VOLUME 3, ISSUE 339 | September 23 -29, 2004
Albany Victory for Drug Law Reform
With strong gay support, David Soares defeats incumbent district attorney
For the first time since at least the 1970s, a member of New York State’s law enforcement community has been defeated for being too tough on drug use.
In Albany, District Attorney Paul A. Clyne’s steadfast support of the Rockefeller-era drug laws became a major liability in the September 14 Democratic primary.
P. David Soares, a young former assistant district attorney, won a commanding primary victory with 62 percent of the Democratic primary vote. The impact will likely be felt statewide.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau faces re-election next year and a likely Democratic challenger said the Albany primary showed that voters expected district attorneys to support “reform” on the issue of drug laws.
Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former Manhattan Supreme Court justice, is exploring a run against Morgenthau, the dean of the state’s district attorneys who presides over the largest staff and budget and has for the past quarter century regularly trained attorneys who have gone on to serve New York governors, Democratic and Republican, in senior criminal justice positions.
Snyder, who had a reputation as a tough judge, said in her career she reserved harsh sentences for violent criminals. She now favors a dual system where long drug offense sentences are limited to leaders of drug organizations and to dealers who use weapons, who sell to children and who use children to sell drugs. Small-time dealers and addicts who sell to support their habits should be diverted to alternative programs like rehabilitation. This is a succinct description of the Democratic and Republican consensus on Rockefeller drug law reform.
Morgenthau has declined to comment on the Albany results.
Liberals and people of color could form a potent voting block in favor of drug-law reform next year in Manhattan.
Far from leading the charge on reform, district attorneys around the state have resisted reform of the Rockefeller laws. If Soares’ primary win is confirmed in the November election, elected law enforcement officials could be moved to reconsider their opposition.
Albany’s progressive insurgents included gay and lesbian activists, and the reformers are giddy in the wake of the primary. It is as though the drug reform movement received a shot of adrenalin. In recent legislative sessions, the Drop the Rock movement had forced repeal to the top of the agenda, but despite long hours spent by Gov. George Pataki, State Senate Pres. Joseph Bruno and Speaker Sheldon Silver, attempts to reach agreement on revising the draconian laws faltered.
The unyielding opposition of the district attorneys is the major reason for the stalemate. They don’t want judges to have the discretion to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment. It came as a surprise to most pundits that the Albany County Democratic primary became a referendum on the issue.
Clyne is known for a stern demeanor and his hardcore support of the Rockefeller drug laws. When Soares, who had been in charge of the community office in downtown Albany, announced he was running, Clyne fired him.
“We built a coalition of young and old, African American and white, men and women, gay and straight, experienced activists and first-timers, suburbanites and urbanites,” an exuberant Soares said of his victory. “The era of reactive prosecution is over.”
Soares promised to focus on violent crimes, especially rising gun violence in Albany and domestic violence, and endorsed reform proposals increasing the discretionary authority of judges.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, credited the efforts of the Empire Pride Agenda, the Working Family Party, Citizen Action and numerous neighborhood groups mobilized voters at the grass roots for Soares’ astounding victory. The voter turnout was as high as it was in the hotly contested 1998 Senate primary, when Charles Schumer defeated Mark Green and Geraldine Ferraro before going on to defeat incumbent Republican Alfonse D’Amato.
Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York State, believes that the Soares’ victory will encourage other challenges to elected officials resistant to drug law reform. The New York State Senate Democrats recently received a $100,000 from drug reform advocates, so the pressure for action is likely to be stepped up in the Legislature.