On Tuesday, June 25, registered Democratic voters will have the opportunity to choose the likely next Queens District Attorney, a once-in-a-generation race that pits seven candidates for the open seat vacated after the death of 28-year incumbent Richard Brown in May.
The candidates vying for the Democratic nomination agree on many of the progressive reforms being promoted within their party. Five Boro Defenders, a group comprised of public defenders, civil rights attorneys, and advocates, put together questionnaires and scorecards for each of the candidates. The online news outlet City and State has been closely following the race to discern differences amongst the candidates, who have been interviewed and who have debated each other in multiple forums. Below is a profile of each candidate, pulled from these sources and the candidate’s campaign websites. The Queens Jewish Link additionally reached out to each candidate, requesting a message for the Queens Jewish Community.
The focal points of this campaign are the prosecutorial habits surrounding “low-level” offenses, including marijuana, prostitution, turnstile jumping, shoplifting under $250, and homeless trespassing, among other crimes that were strongly prosecuted during the “broken windows” policing of the 1990s. Another major issue regarding this campaign is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island by 2027 and build four smaller jails in four of the five boroughs (Staten Island has too small a criminal population to warrant a jail). Additionally, organizations are vetting the candidates on where they stand regarding prosecution of landlords and employers who engage in poor or dangerous residential and work environments.
Since this June 25 election is a Democratic Primary, only registered Democrats can vote for the candidate for DA who will run in the November 5 General Election. There is no Republican Primary election, as there was only one Republican candidate on the ballot. Attorney Daniel Kogan will be on the General Election primary ballot, unless the Queens GOP nominates him for the New York Supreme Court seat. There is speculation by the Queens Eagle that this may happen, and Betty Lugo, one of the Democratic candidates in the Primary race who is a former Republican, could switch party affiliation and run as a Republican.
Candidates are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
Background: Born in Richmond Hill, Caban earned her JD at New York Law School. She has been a Public Defender for the past seven years.
Reason for Running: Caban has expressed that she is “frustrated and infuriated by the system within which we operate. But even more importantly, I am hopeful and full of the relentless fight that so often defines public defenders.” As a public defender, Caban is looking to “implement even more radical, necessary change in Queens” because of the “generational trauma and historical systems of oppression that have been disproportionately enacted on black and brown, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, low-income, and other disenfranchised communities.” Pushing for massive reforms is the central message of her campaign, as she “[does] not believe in incremental change. We can only be successful with wide-reaching, innovative reform. I want to ensure that Queens is home to the most progressive, justice-oriented District Attorney in the country, and I believe I am the best person to bring real reform to the office.”
On the Issues: According to Caban’s campaign website, her highest priorities for prosecution are Landlords, Drug Companies, and Large Corporations coming to Queens. Caban has declared that she will decline to prosecute marijuana, unlicensed massage parlors, trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, unlicensed driving, drug possession, welfare fraud, prostitution, turnstile jumping, and shoplifting for amounts under $250.
Caban declared her intent to close Rikers Island, end cash bail, prosecute less, seek shorter sentences for felonies, and only charge misdemeanors when there is evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” (as opposed to probable cause). She also proposed to create a Community Advisory Board and assign Assistant District Attorneys to every community.
Message to Jewish Community: (The Caban campaign did not reply to multiple requests for a message.)
Major Endorsements: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senators Jessica Ramos, Gustavo Rivera, Julia Salazar, and Luis Sepúlveda; Assembly members Harvey Epstein, Ron Kim, Yuh-line Niou, and Dan Quart; New York City Council Members Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca, Jimmy Van Bramer; Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner; activists Cynthia Nixon, Linda Sarsour, and Zephyr Teachout.
Background: A Forest Hills native, Melinda Katz earned her law degree at St. John’s University. She represented her neighborhood in the State Assembly from 1994-1999, and in the City Council from 2002-2009. She has been the Queens Borough President since 2014.
Reason for Running: Melinda Katz’s campaign message is “Partnership for Change,” which aims to work with the community to “[reform] our criminal justice system,” and the DA’s office “is the best position to bring about that change.” Regarding community outreach, Katz says, “I believe the Queens DA must partner with every community to reduce crime across the borough, while ensuring each community feels protected and respected by law enforcement. Safety is the top priority for the DA, and prevention must be a key component that the DA focuses on.”
On the Issues: Prosecution of construction companies that violate codes, hate crimes, drunk driving, and drugged driving. Katz has declared to not prosecute marijuana arrests. She also said she would look more closely at prostitution arrests, as women are many times victims themselves. Regarding misdemeanors, such as turnstile jumping and unlicensed driving, “I would want to consider each arrest on its merits before declining to prosecute. More importantly, where prosecution is warranted, I would look for alternatives to fines or incarceration as a means of addressing these types of offenses.”
Katz has said she would urge the legislature to legalize recreational marijuana, protect illegal immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and create a “Conviction Integrity Unit to examine cases and make recommendations for exoneration.” She has said she would support closing Rikers Island.
Message to the Jewish Community: (Message provided via email from the candidate) “With a startling increase in hate crimes, particularly those targeting the Jewish community of Queens, this Borough needs a strong District Attorney who will prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law. I’ve been outspoken about my plan to create a dedicated Bureau of Hate Crimes in the DA’s office, which currently does not exist. And I’ve been proud to represent and support the Jewish community of Queens at every level of government I’ve served in. As Borough President, I’ve sponsored hate crime forums with the DA’s office; secured funding for Tomchei Shabbos, the largest kosher food pantry in Queens; and supported the Shalom Task Force that provides resources to victims of domestic violence. I’m honored to have the support of Jewish leaders and rabbis from throughout the Borough in my campaign and I’ll continue to carry those strong relationships with me to the District Attorney’s office.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Reps. Adriano Espaillat, Carolyn Maloney, Gregory Meeks, and Tom Suozzi; State Senators Joe Addabbo, Leroy Comrie, John Liu, and Toby Ann Stavisky; Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; Assembly Members Jeffrion Aubry, Ed Braunstein, Vivian Cook, Michael DenDekker, Andrew Hevesi, Alicia Hyndman, Stacey Pheffer Amato, Mike Miller, and David Weprin; Council Members Adrienne Adams, Bob Holden, Peter Koo, Karen Koslowitz, I. Daneek Miller, Francisco Moya, Donovan Richards, and Paul Vallone; activist Kirsten John Foy.
Background: A native of Queens, Lancman received his JD from Columbia Law School. He served in New York’s 42nd Infantry Division of the National Guard, and was first elected to public office in 2006 as a State Assemblyman, serving through 2012, in a district that includes Kew Gardens Hills and Fresh Meadows. After a losing a Congressional run that year, Lancman was elected in the following year to the City Council, where he is now in his second term in office.
Reason for Running: Lancman believes that “our criminal justice system is broken, and the District Attorney is the person most able to fix it.” He elaborates that “our criminal justice system is profoundly unfair to people of color, the poor, women, immigrants, and working people.” Describing the issues plaguing those communities, Lancman says that “District Attorneys contribute to all of these outcomes, and District Attorneys should use their power to build a better, fairer criminal justice system.”
On the Issues: Lancman’s website highlights wage theft, when business owners do not pay their employees minimum wage or overtime pay. He plans to prosecute contractors who have poor jobsite conditions, and “conniving hucksters” who cheat people out of their homes or sell homes with lead paint or toxic mold. He also focuses on prosecuting people who attempt to defraud immigrants.
Lancman says he will not prosecute recreational marijuana, turnstile jumping, drug possession arrests performed by undercover police dealers, driving with a suspended license, any case that relies on “the testimony of police officers with a prior history of perjury or dishonesty,” and trespassing by the homeless. He also said that under certain circumstances, other crimes will not be prosecuted. These include people who have legitimate excuses for missing court appearances will not get prosecuted for jumping bail, and theft inside the “common area” of a building will be considered burglary instead of larceny. He also will allow schools to discipline students for minor property damage.
Lancman offers to provide opportunities to clear old warrants, a dedicated unit to handle wrongful convictions, and regular releases of data for analysis.
On Rikers Island, Lancman fully endorsed the plan to close the prison and open new facilities, including in Queens. “You cannot reform Rikers Island,” Lancman said at a CUNY Law forum. “It is a violent dystopian nightmare that has been there for decades. You must build community-based jails, including in Queens, where until recently there was a jail.”
Message to the Jewish Community: (Message provided via email from the candidate) “I’m proud to represent one of the largest Jewish communities in Queens in the City Council, and to be an unapologetic advocate for our community – for fair resources for our schools, for our safety from terrorism and anti-Semitism, for services for our institutions and programs, and for Israel and against the BDS movement. As District Attorney, I will keep our community safe, and will continue to work with organizations like Shalom Task Force and Amudim to support families in crisis outside the criminal justice system. We need a District Attorney who isn’t afraid to stand up for Jews.”
Major Endorsements: State Sen. James Sanders; Assembly Members Catherine Nolan and Daniel Rosenthal; New York City Councilman Antonio Reynoso; former State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, police reform advocate Gwen Carr, police reform advocate Valerie Bell; Jewish Leaders Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov, Manny Behar, Dr. Martin Braun, Roman Davydov, Ari Elbogen.
Background: Raised in Woodside, Lasak joined the Office of the Queens District Attorney after graduating from New York Law School. His highest title here was Executive Assistant of the Major Crimes Division In 2003 he was elected to the New York Supreme Court for Queens. After his first 14-year term was up in 2017, he ran and won again, but he stepped down to run for Queens District Attorney.
Reason for Running: The Queens District Attorney’s Office has been Gregory Lasak’s goal for the entirety of his professional career. “Ask anyone who knows me,” he says in his Candidate Questionnaire, “I have dreamed of being the Queens District Attorney all my life. It has been my honor to serve as an Assistant District Attorney for 25 years here in Queens and another 15 years as a Supreme Court Judge. I am the most qualified candidate.” Lasak asserts that his lifetime of experience gives him a well-rounded view of the requirements of the position. “I know when to be compassionate and when to be tough because I have been both – all my life. Moreover, I recognize that many parts of our justice system need to be reformed in order to better serve our communities, but I also believe that you cannot change the system while learning how it works.”
On The Issues: Lasak would create a dedicated unit to investigate and prosecute “bad landlords and others who harm their tenants.” He pledged to decline to prosecute marijuana offenses, first time unlicensed massage parlors, and minor offenses like theft of service and turnstile jumping. He said he would divert unlicensed driving, shoplifting under $250, and trespassing to other programs. His general philosophy regarding minor offenses is: “A DA must handle these cases responsibly to ensure they don’t saddle someone with a conviction that could ruin the rest of his or her life – preventing him or her from getting a good job, getting into a good school, a union, etc.”
Lasak warned the other candidates during a debate of going too far regarding criminal justice reform, especially when releasing inmates. “I think about 40 percent of the people who are going to be released from Rikers Island,” he said during the debate. “That’s two thousand people. Those are not fare beaters, those are not petty thieves; those are criminals.”
Lasak is one of the toughest against the plan regarding Rikers Island and opening new jails. He attended a community hearing at Queens Borough Hall (the only DA candidate to do so) denouncing the plan. He also wrote an op-ed piece for the Queens Eagle saying that the best plan forward is to build a new state-of-the-art facility on Rikers Island and not open new jails, which he says Kew Gardens residents don’t want.
Message to the Jewish Community: (Message provided via email from the campaign) Judge Greg Lasak is a lifelong Queens resident running for District Attorney to reform the criminal justice system while keeping us safe. He spent four decades as a prosecutor and a judge. He put away some of Queens’ most notorious criminals and he worked to free the innocent who were wrongly convicted. He’s been endorsed by the Daily News because they know he’s the only candidate with the experience to get the job done.
Organizations: Asian American Congress, New York Daily News
Labor: Detectives Endowment Association, Heat & Frost Insulators Local 12, Lieutenants Benevolent Association, Local 768 - New York City Health Services Employees, Local 983 - New York City Motor Vehicle Operators, Local 1070 - Court, County, and Department of Probation Employees, Local 1549 NYC Clerical Administrative Employees, New York City Fire Marshals Benevolent Association, New York State Court Clerks Association, New York State Court Officers Association, New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, MTA Police Benevolent Association, Port Authority Police Benevolent Association Inc., Sergeants Benevolent Association, Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, Tile, Marble & Terrazzo Union Local 7
Background: Betty Lugo earned her law degree from Albany Law School in 1984. For the first three years of her career, she was an Assistant District Attorney in Nassau County. In 1992, she founded Pacheco & Lugo, PLLC, the first Hispanic-women-owned law firm in New York. She served as the President of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of New York from 2015-2017.
Reason For Running: (Betty Lugo did not submit a Queens Community Group Candidate Questionnaire. This response is pulled from her interview from the Queens Eagle.) “Queens really needs a well-rounded person who cares about victims and families,” she told the Eagle. “Queens needs outreach, education, help with mental illness, veterans courts, and all people should be treated the same.”
On the Issues: Lugo said she wouldn’t prosecute marijuana use, and would push the NYPD to not engage suspects when the lone reason for engagement was smelling marijuana. She also pledged to decline prosecution of many low-level offenses such as jumping turnstiles. She said she would prosecute prostitution on a case by case basis, but not unlicensed massage parlors.
On Rikers Island, she supports refurbishing the existing facility and not building a new one is Queens. “I don’t think that Queens should be burdened with that,” Lugo said in a Queens Chronicle interview.
Message to the Jewish Community: (The Lugo campaign did not reply to multiple requests for a message.)
Public figures: Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, former Assemblyman Luis Diaz
Background: Mina Malik has spent 15 years of her 20-year career in the Queens District Attorney’s office. She started her career as a public defender in Washington, DC. She was also the Executive Director of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, a lecturer and senior advisor at Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project, and Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety in the Attorney General’s Office of DC.
Reason for Running: Mina Malik views running for office as her civic responsibility. “Over the past 20 years as a criminal defense investigator, prosecutor, and reformer of the criminal justice system, I never envisioned or planned to become a candidate for elected office,” she wrote in her Candidate Questionnaire. “However, during the last several months, countless neighbors, colleagues, and Queens residents have asked me to enter this race. They asked me to jump in because they, like me, recognize that our criminal justice system can have a pervasive ability to tear apart families. They also recognize that the system is in dire need of reform and that with the right vision, the right background, and the right experience, reform can be achieved.”
On the Issues: Malik affirmed that she will decline to prosecute marijuana, prostitution, turnstile jumping, and other low-level offenses. She added that she “will also decline to prosecute crimes that target the poor or are enforced discriminatorily,” such as loitering and disorderly conduct.
Malik will advocate for Rikers Island to be closed, and says, “I believe community jails could be the solution, but we must do so in a way that elicits the full input and participation of community members who would be impacted.”
Message to the Jewish Community: (Message provided via email from the campaign) Mina Malik is the most experienced candidate running for Queens District Attorney to bring fairness, accountability, transparency, and diversity to our criminal justice system. With over 20 years of experience, Mina has worked on both the defense and prosecution sides. Mina is an immigrant and daughter of two union workers and became an attorney because she witnessed injustice in her community. She has spent her entire career devoted to this mission. Mina is committed to prosecuting hate crimes and being tough on religious hatred and discrimination. She is also committed to ensuring that workers are treated fairly and eliminating economic disparities. Mina has extensive criminal justice reform and leadership experience in three large agencies. Finally, Mina invests in the next generation of attorneys as a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
Organizations: American Pakistani Public Affairs Committee
Public figures: Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia; Benjamin Crump, civil rights attorney; activist Angela Davis
Background: Queens native Jose Nieves graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2001. He spent eleven years as a Kings County Assistant District Attorney, and was a captain in the US Army Reserves, as well. In 2009, Nieves was deployed to Afghanistan, prosecuting misconduct by US Armed Services members. In 2012, Nieves worked as a prosecutor for the Federal Aviation Administration, until 2014 when he joined the New York City Department of Correction’s Trials and Litigation Division. In 2016, Nieves joined the Office of the New York State Attorney General, serving as a Deputy Chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit.
Reason for Running: Jose Nieves is drawing on his first-hand experience “being subjected to racial profiling by police” and seeing “how unfair police practices deteriorate the community’s trust and confidence in the criminal justice system,” which have led him to his career working in law enforcement. “I spent the last 18 years working in law enforcement reconciling the tension between these two realities,” he wrote in his Candidate Questionnaire and campaign website. “I believe that we can reconstruct our Criminal justice system to promote public safety while also respecting each individual’s rights and dignity.” Nieves’ goals in the DA’s Office is on “diverting non-violent defendants away from the criminal justice system, engage in meaningful alternative to incarceration sentencing practices, carefully considering a defendant’s collateral immigration consequences when negotiating plea agreements, and identifying new ways to reduce the risk of recidivism of defendants by supporting a defendant’s reentry and reintegration process into our community.”
On the Issues: While agreeing to decline prosecution of low-level offenses, Nieves did say, “The determination whether to charge and prosecute a defendant for certain offenses under the New York Penal law is a very fact-specific analysis that must consider factors that include, but are not limited to, the injury sustained by the victim, the criminal history of the defendant, the potential threat posed by the defendant to public safety, and the severity of the crime.”
On Rikers Island, Nieves supported closing the jail, but did not support opening new facilities around the Boroughs.
Message to the Jewish Community: (Message provided via email from the candidate) My name is Jose Nieves and I’m running for Queens County District Attorney because I want the residents of Queens to have a choice of electing a qualified and experienced candidate who has dedicated his 18-year career to both criminal justice reform and public safety. My life experience as a man of color, as a Latino, who grew up witnessing the injustice in our criminal justice system has motivated me to change the criminal justice system to make it fair and equal; and my professional experience has allowed me make that change happen. I am asking for your vote on June 25 because I bring the right balance of a commitment to public safety and my motivation to do real criminal justice reform in Queens.
By Moshe Hill