district attorneys

William Alatriste for the City Council

This 2016 photo shows the changing faces of the city's DAs: Queens' Richard Brown, at left, resigned and died this year, triggering a fierce primary contest. Next to him is Manhattan's Cy Vance, who replaced a 34-year incumbent in 2010. Ken Thompson of Brooklyn defeated 23-year incumbent Charles Hynes in 2013, then died in office during his first term and was replaced by Eric Gonzalez. Darcel Clarke replaced 26-year Bronx incumbent Robert Johnson in 2016. Michael McMahon took office in Staten Island the same year.

At a community center amid the Queensbridge Houses on a muggy night on Monday, it did not feel like an “off-year” for New York City elections. Campaign volunteers hovered around the entrance passing out palm cards. Supporters inside wore stickers and held signs. Five candidates of the seven on the ballot took the stage for close to two hours. Translators worked in three languages to serve the capacity crowd.

Normally, a novel June primary (state and local primaries used to occur in September but a recent state law changed that) in a year when there are no regular municipal, state or federal elections would be a sleepy affair. But the 2019 Democratic primary for Queens district attorney is anything but drowsy, because it embodies the yawning gap between yesterday’s mainstream thinking on criminal justice and today’s.

In a race that will very likely pick the winner of the general election in November because of the huge Democratic registration advantage in Queens, public defender Tiffany Caban, Councilmember Rory Lancman, former judge Gregory Lasak, former Manhattan and Nassau County prosecutor Betty Lugo, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, former Civilian Complaint Review Board director Mina Malik and former NYS Attorney General’s office prosecutor Jose Nieves are vying for the Democratic nomination in a vote next Tuesday.

The winner in November will occupy the office that, until recently, had been held by Richard Brown since 1991. Brown announced he would not seek re-election, resigned for health reasons and died in the span of a few months earlier this year. Referred to always as “Judge Brown,” he resisted many of the criminal justice reforms his fellow city district attorneys embraced. As William Murphy in Staten Island, Robert Morganthau in Manhattan, Charles Hynes in Brooklyn and Robert Johnson in the Bronx one by one left their posts after decades in power, Brown for years remained the only DAs whose tenure stretched back to the “bad old days” of high-crime New York City.

Monday’s forum featuring Caban, Lancman, Lugo, Malik and Nieves was sponsored by 696 Queensbridge, CAAAV, Justice 4 All, Legal Aid Society, Urban Upbound and Vocal-NY and moderated by City Limits. (Watch video here.) At the event, candidates strived to distinguish themselves from one another. Policy differences were few. But the candidates’ backgrounds are very distinct. Three have served in elected office, but four have not. Four are people of color. Four have served as prosecutors, one as a judge and one as a public defender.

Reporters David Brand and Emma Whitford, who have both covered the race extensively, joined WBAI’s Max & Murphy Show on Wednesday to size up the seven candidates and the complex contours of this election: the role of endorsements by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the wildcard of turnout on a Tuesday in June, the possible importance of geography.

Hear our conversation below, or listen to the full show, which included discussion of the state’s newly passed climate law:

Sizing Up the Queens DA race

Max & Murphy: Full Show of June 19, 2019