Brown makes it official, stepping down as DA
Jan 16, 2019 | 2829 views | 0 0 comments | 333 333 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has officially allowed the race to replace him to begin in earnest.

Of course, it has been no secret that there are several people interested in replacing Brown – the election will take place later this year – but last week he confirmed speculations that he would not be running for another term.

And what a tenure it has been: Queens will be getting a new district attorney, something that has not happened since Brown took office in 1991.

With it will likely come a dramatic shift in the way crimes are prosecuted in the borough. Under Brown, the DA's office still prosecutes minor marijuana offenses and low-level crimes like fare evasion, while many other in law enforcement have abandoned the practice.

The office also uses a number of controversial, or at the very least heavy-handed, tactics to get people to plead guilty, such as dangling the threat of a hate crime indictment, which carries stiff minimum sentences, and only accepting plea deals before a grand jury indictment when defendants still haven't seen the evidence against them.

So given the recent attention being paid to criminal justice reform, whoever takes over the office will likely take a more progressive approach to prosecution.

So enter Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilman Rory Lancman, and Greg Lasak, a recently retired Supreme Court justice who spent decades working in the same office he now hopes to helm.

And they are all rushing to attract a group of energized Democratic voters, the same ones who ushered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office.

Lancman has quickly positioned himself as the most left-leaning of the candidates, styling his message on that of the new Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, who won on a promise to end mass incarceration. Lancman is also a proponent of closing down Rikers Island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has put forth a proposal to close down the jail complex and replace it with small detention centers in all of the boroughs save for Staten Island.

Katz, on the other hand, is the only candidate who has won a borough-wide election, so she will likely position herself as both a reform candidate and an established elected official with bona fide credentials.

Katz is scheduled to give her annual State of the Borough address on January 25, and it will be interesting to see how much of the speech is given to laying out her positions and accomplishments in terms of how they relate to the post she will spend the better part of the next year campaigning for.

Will she address the proposal to open a new jail just outside the window of her current office at Borough Hall?

And then there is Lasak, the only candidate with significant prosecutorial experience. Prior to his 14 years on the bench, he spent 25 years in the Queens DA's office, including stints as chief of the Homicide Bureau and executive assistant for the Major Crimes Division.

He has a track record of working to overturn wrongful convictions, but if this race is really about appealing to the progressive voters, then Lasak's career working under Brown might become a liability.

And Lasak has already tried to distance himself from his old boss, stating in an interview with this paper that he would work to make the office more diverse and stop prosecuting low-level offenses like possessing small amounts of marijuana and fare evasion.

And then there is the Queens County Democratic Party. The race for district attorney doesn't usually attract many voters, with only diehard Democrats generally bothering to show up, giving the political machine an advantage when it comes to making sure their preferred candidate wins.

The Queens Democratic Party has essentially “picked” the district attorney in the borough for decades.

But the influence of the party took a huge hit when Ocasio-Cortez defeated longtime congressman – and current Queens Democratic Party chairman – Joseph Crowley last year. While Katz is generally expected to get the party nod, it's not a given that the endorsement will necessarily be the huge boost that it has been in the past.

In fact, it could be considered a negative.

And while Ocasio-Cortez was able to defeat Crowley, it was in a liberal-leaning district in western Queens that also included portions of the Bronx. Queens still has large pockets of conservative-leaning voters who might not be swayed by policies that go easier on crimes, even if they are low-level offenses.

Lasak's long resume of decades of prosecuting crimes and presiding over a courtroom might actually appeal to those voters.

And the push to open a new jail in Queens is going to be a huge issue in this election, so candidates are going to have to take clear stance and then live with the consequences on either side.

As for the all-important fundraising, both Katz and Lancman have raised over $1 million, with the Katz campaign claiming they raised over $200,000 in the week between Brown announced his retirement and campaign filings were due.

Lasak is close behind, reporting that he has raised over $800,000. But campaign staffers point out that he got a late start on fundraising because he had to wait until he retired from the bench last fall.

The district attorney's race isn't the most sexy or exciting, but the criminal justice system in Queens is about to get a drastic overhaul and a new face after nearly three decades with Richard Brown at the helm.

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