DA race: From Shabazz to Kaboom
“Paid for by the New York Justice&Public Safety PAC” on mailers supporting Dave Clegg for district attorney sounds innocuous enough. Who doesn’t support justice and public safety? Democratic candidate does for sure. Every pro-Clegg PAC flyer has that message prominently featured in its upper left-hand corner. Ditto, Republican Mike Kavanagh, but Kavanagh doesn’t have the hundreds of thousands in paid advertising this PAC is pumping into the county to get his message out.
The J&PS PAC, bankrolled by politically active left-wing billionaire George Soros, has committed vast sums into district attorney races from New York to California. Apparently, Soros and crew have figured out it’s easier and quicker to promote their views on social justice on the local level than through the more laborious legislative process. While district attorneys must follow law laid down by those legislatures, they have broad discretion on how to apply it. In other words, why buy a jury when you can buy a judge?
Under a still controversial Supreme Court split decision, these kinds of PACs (sometimes called “dark money”) are independent, not allowed to confer in any way with the candidates or causes they espouse. Or as the boilerplate on the Clegg flyers put it: “This communication was not expressly authorized or requested by any candidate or by any candidate’s political committee or any of its agents.” Wiggle room? You bet.
It’s a very strange system indeed. I asked a veteran poll how he felt about not knowing anything about an outfit in Washington or Albany sending out flyers in his name, with his political career on the line, before he had even heard about it.
“Terrified,” he said.
Having set the table, let’s serve some sauce.
The Soros Justice PAC has been inundating doorsteps and mailboxes for weeks now, but apparently doesn’t know much about local issues or personalities. About two weeks ago the PAC put out a glossy flyer with photos of Clegg at various stages in his 40-year career. In two of the earlier shots the follicly- challenged private practice attorney had a full head of bushy hair. But what caught my eye was a centerfold photo of Clegg shaking hands at his official announcement of candidacy last January with an ex-convict named Ismael Shabazz. Early in 2017, around the time Clegg was considering plans to run for congress the next year, Shabazz pleaded guilty to felony charges of selling guns. He served two years. Small irony: the handshake took place near the front steps of the courthouse where Clegg hopes to hold office for the next four years.
Neither candidate handled this bombshell very well. Channeling St. Peter, Clegg first denied he knew the man, until it was discovered he’d represented Shabazz once as a public defender years ago in a criminal matter. Kavanagh, when questioned by a reporter about what was by then a front-page story, refused to touch this hot potato. “I’m not going there. I’m running a clean campaign,” he said last week at a candidate night in Kingston. He went there a few days later by declaring he wouldn’t shake hands with a convicted felon or someone who had made anti-cop statements.
These things are hard to figure at ground level, but I think the needle moves both ways in solidifying Clegg’s social justice reform position even if Shabazz wasn’t the best vehicle and in highlighting Kavanagh’s implied law and order campaign. Edge to Kavanaugh.
One controversial flyer does not a campaign make however. Clegg’s enrollment advantage is daunting. At last count, the board of elections reports almost 20,000 more registered Democrats in the county than Republicans. And they vote. Both sides think the 32,471 independents are up for grabs, but those voters typically follow major party enrollment. Edge: Clegg. Big edge.
According to recent campaign finance reports, Kavanagh has raised substantially more money than Clegg, almost all of it in-county, much in large amounts with a goodly sum from labor unions. For the pundits who parse these things, unions backing Republicans is unusual.
There is too the emerging perception as election day looms that on Jan. 1 it is entirely possible that Ulster will be a one-party county from top to bottom. Like state government. Voters prefer at least the semblance of balance.
Public attention will be focused on district attorney, the most competitive and consequential three- countywide contests. on Nov. 5. I happen to support a lot of the positions Dave Clegg stands for, but I find outside interference repellent – be it somebody named Soros or Koch – in our local elections. I offer the Shabazz incident as Exhibit No. 1.