Queens DA candidates spar over experience, policy at Eagle forum

The seven candidates for Queens DA spoke at a forum hosted by the  Eagle  Thursday: public defender Tiffany Cabán, Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmember Rory Lancman, former Judge Gregory Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo, former Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik and former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert.

The seven candidates for Queens DA spoke at a forum hosted by the Eagle Thursday: public defender Tiffany Cabán, Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmember Rory Lancman, former Judge Gregory Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo, former Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik and former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert.

By Noah Goldberg

The seven candidates for Queens District Attorney did not address each other directly at a forum Thursday night at St. John’s University, but that did not stop them from throwing thinly veiled jabs at their competitors — with numerous candidates talking about frontrunner Borough President Melinda Katz’s lack of criminal law experience and establishment ties without mentioning her by name.

The forum, hosted by the Queens Daily Eagle and the NAACP and sponsored by St. John’s University less than two weeks before the primary, went for about an hour and a half, with candidates fielding questions from retired Justice Randall Eng and former Legal Aid Society Attorney-in-Charge Seymour James — as well as sometimes bizarre lightning round questions from St. John’s University’s Brian Browne.

While every candidate agreed that they would reform and modernize the Queens DA’s office, the disagreements came over who was the right person for that job.

“We cannot go with an establishment candidate and a career politician. Change needs to come now,” said Mina Malik — who worked for the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson and ran the Citizen Complaint Review Board  — during her closing statement, taking a shot at Katz, who left the debate early due to a scheduling conflict.

“If you don’t have the street credibility of having practiced in the criminal justice space for over 20 years, then you’re going to be in trouble,” Malik said at another point.

In the most contentious moment of the debate, candidates were asked which other candidate they would choose to join them in a study group, and which candidate they could live without.

Former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves, former Judge Gregory Lasak and Malik all said they could do without Katz. Councilmember Rory Lancman and public defender Tiffany Cabán declined to pick someone they would not study with. Katz, for her part, said she did not think that Lasak needed to be at the table.

Katz focused her unnamed jabs at Cabán, the public defender whose campaign has received endorsements from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.

“If you have to learn the managerial experience on day one, if you have to introduce yourself to the community groups like Cure Violence groups that I work with every single day, if you have to introduce yourself to the mental health clinics and all the community boards in this great borough of Queens, then you cannot do this job on January 1, 2020,” Katz said.

The topic of managerial experience loomed large during the debate. Candidates were asked how they would manage the leadership transition and whether they would keep the existing executive team in place.

“This is too important a job to hire someone that has no experience in the field,” Lasak, who served a 14-year term as a judge, said.

Candidates also fielded a number of audience-submitted questions, including about whether to reopen an investigation into the Chanel Lewis case and whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be tried as adults in court.

When asked about closing the jail at Rikers Island, the candidates differentiated themselves on policy, with Cabán committing to close the 10-jail complex without building any new jails and Lasak calling for a better facility to be built in the same location.  

Their closing statements, too, showed a range of perspectives, with some candidates — Cabán, Malik and Lancman — calling for “transformational” change in the DA’s office and others — Nieves, Lugo and Lasak — vowing to work within the system to reform it. Katz did not make a closing statement.

Additional reporting by Phineas Rueckert.