Additional reporting by George Joseph
In less than two weeks, voters in The Bronx and Queens, among the most populous counties in the country, will get to decide who is responsible for prosecuting crime in their neighborhoods.
In each of those counties, two Democratic incumbents are running in the primary election to keep their jobs as the district attorney, with criminal justice reform very much on the ballot.
Early voting begins on June 17, and election day is June 27. Before you head to the polls, learn about the office and who’s running.
Keep in mind: Though Staten Island’s district attorney, Democrat Michael McMahon, technically has a re-election this year, he is uncontested for June’s primary and will automatically appear on November’s ballot. No candidates are yet opposing him in the general election.
And remember, because district attorneys serve within the state court system — not as elected officials for the city — the races for that seat are chosen through traditional, one-vote ballots, not via ranked choice voting.
- Darcel D. Clark
- Tess Cohen
For the first time in the office’s history, two women are vying for the job of Bronx District Attorney in June’s Democratic primary.
The incumbent, Darcel D. Clark, has served in the role since 2016. Her challenger, Tess Cohen, is an attorney who has worked both as a defense and civil rights lawyer, as well as a prosecutor for the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for all five boroughs.
Cohen has positioned herself as the candidate to Clark’s left, taking progressive stands on decarceration, bail and staying the course on closing Rikers Island’s jails. She told The Riverdale Press she wants to make the focus for many cases “providing services rather than them resulting in convictions and incarcerations.”
Clark has advocated for tougher prosecutions of more serious crimes like gun violence-related cases, while declining to prosecute some lower-level offenses. As Gotham Gazette reported, she has advocated to toughen rules around bail.
“My approach has always been that we can have public safety and reform at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive,” she said.
Despite her tough-on-crime stance, Clark has repeatedly faced criticism from within her own ranks, THE CITY has previously reported, with current and former prosecutors in her office complaining about how they have been treated by her administration.
Bronxites have much at stake in the race. The future district attorney will have a lot of sway over what kind of cases are investigated and prosecuted, how pretrial release programs are administered, and how the goal of closing Rikers — as well as the Vernon C. Bain jail barge off the coast of The Bronx — are handled.
Both candidates have raised considerable funds for the campaign, according to state Board of Elections records. Since launching her run last spring, Cohen has raised more than $127,000, compared to more than $108,000 for Clark in the same time period.
Two challengers to Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz are running for the job in 2023’s Democratic primary: public defender Devian S. Daniels and George A. Grasso, a retired state Supreme Court judge and former first deputy police commissioner.
Grasso is likely to present the most competition for Katz in the primary, though she has out-fundraised him and secured the endorsements of much of the borough’s Democratic establishment.
The retired judge has raised nearly $480,000 since beginning his campaign last fall, state Board of Elections records show. Katz, however, collected more than double that figure in the same time period, with a total of $1.1 million in donations between last year and now.
Grasso has positioned himself to Katz’s right by railing against 2019 bail reforms and voicing concerns about the city’s crime rate. He told the Queens Daily Eagle in April that “Queens is out of control during the tenure of Melinda Katz.”
Daniels is running on the opposite side of the political spectrum, focusing on how the DA office could be further reformed. She told the Queens Chronicle it is her hope “to transform the Queens District Attorney’s office into one that is fairer, truly seeks to end mass incarceration, end the criminalization of poverty and to protect everyone’s civil rights.”
Refresher: What’s a district attorney anyway? What do they do?
A district attorney is the top prosecutor for a town, city, or county. In New York City, each borough – which is a separate county – has its own district attorney.
They oversee all local criminal prosecutions within the borough and appoint huge staffs, including assistant district attorneys who conduct investigations and see trials through. DAs have wide latitude on what and how to prosecute, whether to seek bail and in what manner plea bargains are made. The DA can also seize property as part of prosecution; in Manhattan, for example, the DA controls a sizable forfeiture fund.
New York City’s district attorneys have been elected since the state constitution allowed New Yorkers to directly vote for the position in the mid-1800s. Across the country, DAs are not always elected, however; three states and D.C. have DAs who are appointed.
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