Queens Borough President Melinda Katz announced her intention to run for District Attorney, entering a crowded race that seeks to reshape the borough’s top law enforcement office. “I’m running for Queens DA because I’m committed to real justice and because I love all that Queens represents. But I know that many people don’t feel protected by our criminal justice system, Katz said at her December 4 campaign kickoff in Forest Hills.
The incumbent, Richard Brown, has been in office since 1991, and has not said whether he will be pursuing another term next year. In the meantime, former judge Greg Lasak and Councilman Rory Lancman declared their candidacies, promising to update the function of the district attorney to help reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and expand the review of potentially wrongful convictions. Likewise, Katz also promises to follow district attorneys in the city’s other four boroughs that have conviction integrity units. “We would have people who are advocates and not the original prosecutors,” said Katz. “We would examine motions to vacate the convictions from an outside perspective.”
As Borough President of the world’s most ethnically diverse county, Katz noted that all elected offices in Queens must address immigration. As District Attorney, she notes that those without citizenship, regardless of whether they have legal status to live in Queens are often victims of wage theft, Green Card scams, domestic abuse, and human trafficking. Fearing deportation, victims fear reporting the crimes. Katz promises to work with immigrant advocacy organizations to create an Immigrant Justice Unit to encourage victims to come forward while protecting them from the “overreach of the current administration in Washington.”
A native of Forest Hills, Katz was born to a family that participated in the public affairs of the borough. Her father David founded the Queens Symphony Orchestra, while her mother Jeanne founded the Queens Council of the Arts. Under her father’s guidance, she practiced the national anthem and played the clarinet, piano, and trumpet. “But I did not go into Art and Music; I chose Law,” she said.
Katz graduated from St. John’s University Law School, where she interned for Judge Michael Mukasey, who later served as the US Attorney General. She specialized in mergers and acquisitions as a lawyer, but then made history at age 28 when she was elected to the State Assembly. Among the 16 bills she authored that became law: direct access for women to a gynecologist without first having to go through a primary doctor, and extending the statute of limitations for child abuse cases.
In her later position on the City Council, Katz chaired the influential Land Use Committee that approved projects that stimulated economic growth in the years following the 9/11 attacks. She was succeeded in 2009 by Karen Koslowitz. Between her Council seat and 2013 election as Borough President she was a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, an international firm specializing in a variety of contract law matters.
Although the office of Borough President appears symbolic, it has an approximately $5-million budget, a staff of 60, and appointing members to Community Boards. “We are active in every facet of the community,” said Katz. One proud example of her power as Borough President followed the dismissal of Tom Galante as head of the Queens Library in 2014. Upset that the library’s trustees had paid Galante an exorbitant salary and approved his projects that did not benefit the public, Katz ordered the dismissal of six trustees, while working with state lawmakers on legislation to limit their terms and ease the ability of the Borough President and Mayor to dismiss them from office. “I used my experience as an attorney to examine contacts at Queens Library and worked to change the law to make it more effective in how it uses the city’s money.”
Katz did not say whether she supports shutting the Rikers Island prison as Lancman has pledged, and said that the decrease in incarcerated individuals in the city is not as dramatic as he claims. But she agreed with him that the bail system should not be used as a form of punishment. “The bail is set to make sure that the defendant shows up for trial; it is not a presumption of guilt.”
In the years since her first election to office, Katz never left her home in Forest Hills, and is visible around the neighborhood where her two sons attend the Hebrew School at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Residing in the heart of Queens, she takes pride in assisting newcomers to the borough, including many Bukharian Jews who made Forest Hills their first stop in their new American home.
Although it is too early for the county’s party leaders to make their endorsement, the rush to secure donations, endorsements, and name recognition will keep this race in the news even as it is nearly nine months until the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney.
By Sergey Kadinsky