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Joe Murray is no stranger to long odds.
The 52-year-old defense lawyer is a former amateur boxer, and ex-cop who once broke the jaw of a fellow officer (who a friend said had been harassing him) with one punch — and beat felony charges.
He even once saved disgraced governor Eliot Spitzer’s Russian mistress from being deported.
Now, he’s going up against Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in hopes of becoming Queens’ next district attorney — and he’s running as an anti-progressive in a political climate that has lately veered sharply left.
Murray is a registered Democrat who was raised in Howard Beach and now lives in Bellerose, and says he voted for Donald Trump. He told THE CITY last week that he decided to run on the Republican line to fight for what he calls “common sense” changes in the Queens DA office and offer an alternative to the more sweeping reforms proposed by Democrats.
“I was actually horrified by the primary, to tell you the truth,” said Murray. “I’m totally against all this progressive stuff they want to do like closing Rikers Island, against no cash bail.”
Before the drawn-out Democratic primary race culminated in August with Katz’s 55-vote win, public defender and candidate Tiffany Cabán laid out an extensive list of crimes she wouldn’t prosecute.
She said it was modeled after the agendas of reform-minded prosecutors nationwide such as Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Katz told THE CITY in September that she was also reviewing Krasner’s work and preparing to be a progressive prosecutor.
Murray has no such plans.
He is diametrically opposed to Katz on a slew of points. He opposes discovery and bail reforms passed by Albany earlier this year. He wants to continue prosecuting sex work and low-level offenses like fare evasion. He also said he would cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who want to make arrests in courthouses.
He thinks the working-class bulk of the borough will agree with him.
“You’re talking about homeowners, parents. Public safety is important, it matters,” Murray said. “I think people are more inclined to cross party lines for the election because I’m tougher on crime.”
Murray says that his array of life experiences gives him a unique perspective into the justice system. At age 20, he joined the NYPD. Seven years later, an altercation with another police officer changed the expected course of his life. After breaking the officer’s jaw with one punch, the NYPD attempted to fire him and the other officer sued him.
Murray was faced with felony charges and mired in years of litigation, which he ultimately won. He eventually quit the force on his own after being put on probation. The experience made him want to be a lawyer.
“I really was not impressed with the caliber of attorneys that I was facing,” Murray said. “So it was kind of like, ‘If these idiots could do it, you know, I could do it.’”
He then enrolled in Queens College, quit the NYPD and pursued a law degree. Now an attorney for more than a decade, he said he’s handled criminal defense cases in every borough save for Staten Island. He’s represented a wide array of clients, from police officers to those accusing the NYPD of excessive force.
If elected, he said he would work to improve communication between police and the DA’s office. He’d also change the day-to-day operations of the office by eliminating the early plea deal system, which requires defendants to negotiate prior to grand jury indictments or face the most severe of charges. He would also prohibit Central Booking interviews, which he said often use coercive tactics.
He said his metric for success would not be by the number of convictions, but rather by how much crime drops.
He said that to his disappointment, the Queens Republican Party has offered hardly any campaign assistance or fundraising.
Joann Ariola, chairwoman of the Queens County GOP, said they are “taking the district attorney’s race very seriously. We wouldn’t have given Joe Murray the Republican line if we didn’t believe we could win this race.” She also noted that members have stumped with him, attended his fundraisers and walked parade routes with him.
Meanwhile Murray’s been hitting train stations and community events to meet voters, but he’s up against a career politician with substantial name recognition in a borough that is extremely blue.
Former Democratic District Attorney Richard Brown, who stepped down and then died earlier this year, was in office for seven four-year terms and had last faced a challenger in 1991. The last time a Republican was elected to the position was Dana Wallace in 1920.
Despite these changes, Murray said he genuinely thinks he can pull this off. He’s hoping to catch a diverse array of discontented voters, from those bridling at the Queens Democratic Party establishment to others against Katz’s slate of reforms, even possibly some Cabán supporters in the mix.
“So many times in my life, people have been telling me, ‘You’ll never do this. You’ll never win the case. You’ll never keep your job. You’ll never graduate from law school. You’ll never pass the bar,’ you know. The list goes on and on.”
“And I keep defying the odds and winning and winning and winning. I think this is going to be another.”
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