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The Working Families Party knocked Albany Democrats on their heels last Tuesday, when David Soares took the Democratic primary for Albany County district attorney. Soares, who campaigned on the WFP line, defeated incumbent Paul Clyne, 14,030 to 8,684. His secret? The WFP’s growing power to mobilize voters, coupled with a compelling issue: overhauling the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Clyne has been a vocal opponent of drug law reform. Though the D.A. holds no direct power over state laws, the New York State District Attorneys Association—of which Clyne is a vice-president—has been the only organized opposition to reform in the state. The soul of Soares’ campaign, in contrast, was opposing the laws, particularly mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions.

To pull off the victory, Soares’s campaign pulled together a coalition of groups ranging from the Empire State Pride Agenda to Citizen Action, and enlisted 1,000 volunteers to contact 20,000 voters.

“They found an issue that a lot of people supported, and they found a candidate who was a galvanizing candidate. And the combination proved to be a winning one,” said Helen Desfosses, president of the Albany Common Council, “I don’t think we’ve seen that in a very very long time.”

Even the Working Families Party was surprised by the pull of the drug law issue. “We were amazed how much people already knew about the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and how strongly people felt about that,” said WFP spokesperson Alex Navarro. “They got the message, and they cared enough to vote out an incumbent that was fairly popular.”
The issue gathered significant support from quarters as disparate as the Drug Policy Alliance, a George Soros–backed drug policy reform group that contributed over $80,000 to the campaign, and former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who chipped in $2,000.

Soares drew criticism from opponents for accepting funds from the DPA, which Clyne supporters loudly lambasted as a drug-legalization group.

Albany democrats were so riled up about the race that a handful of Clyne supporters, including County Democratic Chair Betty Barnette, filed an eleventh-hour lawsuit seeking to bar the Working Families Party from campaigning on behalf of their candidate in his bid for the Democratic nomination. They argued that the WFP was illegally interfering with the Democratic primary.

The intrigue may not be over yet: In the wake of Tuesday’s upset, political tongues were wagging over Clyne’s next move. As the Independence Party candidate, Clyne will likely split conservative votes with the Republican nominee, Roger Cusick. In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1, that bodes well for Soares. Instead, Clyne could seek Republican backing, but only if Cusick steps down. “We’ve had phones glued to our ears ever since the primary was announced,” said Desfosses. “It’s riveting political drama up here.”

Calls to the Albany County GOP were directed to Cusick himself, who showed no signs of resigning. “I’m the Republican nominee,” he said. “I’m going to be the nominee, and the first Republican elected D.A. in Albany County in a generation.”

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