Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/491 Thu, 17 Oct 2019 13:09:23 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Cabán Declares Victory, Katz Doesn't Concede in Queens District Attorney Primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8640-promising-radical-change-tiffany-caban-declares-victory-in-queens-district-attorney-melinda-katz https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8640-promising-radical-change-tiffany-caban-declares-victory-in-queens-district-attorney-melinda-katz caban qda

(photo: @CabanForQueens)


Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, made national headlines and shocked the New York political world on Tuesday evening, taking a commanding lead and declaring victory in the crowded Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. Her closest rival, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, did not concede, however, and said she wants to see every vote counted, and perhaps recounted.

A primary win would set Cabán up toward victory in November -- something she indicated in her remarks she believes is a given -- in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough and become the first newly-elected Queens District Attorney in almost 30 years.

qns da primary mapWith 98.58 of election precints reporting, Cabán had 33,814 votes, or 39.57% of the total, outpacing Katz, who had 32.724 votes, or 38.3%. Cabán did especially well in western Queens, including areas such as Astoria and Long Island City (see map to the left, created by Steven Romalewski of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center).

Coming in third was Greg Lasak, with about 14.5%, followed by Mina Malik with 3.9%, City Council Member Rory Lancman, who dropped from the race on Friday to back Katz, with 1.4%; Jose Nieves with 1.3%, and Betty Lugo with 1%. The total number of votes in the primary stood at 85,447 at that point, roughly 12% of Queens' 766,117 active registered Democrats (as of February 1, according to the state Board of Elections).

The New York City Board of Elections will be responsible for counting outstanding absentee, military, and affidavit ballots, and reviewing the election results before certifying them. It is unclear if Katz will reevaluate her stance and concede -- she spoke Tuesday night before Cabán declared victory.

Cabán ran on a radical platform of a “decarceral state,” pledging to keep as many people out of jail as possible by investing in communities, never seeking cash bail, not prosecuting a host of lower-level offenses, and other campaign promises that made her the candidate of New York’s ascendent left wing.

"[T]hey said we couldn't win, but we did it, y'all," Cabán declared on Tuesday evening to a raucous crowd of supporters at La Boom in Queens.

She pledged to overhaul the Queens criminal justice system toward fairness, and investment in communities rather than more punitive prosecutorial measures. But, she stressed, "Nothing is more important to me than the safety of all people who call this borough home." She promised to build relationships across the borough and in its various communities, to work with those who did not vote for her, and to create an equitable justice system not "at the cost of safety - that is the source of safety."

The race is for an open seat after long-time Queens DA Richard Brown passed away in May; he had already declared that he would not be running for reelection, prompting the first competitive primary in several decades.

Cabán, a Latina who identifies as queer, was the insurgent, far-left progressive in the race, running a grassroots campaign built on the strength of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of small donors, as well as big ones, from inside Queens and across the country.

Having served as a public defender in Manhattan for seven years, she became the poster child for opposing the calcified tough-on-crime policies of the Queens DA’s office, which Brown had led since 1991, though all the other candidates also ran on progressive platforms.

Cabán was the only candidate in the primary who has neither been a prosecutor nor an elected official. But her candidacy inspired criminal justice reformers and like-minded elected officials who have fought for policies of decarceration. She drew comparisons with the dynamic and groundbreaking Democratic Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Cabán and lent her campaign a surge of energy. That soon followed with endorsements from presidential candidates Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Cabán was backed by a somewhat surprising number of local elected officials, including Queens electeds such as State Senators Michael Gianaris, Jessica Ramos, and James Sanders, Assemblymember Ron Kim, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer; as well as city Comptroller Scott Stringer, and others. She received endorsements from recent progressive hero candidates Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, as well as activist groups who represent people who’ve been in the criminal justice system, immigrants, and others. She made special mention of The Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America during her victory speech.

The New York Times editorial board, not known for supporting new-into-politics revolutionary candidates, endorsed Cabán as well, saying she would come into office “unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure and free to pursue her commitment to serve the community by doing more than just winning convictions. Her seven years as a public defender have given her insight into how the system works, and how it ought to be changed.”

Her lack of prosecutorial and managerial experience was often used as criticism by her opponents, who said she did not seem interested in law and order, raising concerns that crime would rise under her tenure. But her supporters argued that that is what makes her uniquely qualified to usher in a paradigm shift in the Queens DA’s office, which other recently elected DAs across the country have attempted including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston, both of whom endorsed Cabán.

In overwhelmingly Democratic Queens, Cabán is almost sure to win the November 5 general election, assuming her apparent primary win holds. She would face a nominal opponent in Republican candidate Daniel Kogan, an attorney in private practice (there was no Republican primary), but the ballot is not yet set and it is unclear if Republicans may try to field another candidate given a Cabán victory, or if any other efforts to defeat her could emerge.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cabán Declares Victory, Katz Doesn't Concede in Queens District Attorney Primary Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8630-melinda-katz-queens-borough-president-district-attorney-tiffany-caban https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8630-melinda-katz-queens-borough-president-district-attorney-tiffany-caban gov completion qbp

Melinda Katz (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


“If it’s good for families, it’s good for Queens,” Melinda Katz likes to say. It’s a line she used in her first State of the Borough speech as borough president, a position she has held for six years and she now hopes will propel her to the office of Queens District Attorney.

Katz is one of six Democratic candidates running to be the top prosecutor in Queens, home to more than 2 million people, 48% of whom are foreign-born. About 190 nationalities are represented across the borough’s population, with more than 200 languages spoken by its residents.

Though she is the perceived frontrunner due to her borough-wide position, name recognition, and support from labor unions, elected officials, and others, Katz is the only candidate in the race who lacks courtroom experience. She hasn’t shown much interest in criminal justice reform in well over a decade, and she’s been accused of being most interested in figuring out her next political job than in any particular mission to help the people of Queens. Yet she has served the people of Queens in some form or another for much of the last 25 years, including as a state legislator, City Council member, attorney, real estate lobbyist, and borough president.

Seen by many, including her opponents, as the most likely to win, Katz has won many endorsements from officials and groups, but they credit her mostly with simply having been around -- holding office, developing good relationships, and showing an interest in community concerns -- while the editorial boards of the three major New York City daily newspapers (The New York Times, Daily News, and Post) all deemed her unqualified for the position of district attorney and endorsed other candidates.

Besides Katz, on the ballot for the June 25 primary election are former State Supreme Court Justice and Assistant District Attorney Greg Lasak, who was endorsed by the News and the Post; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan endorsed by the Times; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General; and City Council Member Rory Lancman, who dropped out of the race Friday and threw his support behind Katz.

Running for District Attorney, Katz has promised, like most of the other candidates, to pursue broad progressive reforms that break with the tough-on-crime reputation that the Queens DA’s office fostered for decades under the late DA Richard Brown, who recently passed away just shy of his planned retirement after nearly 28 years in the position. Katz has both leaned into the notion that she has “establishment” support, claiming many ties to communities in the borough, and distanced herself from the traditional power structures that she is aligned with.

To her critics and opponents, Katz is a career politician looking for her next gig, eyeing the term-limitless district attorney post as she faces term limits on her borough presidency at the end of 2021. To her supporters, she is a dedicated public servant searching for her next assignment on behalf of the people. But to both, she is not easily characterized. Katz does not appear to have had one or more clear focus areas as an elected official, and, particularly germane to the position she’s seeking, she has not appeared especially interested in criminal justice reform.

Katz’s list of projects and accomplishments is long, and varied, and there aren’t easy associations with her public image, unlike some of the other borough presidents -- indicative of her lack of clear issue focus, but also the fact that she has often sat out debates over some of the most pressing issues in the city.

“My biggest pride comes from knowing that every day that I have been in public service, I have stood up to powerful interests but I’ve also been a voice for people who didn’t have one,” Katz said in a phone interview, just a few days before the primary election. “And at every level that I’ve served, I have brought justice to people.”

Katz was clear that she believes she alone has the experience and the trust of Queens communities that would make for a successful next district attorney. She has spent years on the ground, she says, across the borough, face-to-face with the very people whose lives will be affected by the decisions she will make if elected.

“She’s hard to define,” said City Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who has not made an endorsement in the district attorney race. “She’s got a finger in everything.”

Broadly seen as the frontrunner in the race, with a slew of endorsements from prominent labor unions, community leaders, and elected officials, and a hefty campaign war chest, Katz is banking on her resume and wide name recognition in the borough to take her to victory on June 25. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but assured to win in the November general in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough, with only nominal opposition from the Republican candidate, attorney Daniel Kogan.

A Queens native and graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Katz earned a law degree at St. John’s School of Law. She was an intern at the Legal Aid Society representing tenants in forcible eviction cases and later interned in the Organized Crime Unit for the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and for U.S. District Court judge Michael Mukasey. After law school, Katz worked in securities litigation for the white-shoe firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges.

Katz first won elected office in 1994, in a special election to the New York State Assembly, running as an outsider candidate on the Liberal and Good Government Party lines. She defeated local Democratic district leader Michael Cohen by just 420 votes in a low-turnout election and filled the seat vacated by Alan Hevesi, who had been elected comptroller. Hevesi supported Katz’s bid to be his successor.

Over her first five years in office, Katz was successful in passing 16 bills, including several related to the legal system and criminal justice reform, such as Kendall’s Law, which allows prosecutors to pursue cases of long-term child abuse by extending the statute of limitations for victims to report child sexual abuse.

“I had to stand up to the Catholic Church,” Katz said on Thursday. “It was not easy 25 years ago. Nobody wanted to talk about sexual abuse as a child, it was not an open conversation by anybody in the church and I had to pass this bill against a very powerful interest.”

Her other bills included giving women direct access to gynecological care, increasing penalties for domestic violence, and adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the state hate crimes law. In 1995, just a year into office, the New York Daily News named her “one of the one hundred up-and-coming young leaders for the 21st Century.”

But Katz would soon face defeat at the ballot box when she attempted to run for Congress, seeking the Democratic nomination for the 9th Congressional District, formerly held by now U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. She lost by 285 votes to Anthony Weiner, a former aide to Schumer. The Queens Democratic Party, which was on the opposing side when she first ran for Assembly, was in her corner. Even the New York Times editorial board endorsed Katz, writing at the time that she “has only been in office four years, but she has distinguished herself as an advocate of health and women's issues and for her constituent services.”

Following her stint in the Assembly, Katz took a role under then-Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, as director of community boards. She served there for three years before being elected to the New York City Council.

It was perhaps on the Council, where she served from 2002 through 2009, that Katz made her most significant mark on the city, as chair of the powerful land use committee. Her campaign says she helped secure private-sector partnerships that created 15,000 units of affordable housing and that she fought to protect communities from overdevelopment. Most importantly, she says, she changed the culture of the land use process: “changed the discussion from ‘how many units’ to ‘how we’re going to build’ as well. Whether or not we’re going to use union labor, the importance of union labor to make sure we had safe work sites and the importance of hiring from the community.”

Her push for safety protections at construction sites, she says, cost developers hundreds of millions of dollars. She insists that’s one of her major accomplishments and one that undercuts her opponents’ claims that she is far too allied with real estate interests, a critique that has dogged her since her time on the Council and persists to her current race for district attorney.

Her work after the Council gives those criticisms credence. In 2009, Katz gave up her Council seat and ran for city comptroller, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from real estate firms, according to the New York Times. She ran on a platform of “common sense and accountability” amid the financial crisis that was roiling the city, pledging to audit city agencies to eliminate wasteful spending, expand effective programs and ensure federal stimulus money was creating jobs. Katz lost that election to John Liu, also of Queens, and went on to work for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig for the next three years, lobbying on behalf of real estate clients.

In each race since then, including two for borough president and now for district attorney, Katz has continued to gather large donations from prominent real estate firms. (She notes that several of her opponents are throwing stones from glass houses, having also received large contributions from corporate donors.)

“Melinda Katz has an expansive resume and her relationships are very, very deep. I don’t really buy into that critique,” said Queens City Council Member Adrienne Adams, who has endorsed her, of the real estate ties.

In 2013, Katz was elected borough president and handily won reelection in 2017 for a second and final term. Katz has also cemented her ties to the Queens Democratic Party, which is often criticized as one of the last bastions of calcified political power in the city. The Party protects and promotes its own and, in any race, brings to bear a large cadre of local, state, and national elected officials that originated from its ranks or owe it some allegiance, as well as the allies of those officials, other local party officials like members of the state committee, political club members, and others.

The Queens Democratic Party was previously headed by Congressional representative-turned-lobbyist Joe Crowley, who lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has been fundraising for Katz. (Ocasio-Cortez is backing Caban.) The current county party chair, Congressional Rep. Gregory Meeks, has rallied the party behind Katz, who has also been endorsed by the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, and others. It’s what makes Katz the establishment candidate, a moniker with connotations akin to party nepotism and one that her opponents have employed as a cudgel. She pushes back against it.

“My campaign started with 300 people standing in a park that were not elected officials,” she said. (There were indeed local elected officials present, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report.) “They were civic leaders, they were Cure Violence groups, they were immigration groups, who said to the city of New York and the borough of Queens, ‘We trust Melinda Katz to make the decisions as the district attorney of Queens County.’ That’s how my campaign started.”

The office of borough president, though far less powerful now than in the past and lacking the policy clout of an elected legislator, is nonetheless a prominent position in which officials have wielded significant influence. Borough presidents can sponsor legislation in the City Council. They are advocates and cheerleaders for their boroughs, figureheads of sorts who are supposed to keep a finger on the pulse of their many constituents and neighborhoods. They have a strong voice (though not a binding one) in land use applications.

The office also controls millions of dollars in discretionary capital and expense funding each year, to distribute to pet causes, nonprofits, schools and cultural institutions, and the politically-potent power to name hundreds of members of community boards.

Katz has embraced the various aspects of the role, lending her visibility across the borough. “I believe that she’s the strongest candidate,” said Council Member Adams. “Melinda has a scope that reaches far beyond any of her opponents as far as I’m concerned. Her experience as far as managing the entire borough of Queens along with her experience as an attorney to me, again, put her as a very strong frontrunner for this race. A lot of people talk about experience in the courtroom, but no one has managed the number of people that Melinda Katz has.”

Caban and others, including the three editorial boards and good government group Citizens Union, which backed Lasak, have been particularly critical of Katz’s lack of time in court, but the borough president has parried by touting her managerial experience, insisting that it sets her up to lead the large complement of attorney that comprise the DA’s office.

Among the accomplishments Katz touts are her creation of an Immigration Task Force, which works with nearly 100 nonprofits and city agencies to provide services to immigrants. She secured funding for the Queens Family Justice Center, which serves domestic violence and human trafficking victims. She launched the Jamaica Now Action Plan, a $153-million city funded revitalization project for Jamaica Center.

She has advocated for Hurricane Sandy victims, for veterans, for public housing residents. And she’s channelled nearly $200 million in investments towards schools, hospitals, NYCHA, and parks in the borough. And she led a campaign to restore the New York State Pavilion, including putting $11.5 million in capital funds towards the project.

Katz’s opponents and critics, however, say her record on criminal justice issues has been lacklustre at best, and harmful at worst. They point to her past votes as a legislator: as an Assembly member in 1995, she voted to reinstate the death penalty, while as a Council member she voted against it. In the Council, she voted to increase penalties for low-level offenses, voted to create a new category of crime (gang recruitment), and in favor of increased police surveillance in city schools.

They also see her as moving with the political winds and shifting her positions, even during the current race -- for instance, she has taken a more expansive position on ending cash bail in recent weeks compared to most of her first several months on the trail.

“Melinda Katz could never be a champion of the policies that the people of Queens, specifically black and brown residents, need and have been calling out for,” said Milan Taylor of the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, which endorsed Lancman but moved to Caban upon his departure from the race. “[Katz] embraces the establishment’s tradition of lackluster reform and discriminatory practices. Katz has done an unsatisfactory job on criminal justice reform as Borough President and will do the same as District Attorney.”

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which endorsed Cabán’s insurgent campaign, said her organization has worked on criminal justice reforms in all aspects -- policing, bail reform, access to jobs and reentry -- and “Melinda Katz is not somebody that we ever interact with. She’s not somebody who’s known as standing behind organizations, community members in these big fights to, for instance, end stop-and-frisk, or when Eric Garner was killed, or the fight to close Rikers. She was a nonplayer in all of those efforts.”

Over the course of the race and more so in the last few weeks, Lancman levelled direct criticism at Katz, running an ad blasting her vote for the death penalty, and confronting her at a May forum for a lack of interest in criminal justice reform both as a Council member and borough president.

But, on Friday Lancman said he feared splitting the vote of Southeast Queens residents, who are predominantly African-American, and withdrew from the race. He endorsed Katz “because she has made the effort to successfully garner support within every community in our borough, the experience as a public official to see essential criminal justice reforms through to completion, and the relationships with the civic and community organizations and institutions throughout Queens necessary to effect real change.”

On Wednesday, Katz rejected four city-led land use applications related to building a 1,500-bed jail in Kew Gardens, Queens that is meant to help speed up the closure of Rikers Island jails. She said that closing Rikers is “a moral imperative” but raised concerns that the community did not have sufficient buy-in on the Kew Gardens jail plan and that large borough facilities would replicate the problems on Rikers.

Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Donovan Richards, fellow Queens Democrats, in an interview defended Katz from charges that she is a political climber. “For you to get up there every day, that your charge and your mission is to serve others, is noble,” said Miller, standing with Richards at City Hall. “And anyone who would speak against that, I would question their motives.”

“It’s called a sacrifice,” Richards said. Katz has “delivered” for Queens, he said. “Between our districts, you look at infrastructure, you look at investments in parks, investments in healthcare...there’s been no shortage of equitable things she’s done to work with us to shift resources into communities that were sorely missing the investment that they needed.”

Miller said Katz has successfully raised the issue of predatory real estate practices in Southeast Queens and has worked with him on labor issues and workers rights. “She’s been an excellent partner who really understands the needs and values of Southeast Queens.” Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ, the property services union, similarly praised Katz in a statement announcing his union’s endorsement. “Her plan to protect Queens residents from wage theft, unsafe workplaces, and hostile work environments will make New York a better, safer place for working families.”

Katz has carefully sought to counter critiques of her record. Her campaign points to her work in sponsoring warrant forgiveness and conviction sealing programs, hate crime forums, and gun violence town halls.

“Those are real-life instances of standing up for criminal justice reform,” she said in the interview. She also pushed for the creation of a new police precinct in the borough. And she cites her managerial experience, noting the other candidates’ lack thereof.

“If you’re going to get meaningful criminal justice reform, it also requires having the skill-set to run a $59 million budget with 530 employees. As the borough president, I run an enormous office that’s borough-wide and have answered to the community voter by voter, constituent by constituent, every single day for the last six years across a huge and vast borough,” she said.

She has also lamented her original death penalty vote. “I would say that is my deepest regret,” she said.

And she believes that her record makes her the one candidate with the strongest chance of bringing about the reforms that have taken centerplace in the race. “I don’t know how many people that are running for this race have had to actually answer to their constituents in the borough of Queens, who have had to take a lot of heat for the decisions that they’ve made and the policies they’ve stood up for,” she said. “But I always stand up strong for the things that I believe in.”

Aguilera said, nonetheless, Katz’s bid raises one key question. “Are you doing this because you’re a true believer, you’re really down for the issues that we care about, or is this just your next political move?”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney Sat, 22 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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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.”

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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.

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Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race Thu, 06 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Ensuring Others Don’t Face the Injustice I Did: Why Rory Lancman is the Right Candidate for Queens DA https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8549-ensuring-others-dont-face-injustice-i-did-sean-bell-valerie-rory-lancman-queens-da https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8549-ensuring-others-dont-face-injustice-i-did-sean-bell-valerie-rory-lancman-queens-da r lancman photoop

Valerie Bell, the author, left; Rory Lancman; and Gwen Carr


On November 25, 2006, my son Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets from the NYPD on his wedding day. The officers who killed my son were acquitted due to the lack of an unbiased relationship between the judge and the Queens district attorney. Sean never received the justice he deserved and the men that murdered my son suffered no consequences under the law.

Subsequent to this marred process of criminal justice, I worked diligently alongside other mothers who were victims of police brutality to request Governor Cuomo use his authority under the law to appoint a Special Prosecutor in the Attorney General's office to investigate police use of deadly force. The governor supported our view and a Special Prosecutor was granted.

Since meeting City Council Member Rory Lancman, I’ve learned he has always been in relentless pursuit of police accountability. He has been, and continues to be a guardian against the racial disparities of law enforcement in communities of color, and this is why I am supporting Rory Lancman to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

As I have seen firsthand, criminal justice in Queens is stuck in the past, but for the first time in almost 30 years, the people of Queens have the power to elect a new District Attorney. The current Queens DA's office led the opposition to creating a Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission, and is the only DA's office in New York City that refuses to have a wrongful conviction review unit.

The office has opposed closing Rikers Island, and refuses to follow the lead of other District Attorneys who no longer prosecute most fare evasion and marijuana possession cases; 90% of such prosecutions are people of color. Queens’ 2.3 million people deserve better than a 'lock ‘em up and throw away the key' mentality.

For these reasons and more, Rory Lancman needs to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

Rory understands that our criminal justice system is built on a foundation of institutional racism. That racism manifests itself in a number of ways: massive discrepancies in communities of color for low-level arrests, broken windows policing that terrorizes black and brown communities, and a system that sets up even innocent people to plead guilty rather than endure the nightmare of Rikers Island while waiting for their day in court.

My family never received justice for what happened to Sean. Gwen Carr and her family never received justice for what happened to Eric Garner. Instead of just lamenting problems, Rory has gotten to work. He’s sponsored legislation that would outlaw police chokeholds, and has fought against the misuse of New York's so-called “50-A Law” to shield police officers from public scrutiny of prior misconduct. As our next Queens District Attorney, Rory will not tolerate police malfeasance, whether it is violence against law-abiding citizens or perjury in the courtroom.

Finally, Rory will be a true criminal justice reformer at a time when Queens desperately needs it. Rory’s vision is simple: create a fair system that treats everyone equally, and that views incarceration as a last resort for real crimes. Too many of our young people are given criminal records for the rest of their lives that make it hard for them to get an education, job, and housing.

On June 25, Queens will face a stark choice in choosing a new District Attorney. The District Attorney has incredible power over people's lives. Queens is long overdue for a true reformer who will make sure the law works for everyone, and will hold even the powerful accountable. That person is Rory Lancman.

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Valerie Bell is the mother of Sean Bell.

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

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Ensuring Others Don’t Face the Injustice I Did: Why Rory Lancman is the Right Candidate for Queens DA Wed, 29 May 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.

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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.

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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.

 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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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)]

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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.

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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.]

 

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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.

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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.

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'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