The hottest—and potentially the closest—race in Nassau County pits Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, a Republican who’s run the town for 12 years, against acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, who took command in January.
A poll released a month before the Nov. 3 election showed Murray holding a six-point lead over Singas, with a margin of error of 4.9 points, plus or minus, so it could be a lot narrower than that. Conducted by Siena Research Institute for News12/Newsday, the survey tellingly had Murray below the 50 percent approval mark—the political equivalent of the Mendoza line that measures mediocrity in baseball—with 48 percent to Singas’ 42 percent, and 10 percent undecided.
The two women’s campaign could also be the county’s costliest contest this year. According to the most recent filings, Murray has collected almost $1.4 million, while Singas has raised nearly $1.6 million.
In terms of endorsements there’s no contest, depending on who’s counting. Murray, who’s been part of the Hempstead Republican machine for years, has racked up the support of 28 police unions in Nassau, Suffolk, and even New York City. She’s never been a prosecutor, whereas Singas has served that role for 24 years, starting in the Queens District Attorney’s office before being asked in 2006 by then-Nassau DA Kathleen Rice to head a newly created Special Victims Bureau. Four years ago, Rice promoted Singas to chief assistant. Her campaign countered Murray’s police union backing with 64 former prosecutors endorsing the acting DA.
Murray’s lack of prosecutorial experience didn’t deter Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York City and ex-US Attorney for the Southern District, from proudly appearing with her in a new political ad. Looking into the camera, he says, “It takes a commitment to law and order to be a good district attorney. That’s Kate Murray.”
Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic chairman, acknowledged that Murray “calls herself the ‘law and order candidate.’ That’s because all of her experience comes from watching Law and Order on television.”
The county leader also took issue with Murray’s ubiquitous lawn signs in Nassau that refer to her as “tax cutter” and “crime fighter.”
“It’s a blatant lie,” he told the Press. According to town records, the total town tax levy is reportedly 40 percent higher now than it was in 2003 when she was appointed town supervisor.
“She has raised taxes virtually every other year in the Town of Hempstead,” Jacobs said. “She is not a tax cutter, and she is certainly not going to be a crime fighter. She has never cracked open the criminal code, the penal code, of New York State.”
That view was echoed by a recent New York Daily News endorsement of Singas, which slammed Murray as “wholly unqualified” after she spoke with the Daily News Editorial Board: “Whether the issue was bail, grand jury immunity, prosecution of drunken drivers or investigation of police shootings of unarmed civilians, Murray was clueless about the law.”
Nassau PBA President Jim Carver, a prominent Murray supporter, took issue with that conclusion. “She’s not clueless about the law. That’s their opinion.” Nor was he concerned that Murray had no prosecutorial experience. “The DA never prosecutes a case, anyway. The DA’s office is about vision and how you manage your people.”
“I think there’s some truth to that,” said Richard Klein, the distinguished professor of criminal law at Long Island-based Touro Law Center. “Someone who’s a very good administrator can transfer those skills to running a sanitation department or running a DA’s office. I think it’s certainly helpful if someone understands how a DA’s office operates. We have to remember that the DA doesn’t really go into court. It’s very, very rare when the DA actually makes a court appearance. But how much of a learning curve do you want?”
Interestingly, electing a district attorney with prosecutorial experience is also the key issue in the hotly contested Staten Island race, but there the politics are reversed. Giuliani has weighed into both but taken contradictory positions.
The Staten Island campaign involves Michael E. McMahon, a prominent local Democrat whom Giuliani painted “as a legal lightweight” when he spoke on behalf of the Republican challenger, Joan Illuzzi. Until she resigned this spring to run for DA, she served as senior trial counsel for Manhattan DA Robert M. Morgenthau, a Democrat, who praised her legal expertise and ethics, telling The New York Times that Illizzi is “going to want to see justice is done in every case.” Her campaign brands Illuzzi as “a prosecutor, not a politician.” McMahon, who served one term in Congress, slams her for spending her career in Manhattan.
No one can make that claim stick against Murray, who grew up in Levittown, or Singas, daughter of Greek immigrants who founded the Singas Family Pizza chain in Queens.
But where they stand in Nassau is another issue.
“There’s a real question about Kate Murray’s ability to address, to respond and seek the input of a community that is basically the fodder for the criminal justice system,” said Frederick Brewington, a noted civil rights attorney in Hempstead.
“The black and brown communities of Nassau County are the ones that are the great majority of the population in our jail. Our young people are being made part of the criminal justice system that because of the hue of their skin is unforgiving. They will bear marks well into their adult livelihoods that will prevent them from having jobs, but if they happen to be white, they might be forgiven.”
Brewington, who’s handled cases involving police brutality against civilians, was questioned whether Murray’s many endorsements by the police unions might compromise her ability to prosecute impartially, should she be elected Nassau district attorney.
“There is a necessary working relationship between the district attorney’s office and the police department, but that necessary relationship requires separate bedrooms,” Brewington told the Press. “And in this situation it appears as though what candidate Murray has decided to do is break down the wall that requires the DA to be an independent source for justice. Remember, the district attorney is the lead law enforcement officer for the county, not the commissioner, not the county executive. Her independence is necessary to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected and respected in addition to enforcing the law. She’s a constitutional officer that has very important responsibilities. By showing that she is basically depending on the police to be her voice in this campaign, she has abdicated that independence.”
“If a prosecutor is dependent and beholden upon the police for getting elected, it’s just like any other part of our political system,” explained Touro’s Professor Klein. “An elected official pays back those who helped their campaign, through financial contributions or here, perhaps, even more meaningfully, by endorsements.”
Klein raised another, equally troubling concern that he had.
“What does the DA do if the DA has a case and it seems like the cop has lied?” the professor asked. “If I’m the DA, and I reach a conclusion that the police are fabricating a case, is the fact that the police have endorsed me as a candidate going to come into the picture? Or am I going to independently say, ‘I don’t believe this police officer, and therefore the case has to be dismissed.’”
Murray’s campaign spokesman, Bill Corbett Jr., insisted that she’d be an independent district attorney.
“Kate Murray will aggressively investigate all allegations regardless of the subject’s political party, uniform or any other factors other than the facts of the case,” he said. “It speaks volumes when the men and women of law enforcement who know and have worked with the acting district attorney for almost a decade line up with one voice to endorse Kate Murray.”
Another issue between the women is how they’d respond to the rising use of heroin in Nassau.
At the beginning of September, Murray held a press conference with Carver, the Nassau PBA president, Nassau County Police Department Detectives Association President Glenn Ciccone and Warren Zysman, CEO of Addiction Care Interventions, to call “for the formation of a Nassau County Task Force to combat the rising epidemic of heroin throughout our region,” which her campaign said in a press release, had increased “over 100 percent in fatal heroin overdoses (YTD) in 2015 versus last year.” According to the campaign, “the officials will seek a greater presence of both police officers and detectives on the streets to track down dealers, interrupt the home delivery of drugs and provide educational resources to young people.”
How that initiative would differ from the Nassau County Heroin Task Force, a bipartisan effort formed in the summer of 2009 by the county executive, the district attorney and the police commissioner as well as community activists, local leaders and public health advocates, is a matter of interpretation. This ongoing task force has been meeting on the last Friday of the month since its inception, and as far as the Press can determine Murray has never attended. Her campaign spokesman, Bill Corbett Jr., said Murray’s proposed task force would be created “within the police department.”
The Singas campaign says that Murray is only a recent convert to the cause, whereas the acting DA has been prosecuting drug-related crimes for almost two decades. To prove their point, they released a video of the candidates’ debate sponsored by the Garden City Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 30, which quotes Murray saying that “I have been talking about this heroin epidemic, this heroin scourge, since I was nominated to run for District Attorney.”
Murray’s supporters counter that Singas hasn’t done enough to curb the “heroin epidemic.”
“Madeline is a little bit in denial,” claims the PBA’s Carver. “She’s addressing it, but if she’s addressing it, how come heroin deaths have doubled in the last year?”
Another contentious issue aims at the heart of Hempstead itself, the most powerful bastion of Republican power in the Empire State. In its editorial endorsement of Singas, the Daily News wrote: “Like Murray, former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is a product of the Hempstead GOP. In May, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint that depicted Skelos and his son as participating in a wide-ranging extortion scheme. A district attorney’s duties include cracking down on corruption.”
In Singas’ new cable TV ad, the Hempstead supervisor is shown at a ribbon cutting ceremony wielding scissors with state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) holding the blue ribbon and smiling. To the Daily News editorial board, Murray conceded that she hadn’t read the federal indictment of Skelos and his son, charged by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a position once held by Giuliani. Snarkily, the editorial concluded that “she’s perfect for the machine.”
Murray’s town spokesman, Mike Deery, insists that the supervisor has scrupulously followed all the proper contracting procedures. Her campaign carped that Singas is just raising this issue for political purposes right before the election and it otherwise would have no merit.
One thing’s for sure, the voters will have a clear choice because these two candidates for district attorney have taken very different paths to be on this ballot.
Singas, who lives in Manhasset, went to Barnard College, majoring in political science, and got her law degree from Fordham University in 1991, when she entered the Queens District Attorney’s office. She became Nassau DA Kathleen Rice’s top deputy in 2011, and acting DA when Rice was elected to Congress to replace former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.
“For me, the message is that who the district attorney is matters,” Singas told the Press. “Experience matters. Qualification matters. And to do this job, even though it’s an elected job, is completely apolitical. It requires someone with a very specific skill set. It requires someone who speaks to criminal justice issues, knows criminal law, and that’s very stark in my race. My opponent has none of that. She is a political animal who came up through the political machine, so the choice for voters is very clear. You could either have a prosecutor who is going to be the DA or you can have a politician.”
Murray got a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Boston College in 1984 and her law degree from the Boston-based Suffolk University Law School in 1988. Murray worked as a junior lawyer in two firms and as an assistant in the state attorney general’s office before getting elected to the Assembly in 1998 and Hempstead Town clerk in 2001.
“My father got involved in local politics and I did too,” Murray told the Press. “I loved it from a very early age… Actually, the three offices that I’ve held–I was the first woman in each of those. So I like to think three fewer glass ceilings to shatter.” She said she was glad when she got the chance to run Hempstead Town. “I think there’s a serious role to be played as a government servant–that’s what I prefer to call myself. I always cringe when I hear [the word] ‘politician.’”
–With Jaime Franchi