The three candidates seeking to replace longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown all want to attract a fired-up group of Democratic voters who recently helped oust several incumbent state lawmakers and launch the political career of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“There’s a traditional Democratic primary voter throughout the city but since the Trump election there’s a newly galvanized group of Democrats,” said political consultant Evan Stavisky. ”Whomever is able to tap into this new vein of voters will have an advantage.”
The most high-profile DA candidates includes two longtime politicians and a judge who formerly worked in the office.
Political pundits say their first hurdle will be getting the Queens Democratic Party’s backing.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, 54, is the front-runner for that support and is the only candidate to have won a borough-wide election.
But she’s likely to face stiff competition from City Councilman Rory Lancman, 49, who has fashioned himself as the most left-leaning progressive and staunch criminal justice reformer of the bunch.
He has been a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration’s failure to make it easier for detainees to post bail, hold police officers accountable for misconduct, appoint criminal court judges and reduce the number of minorities arrested for low-level marijuana offenses.
In September, Lancman sued the NYPD, arguing it blew off a law he sponsored requiring the department post online reports listing arrests and summons data for subway fare evaders by race.
But his support of the mayor’s plan to add 1,300 cops to city streets in 2015 has angered some criminal justice activists. They contend additional cops fuels more minority arrests for low-level crimes.
Lancman says those cops are needed to staff a new NYPD community relations team in each precinct.
Another candidate, Gregory Lasak, 64, a former judge and prosecutor, is seen by many as the most conservative of the better-known candidates.
His supporters argue his years in the DA’s office in several major roles, including chief of the homicide division and major crimes unit, makes him the most qualified candidate. They also point out he’s the only one of the bunch who is not a politician.
But political insiders say his time as a judge, where he earned a reputation as a pro-police hardliner among some lawyers, will make it difficult for him to capture the highly sought-after progressive vote. They struggle to understand how he can now support an end to cash bail after he imposed that restriction on defendants in front of him for years.
The former judge is also running behind Katz and Lancman in the campaign cash department. Katz and Lancman have each raised over $1 million, according to their campaign representatives.
Lasak has raised more than $800,000 as of Friday, according to a campaign rep. That’s largely due to his inability to raise money while he was a judge, his backers say. He stepped down from the bench in September.
As for the party backing, some criminal justice reformers actually believe that support could be seen as a negative.
“They’ve been the party that has worked as a machine over the last decade. There’s definitely some negative association with the backing of the party,” said Finda Gbollie, staff attorney and a member of the Five Boro Defenders, a criminal justice activist group.
Political insiders say candidates seeking election in Queens will have to do more than just attract progressive voters.
“In a borough as diverse as Queens you can’t overlook the need to build a coalition to be successful,” Stavisky said.
That’s where Katz appears to have the edge.
“She’s trying to walk the line of being an establishment candidate and a reformer,” said one leader of a criminal justice reform group who asked to remain anonymous.
But Katz is also struggling to overcome her old support of the death penalty and current support of life in prison without parole on a case-by-case basis.
In explaining her current positions, she noted that her mother was killed by drunk driver when she was a teen.
“I am 100% opposed to the death penalty,” she said. “In addition, it is clear that when it is applied in other states, research has shown a clear racial bias, which can never be acceptable for any enforcement of laws. But growing up having lost my mother to someone who broke the law, I understand that to many, the desire for justice can become a desire for punishment.”
Still, her support of life in jail without parole in certain cases is a “huge hangup,” said Gbollie.
“If the criminal justice system is about rehabilitation and you support that it means you look at the system as retribution,” she said.
The number of candidates in the race is widening.
Public defender Tiffany Caban, state Attorney General’s Office special prosecutor Jose Nieves and Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas all filled out questionnaires from the Queens branch of Democratic Socialists of America, the Queens Eagle reported Thursday.
They will face an uphill battle if state and federal primary elections are consolidated as part of a plan in Albany. That means the Democratic Primary will be pushed up from September to June giving them less time to catch up to the bigger-name candidates.
Last Wednesday, longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced that he will not seek reelection.