Opinion: Common sense never goes out of style

Political trends come and go, but pragmatic, results-oriented governing remains key.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has embraced mainstream Democratic values over three decades in public service.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has embraced mainstream Democratic values over three decades in public service. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thirty years ago, I won my first-ever election to the Assembly, representing my home community of Forest Hills, Queens. Although I am a lifelong Democrat, I was not the party’s choice, so I chose to run on a third-party line to offer voters an alternative in a special election. I believed then, as I do now, that anything worth doing is worth fighting hard for, and if you believe in what you are doing and believe in your values, you should never give up or give in just because others don’t think you should succeed. To me, this was just common sense. While candidates come and go, political trends rise and fall and the pendulum swings back and forth, being responsive to the voters and consistent with your values will always be the most important thing in public service.

So for 30 years, from the Assembly to the City Council to Queens Borough Hall and now as District Attorney, I've held true to my mainstream Democratic values. I’ve been criticized from the far left and the far right, but those attacks have never dampened my commitment to focusing on pragmatic, results-oriented governing and a steadfast commitment to protecting everyone’s rights.

Much has changed in those decades. Issues that we thought were long resolved, like protecting women’s right to abortion care, have now been thrown back into the policy arena by a radicalized Supreme Court. As DA, I must do more than ever to protect this right, speaking out and using my full prosecutorial powers against those who illegally interfere with a woman’s right to choose or the medical professionals who provide such services. My commitment on this issue has never changed, but the world has and so our fight for women’s autonomy continues. 

In a different vein, I now use legislation that I passed as an Assembly member to prosecute sex offenders as a District Attorney. Giving prosecutors one more tool to protect children from predators was sound common-sense policy, so I fought for this bill without any idea that I would one day be in a position to use it as a prosecutor to hold people accountable for these crimes.

None of us could have imagined the events of 9/11, but in the aftermath, as Chair of the Council’s Land Use Committee, I was able to bring a clear-eyed and common sense approach to rebuilding our city and our economy. Throughout this process, I relied on my dedication to fostering development that helps our city grow and expand housing options while ensuring the rich tapestry of our diversity is not only preserved but celebrated. 

Through all these and the other challenges we’ve faced, I always fell back on my core values to set the best course of action. Not because of polling or politics, but because of what I knew was right. How you respond when the situation demands immediacy defines who you are as an elected official. For me, that has meant standing firm in my commitment to justice, equity and service, inspired by FDR’s belief in government as a force for good and leading with an eye toward viable, workable outcomes to address the challenges of the day.

I became District Attorney when our criminal justice system was under scrutiny and many were calling for the defunding of law enforcement as a means to address these concerns. I disagreed. This was followed by the pandemic and a spike in crime that left many feeling unsafe, demanding a return to the most draconian policies of the past. Once again, I disagreed. The real priority of keeping Queens families safe while creating a stronger and fairer criminal justice system demands that people in this position be consistent and judicious when setting policies and practices for addressing crime. This is why we have cracked down on rising concerns like retail theft, gun crimes, human trafficking, gang activity and hate crimes while also creating this office’s first Conviction Integrity Unit and expanding diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration. 

Being a mother of two sons has imbued my work with a personal dimension, informing my understanding of the challenges and triumphs that families face across Queens. This personal journey, complete with its trials and joys, has paralleled the broader narrative of our community's growth and resilience, reinforcing my belief in the power of perseverance, compassion and collective action.

In today’s polarized climate, the need for mainstream, pragmatic leadership is paramount. The political pendulum will never stop swinging, and it seems to shift with increasing frequency each year. But our future as a borough, city, state and nation hinges on leaders who can unite diverse voices, champion community-centric solutions and navigate governance with foresight.

All of these accomplishments – passing common-sense legislation, promoting community-centered development, transforming underutilized spaces into vibrant areas of living and commerce, advocating for equity, championing justice and working to keep Queens safe while rebuilding trust in our criminal justice system – reflect not just my efforts but the power of our collective will. The challenges we've faced have not only tested but ultimately strengthened our resolve to build a community that stands as a beacon of hope, diversity and strength.