosecutorial tone in a vast, diverse borough of more than two million residents. “We’re really looking for someone who works with the community and understands that we’re in a new era. We’re no longer in a tough-on-crime, war on drugs era,” said 18-year-old Andrea Colon, a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, one of several criminal justice and immigrant rights groups demanding change in the office.

But Queens is an ideological patchwork. “It's an older voter, especially out east where it's more suburban,” said one party insider, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They don't like people who jump turnstiles. They don’t want people smoking [marijuana] on the streets.” Former Queens Supreme Court judge and county prosecutor Greg Lasak, who’s pitching himself as the only candidate who can properly balance public safety with reform, has endorsements and donations from a number of law enforcement unions, including court clerks and officers. He's leading in funds raised for this race, with more than $800,000 to date, but trails Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Rory Lancman in money available given their resources from prior campaign accounts.

Conversations with each candidate -- prosecutors Jose Nieves and Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán round out the field -- reveal real differences: on prosecutorial priorities and experience, as well as how they view the scope of the job. Now that the term progressive has wide application, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, “we have to push and get into the fine print.”

Prosecutorial Differences
Katz and Lancman are both established politicians with law degrees, strong name recognition in the borough, and early fundraising success. Both formerly served in the state Assembly. “I think there needs to be a change in focus in the DA’s Office,” Katz told Gotham Gazette, outlining her plan for new bureaus focused on immigrant rights, housing fraud, and worker rights.

But Katz -- who recently won the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party -- has proposed narrower prosecutorial reforms than most of the pack, pledging along with Lasak only to decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. By contrast Lancman, Cabán, Malik, and Nieves have all outlined do-not-prosecute lists including fare evasion, drug possession, and prostitution -- in the style of recently-elected reform district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins Boston.

Judge Lippman told Gotham Gazette that though he doesn’t typically endorse candidates, Lancman, the first candidate to enter the race, “was always the first one to be there to generate support for a new view for criminal justice.” But the City Council member has lots of company now. He, Cabán, and Nieves have all pledged to never request cash bail, on the grounds that it perpetuates racial- and class-based inequities.

Four of the candidates -- Malik, Nieves, Lasak, and Lugo -- tout their prosecutorial experience. Malik, who is originally from Queens, served most recently as a deputy for the District of Columbia Attorney General. She also helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson implement a policy for fewer marijuana prosecutions. Like Lasak, she’s served in the very office she’s running to lead. “Queens deserves someone who can come into the DA’s office, know from day one how it operates,” Malik told Gotham Gazette.

Nieves, meanwhile, emphasizes his recent experience prosecuting police officers at the state attorney general’s office and holding “the system itself accountable.”

Cabán’s status as the only public defender in the race, most recently with New York County Defender Services, has won her endorsements from ascendant groups on the left. “Her ultimate responsibility is to the public and that's what it's always been,” said Zohran Mamdani, an electoral organizer with the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in Jackson Heights this month, Cabán said she’ll fight for defendants, not convictions. As a queer Latina from a low-income family, she relates to the challenges her clients face. “For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” she said.

How the candidates approach the prosecution of violent crimes, from murder to burglary, is another useful differentiator. Most say that fewer misdemeanor cases will free up resources to prosecute violent crimes. In endorsing Lasak, Glen Damato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, praised “his work putting away Queens’ most violent criminals and his compassion in exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”

When Katz was a child, a drunk driver struck and killed her mother. She said that if she’s elected district attorney cases involving intoxicated driving are going to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law, in my administration.” She said life sentences can be justified “on a case by case basis” while Lancman, Nieves, and Cabán say they’ll never request such a sentence.

Cabán has been most vocal about a less punitive approach to violent crime. She says her father, a retired elevator mechanic, has struggled with alcoholism and that her grandfather, a veteran with PTSD, was abusive. Incarcerating people for repeat violent behavior “is not changing the behavior,” Cabán said, calling for a shift in funding towards alternatives such as mental health services. "Sometimes that means showing compassion for someone who does harm."

Race Strategy
Increasingly, district attorney candidates are expected to weigh in on political debates outside the courtroom. Lancman and Cabán, for example, have promised not to join the statewide district attorney association, which has recently lobbied against pretrial reforms currently up for consideration in Albany, like open file discovery and the elimination of cash bail.

Everyone but Lasak, who declined to weigh in, told Gotham Gazette they support the city’s commitment to close the jails on Rikers Island. Cabán and Nieves have taken this a step further, saying they oppose replacing them with new or revamped jails across the city. “I don't think we need 40-story super structures to house more people,” Nevies said. “I think we need less people incarcerated.”

Cabán is also refusing corporate donations: a position that aligns her with other DSA-endorsed New York candidates like Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Doing so, Cabán says, will reassure Queens residents that she’s not afraid to prosecute landlords or employers accused of wage theft.

Lancman is dismissive of the stance. “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight,” he scoffed. “I am not in this race to lose but claim a moral victory and then see black and brown people terrorized.”

Voters are also considering candidates’ proximity to the Queens County Democratic Party. Its endorsement of Katz is bad optics for both, according to Jesse Rose, founder of the New Queens Democrats, a progressive civic engagement group that has endorsed Cabán. “It was just absurd to me,” he said. “They didn’t have a forum. They didn’t have a vetting process. They didn’t ensure that there was transparency in any way.” (The party did not respond to a request for comment, but has defended its process to the Queens Daily Eagle.)

The dynamic isn’t a major concern for Lugo. A singer by hobby, she says she even performed the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy at a recent county party dinner. “I think had they interviewed me they would have found me the most qualified, but it is what it is,” she said.

But Katz, who has won two borough-wide elections, seems to be downplaying her endorsement. She plans to implement a grassroots strategy with “a volunteer army knocking on doors,” according to Doug Forand, a campaign advisor with Red Horse Strategies. “She'll be reaching out broadly, and engaging the newer voters who are bringing new energy into Democratic primaries, and we look forward to earning their support."

The groups already rallying around Cabán have proven formidable in this realm, knocking on doors for Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, protesting the ill-fated Amazon campus in Queens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their activity [and] endorsement means something considerable, even in Queens, which still has conservative areas,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Regardless of who wins in June, advocates are hopeful that this election will increase awareness across the borough that district attorneys are powerful, and elected by their constituents.

“This not about winning an election,” explained Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform, among other issues. “It's about, how do you get into the public narrative and get people in Queens talking about criminal justice reform, the power of prosecutors, and how you hold them accountable?”

Gotham Gazette is cosponsoring a candidate debate on March 12 at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Note: soon after this article was published, DA Brown announced that due to health issues he would be stepping down as district attorney effective June 1. His chief assistant, John M. Ryan, will run the office in his absence.

***
by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that Lasak leads in funds raised for this race, though he does trail Katz and Lancman in funds available.

]]>
'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda Mon, 04 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Making the Queens District Attorney a Partner in Justice for Workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8259-making-the-queens-district-attorney-a-partner-in-justice-for-workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8259-making-the-queens-district-attorney-a-partner-in-justice-for-workers melinakatzqbp

Melinda Katz, the author, center (photo: @queensbpkatz)


New York City and our nation as a whole are at an important moment in history. As Republicans in Washington threaten rights and pass bigoted legislation, local leaders need to take a stand and fight back on a broad range of issues, because the reforms and legal protections we need will not come for those who wait, they will come from those who demand them.

As I run to be the next Queens District Attorney, I am releasing the first of a series of policy papers discussing pressing issues facing our borough. In the coming weeks and months, I will lay out my plans for addressing immigrant rights, racial disparities in our justice system, domestic violence, women’s rights, the use of seized assets, and more. Today we need to consider how the District Attorney can better protect worker rights.

For generations, Queens has been home to working- and middle-class families, as well as different waves of immigrants pursuing the American Dream. People here work hard to give their families new opportunities, but there are also bosses who seek to cheat these families or bump up their profits by putting workers in harm’s way. We need our next District Attorney to put a new focus on these crimes against workers, bringing justice for those who have been victimized for too long.

The current Economic Crimes Bureau in the Queens DA’s office states that its traditional role is protecting employers from embezzlement by employees. I believe there must be resources also devoted to addressing the extensive theft in the opposite direction: employers stealing wages from workers. New York’s workers lose over a billion dollars a year due to wage theft, as their hard-earned dollars are illegally stolen and put into the pockets of employers, with the largest number of victims in the construction, restaurant, janitorial, and home care fields.

While some workers are robbed of their paychecks, others are robbed of their lives and well-being. Workers, especially construction workers, are injured and even killed on the job far too frequently, often as a result of employer negligence. These workplace safety violations often go unreported, and after an accident, evidence of wrongdoing can disappear if not gathered quickly. Currently, the DA waits for the city to make determinations before getting involved, leaving far too many workers unprotected and far too many negligent employers unaccountable.

Historically, crimes against workers would only result in a fine or civil action, but it’s time to recognize that white collar crime has no moral high ground over other crimes: if you steal from workers, you are as guilty as someone who holds up a liquor store. If you injure workers due to negligence, you are no better than a thug who beats someone up on the street.

I will bring criminal prosecutions against those who commit these crimes against workers, and I will make sure we have the evidence to build winning cases. Instead of waiting for the city, I will assign an Assistant District Attorney with an expertise in the construction industry to every major workplace accident or fatality. I will pursue legal action against employers that knowingly put construction workers or others at risk, and individuals who commit wage theft. And I will reach out to workers and community leaders to make sure that no one is victimized because they don’t know their rights and are left vulnerable to these crimes.

To achieve this, I will establish a Worker Protection Bureau in the Queens DA office to investigate and prosecute workers’ rights violations. Specifically, my office will take a more hands-on approach to investigating workplace injuries, prosecuting workplace violations and wage thefts, and creating protections for immigrants.

Queens is known as the World’s Borough and has a rich and thriving immigrant community. Unfortunately, immigrant workers are most likely to be targeted and many are reluctant to come forward for fear of having their immigrant status threatened. As part of my Worker Protection Bureau, I will have a multilingual team doing proactive outreach to workers, while guaranteeing that no one will be subject to arrest for reporting workplace violations. I will also hire a specific liaison to undocumented workers so that there is better dialogue among the District Attorney’s office, undocumented workers, and organizations working with undocumented workers.   

All workers are entitled to a safe workplace where they earn fair wages and are treated with respect. As Queens District Attorney, I will take an active role in ensuring workers’ rights are protected.

***
Melinda Katz is the Queens Borough President and a candidate in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. On Twitter @MelindaKatz.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Making the Queens District Attorney a Partner in Justice for Workers Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform city council ar rl jw dr marij

Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Off-year elections in New York City, like the one next year, tend to hold little significance and command minimal attention, with few positions on the ballot and no headlining executive race like mayor or governor. But in Queens, next year will offer a momentous opportunity for voters to make a decision that could dramatically affect the lives of residents of the country’s most diverse county and potentially establish a new paradigm for criminal justice there, with reverberations beyond.

In 2019, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a Democrat who has held his seat for 28 years, is not expected to run for reelection, and those seeking to replace him have made clear that they would break from his tough-on-crime policies that they say have disparately and adversely affected low-income communities of color and modernize the office. As the top prosecutor in each county, district attorneys hold substantial authority over how the law is enforced, working in conjunction with the police. They have broad investigatory powers and can bring both criminal charges and civil litigation.

The Queens DA’s office under Brown is among the last to embrace a shift in the conversation around criminal justice away from a punitive system to one focused more on rehabilitation and restoration. Brown, 85, has done little to break from the conservative practices of what appears to be a bygone era, especially in New York City and other big cities around the country. The race to replace him is likely going to be a contentious competition to see who can promise the most drastic shifts toward progressive prosecutorial conduct.

Unlike the district attorneys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, Brown has been slower to ease the prosecution of low-level offenses, including for marijuana arrests and fare evasion, largely ignored calls for reducing or ending the use of cash bail, and has rejected funding that would allow his office to set up a dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions. Following the lead of other district attorneys and after repeatedly declining to do so, his office did move to clear hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

In the first half of this year, Queens disproportionately accounted for the number of pre-trial detainees in jail accused of misdemeanors, according to a Gothamist report. Those prosecutions additionally impact undocumented immigrants, who could potentially face deportation stemming from low-level charges. And as the city moves to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Brown’s office has indicated that it would prefer it remain open.

Having remained in office for the better part of three decades, and with his well-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Brown is widely expected to finish his time in office at the end of next year (he hasn’t said if he will resign before his term ends). “My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year,” Brown said in a statement.

“He’s been a tough as nails prosecutor. He doesn’t seem to want to implement any progressive reforms to the laws under his jurisdiction and under his authority,” said Jon McFarlane, a Queens resident for 40 years and a volunteer at Court Watch NYC, a collaboration among three advocacy groups aimed at monitoring cases that makes their way through the criminal courts. “He’s had tremendous power over the last two, two-and-a-half decades and he’s only used that power to criminalize black, brown and Latino people.”

agenda19v2 aMcFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

Two Democrats have already declared their intentions to seek the office. The first to jump into the race was New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running as a progressive diametrically opposed to the office’s current policies. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s racist. It’s discriminatory against poor people. It fails to protect working people and we’re gonna reform it from top to bottom.”

The other candidate in the race right now is retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a veteran prosecutor who says he alone knows how to reform that office since he worked there for 25 years. “The district attorney is not a job for a politician,” Lasak said in a phone interview. “You have to have the experience and the skill because you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives...and I think there’s nobody that has the wealth of experience that I have in doing that and I will continue to do that.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has long been rumored to be considering a bid as well but has yet to make any announcements. A nongovernmental spokesperson for Katz declined to comment. And Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former Queens assistant district attorney, might also jump into the race, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report. Malik declined to comment in an email to Gotham Gazette.  

Advocates for criminal justice reform have made clear that no matter the candidates, they believe there must be changes in how the office treats the people of Queens, particularly the communities of color that have suffered the ill effects of a system of mass incarceration. On October 30, advocates from several organizations rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse, demanding those reforms from the district attorney’s office now.

Andrea Colon, community engagement organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the next district attorney should not be “a factor” in mass incarceration. “I think anyone can see that [DA Brown] is a defender of the status quo,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Colon said the diversity of the borough should be reflected in the DA’s office and that the next officeholder should move away from a punitive approach to the job. “It’s also about being an advocate, making sure that role is not just simply about prosecuting people who come through your door,” she said. “It’s about advocating for things like legislation up in Albany or in the city that will impact the people of Queens.”

Lancman has spent years doing just that, he said in the interview, previously as a member of the State Assembly and as a Council member for the last five years — in his first term, he chaired the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which was redesigned by the new Council speaker this year to create a separate Committee on the Justice System which Lancman now heads. He believes he is the most progressive of any candidate in the race, even if those rumored to join the race do so. “As a government official I’ve expressly taken on the responsibility of trying to reform the criminal justice system and have used the governmental tools at my disposal to reform the criminal justice system.”

Though he has spent years in government, Lancman does not have any prosecutorial experience, having worked as an attorney in private practice and teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School.

A vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, Lancman has attempted to pass bills that would make policing more transparent and accountable and has been successful in small ways, in lieu of state action, in making it easier to pay bail. He has tried to make the use of a chokehold by police illegal -- it is currently only banned by department rules — and, after the NYPD refused to release data on arrests for fare-beating as required by a law that Lancman sponsored, he sued the city.

As district attorney, Lancman said he would unilaterally implement many of the reforms that have languished in the state Legislature for years, but which are expected to finally pass with both legislative chambers heading to Democratic control come January -- Republicans who have controlled the Senate blocked many of the bills. Lancman said he wouldn’t prosecute a “laundry list” of low-level offenses “that are giving black and brown kids records for the rest of their lives,” would not ask for cash bail “under any circumstance,” would end the so-called “ready rule” practice that DAs use to deny defendants a speedy trial and implement full open-file discovery. He also expressed support for a bill passed this year by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo establishing a first-in-the-nation commission on prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s nothing that’s out of the DA’s hand,” he said, before making a somewhat veiled reference to Lasak. “That’s the important thing to understand. The people who built the Queens DA’s office are not the ones to reform the Queens DA’s office and every criminal justice reform that matters to people can be accomplished by having the right person as Queens DA.”

He continued, “It’s not merely to confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system but also to refocus the office’s priorities to help working people.” He said he would focus on issues such as wage theft and unsafe workplace conditions, predatory housing practices and tenant harassment, and sexual assault. “We waste all this time and energy prosecuting these low level offenses, fighting to keep people in jail just because they don’t have money, playing games with the discovery rules that make it impossible for people to defend themselves in court, instead of focusing on things that are really making working people unsafe,” he said.

“The DA’s office is unique in that it requires serious preparation and a very detailed understanding of the office and a detailed commitment to the issues the office confronts,” Lancman said, “and I will put that level of demonstrated commitment, experience and planning up against any candidate in the race.”

lasak for DAOf course, Lasak (pictured) believes he is the candidate who brings the most experience to the table, not Lancman. “There’s no comparison in terms of experience,” he said in a phone interview. A hard-nosed prosecutor with more than two decades experience in the Queens DA’s office, Lasak became chief of the homicide division when he was 30. When Brown took over, Lasak was the executive assistant DA of the major crimes division and was later in charge of the homicide investigations and homicide trial bureaus and the special victims bureau, and he set up the office’s domestic violence bureau. “Most of my career’s been dedicated to combating violent crime,” he said.

Heading up homicide prosecutions for nearly two decades earned Lasak the moniker “Mr. Murder.” He wasn’t sure where it originated from — a New York Times profile from 2003, when Lasak was elected State Supreme Court Justice, offered little about the origins of the name — but how does he feel about it? “Doesn’t bother me,” he said with a chuckle.

Lasak’s argument is that he can reform the office because he is intimately familiar with how it works. “To reform the place, you can’t sit looking at it from the outside if you don’t know how it works on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Though his background smacks of the type of stern policies Brown’s office is known for, he is making a softer pitch as a candidate, similar to Lancman’s. He wants to reform bail procedures, ensure speedy trials and discovery reform.

“I’ve been out of that office nearly 15 years. The world has changed, Queens has changed, but the office has to change too,” he said. “The assistant district attorneys in the office should reflect the changing demographics of Queens County, the most diverse county in the world, and the office has not changed along those lines. I want it to reflect the diversity of our population here in Queens, including at the highest levels of the office.”

He said he’d take a “good hard look” at how the office handles low-level nonviolent offenses and bail. “My rule when I was there was, if you’re not gonna ask for jail time at the end of the case, you have no business asking for bail at the beginning of the case, and I will make sure that is a policy of the office,” he said, particularly cognizant of how the enforcement of small marijuana possession cases has impacted communities of color. “Once you stick a criminal record on a young man, you scar him for life. I don’t want to do that. We’re losing too many young men, especially in the minority community...I want to give them another chance,” he said.

He also stressed that, as DA, he would ensure any potential wrongful convictions are reviewed by senior prosecutors and detectives, as he said he used to do when he worked there.

There is, however, greater daylight between Lasak and Lancman on the proposed plan for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. In September, Lancman publicly debated a Queens assistant district attorney about the closure of the jails on the island -- the Queens DA and Staten Island DA are the only two in the city opposing the plan. Lancman, who supports it, said he will make it a central campaign issue “because where you stand on Rikers and where you have been on Rikers tells us everything we need to know about where you stand on reforming the criminal justice system and what kind of DA you will be.”

Lasak said he has not closely studied the Rikers plan, which includes demolishing the current Queens detention facility and building a newer, more modern one so detainees can be housed closer to their homes and to the courthouse. Lasak pointedly refused to take a position on it, despite being repeatedly asked. “Rikers Island is really not an issue for the district attorney,” he said. “My concern is that people who are on Rikers Island, make sure they belong on Rikers Island. I don’t want anyone sitting on Rikers Island that doesn’t belong there.”

Advocates intend on holding the candidates, whoever should win, accountable for their words.

“I think it’s one thing to say that you’re for criminal justice reform,” said Colon from Rockaway Youth Task Force, “and it’s another to actually act on that.”

Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, one of the groups that make up Court Watch NYC, put the Queens DA’s race in the context of a national movement and growing awareness around prosecutorial accountability and the discretionary powers that district attorneys have at their disposal. “I think there’s a growing understanding across the country about the impact that prosecutors have and that kind of movement and understanding is definitely coming to Queens,” he said.

Malinowski pointed to the recent elections of progressive reform-minded district attorneys in other states -- Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts -- as an example of where Queens should be headed. Considering the size and diversity of New York City’s second-most populous borough, he said that this election could be one of the most consequential in the city, if not the entire nation -- the Bronx and Staten Island DAs are up for reelection next year, but Queens is expected to be the lone ‘empty seat’ race.

“I think there’s a good case for the Queens DA to be the single-most progressive DA in the country,” Malinowski said.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

]]>
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000