Politics

Opinion: Charisma vs. competence: The D.A. races in Nassau and Staten Island

There are two very intriguing district attorney races on the ballot this November, in Nassau County and Staten Island, which are not getting the attention they deserve.

Both races present voters with the same clear choice: Do they want political potential from candidates they know, or professional prosecutors with less name recognition?

In Nassau County, the Republicans nominated Kate Murray, a smart and politically savvy former assemblywoman, currently the supervisor of the town of Hempstead, to run against the interim district attorney, Madeline Singas, a Democrat and a seasoned prosecutor with no prior political experience. On Staten Island, the Democrats nominated the personable former City Council member and Congressman Mike McMahon, to run against Republican Joan Illuzzi, a veteran prosecutor trained in Robert Morgenthau’s well-respected Manhattan office, and who thrived working under the current Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance.

In Nassau County, Republicans understandably see Murray as a future candidate for county executive, straight out of central casting. Murray is impressive, mentally tough with razor-sharp political instincts.

McMahon was taken down in the GOP’s landslide in 2010, but many Staten Island Democrats see the district attorney’s office as a stepping stone McMahon can use to return to Congress in a better year for Democrats.

Both Singas in Nassau and Illuzzi on Staten Island showed political jitters in the early campaign rounds. However, Singas beat her Democratic primary opponent Michael Scotto in a landslide. On Staten Island, Illuzzi snagged the Conservative line by a large margin in a difficult write-in primary.

Nevertheless, both Murray and McMahon are favored to prevail. In Nassau, Murray is buttressed by a well-financed and formidable GOP turnout machine, while McMahon has run so often that his name is a ballot staple for a large swath of Staten Island’s voters.

So why am I suggesting that these races are worth watching? The answer may lie in a precedent: the 1995 district attorney race in Staten Island, in which Republican Guy Molinari was sent packing.

Molinari, the former congressman and then-borough president, dominated Staten Island politics. The smart money said Democrat Bill Murphy was toast when Molinari threw his hat in the ring for district attorney.

Staten Island voters, however, were unimpressed, citing Molinari’s lack of prosecutorial experience, which rendered him less qualified than Murphy, the competent but uncharismatic incumbent.

Singas and Illuzzi can still pull off upsets if voters return to the mindset of the Staten Island electorate circa 1995, and just yank the choice for district attorney away from the politicians in one or both of these contests.

Consequently, let’s watch out for four factors. First, will McMahon and Murray convince voters that they will become effective prosecutors, enabling their political advantages to flourish? Or will Illuzzi and Singas bang home Murphy’s winning message against Molinari – the one place my opponent has never been is in a courtroom.

Second, under pressure, will Murray and McMahon come across as nothing more than empty suits as prosecutors? In turn, will Singas and Illuzzi get tripped up by mistakes that plague political amateurs?

Early on, McMahon attacked Illuzzi for the hung jury in the high-profile Etan Patz trial. Meanwhile, 11 jurors, the Patz family and an entire fraternity of former prosecutors thought Illuzzi did a superb job in trying that case, thwarted only by one juror nullifying a guilty verdict in pursuit of a Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame. If, down the stretch, McMahon is perceived as attacking Illuzzi unfairly, he may just prove Illuzzi’s case to the voters.

Third, events could prove decisive. In Nassau, voters have witnessed the steady drip of scandal on the local Republican Party. The question could become, do Nassau voters want a seasoned, but nonpolitical, Democratic prosecutor as district attorney to keep an eye on the GOP machine?

Finally, in these low-turnout races, editorial endorsements could prove persuasive. If either Illuzzi or Singas can earn key newspaper endorsements, that could trigger an upset.

I still expect Murray in Nassau and McMahon on Staten Island to win, but the ghost of Guy Molinari will keep my eyes open. There is still time for those factors to become the Four Horsemen.

 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY.

The Staten Island district attorney debate airs tonight on NY1 at 7 and 10 p.m.

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