Three challengers are running against Brooklyn's longtime district attorney, Charles "Joe" Hynes, in next week's Democratic primary. All voice a shared argument: He is old, tired, and ineffective, and needs to be shown the door. But even those who agree that Hynes's office has long been adrift worry that the candidate with the best shot at winning may bring new and bigger problems of his own should he capture the office.
The campaign has already produced a long-overdue public critique of Hynes's performance from two energetic ex-prosecutors. One is former assistant D.A. and deputy police commissioner Arnie Kriss, who has emphasized Hynes's slack felony conviction rate and his troubling habit of soliciting campaign donations from his assistants. The genial Kriss, a former Ed Koch adviser who is still close to his old boss, becomes flushed and outraged when relating the tales of office mismanagement he says current and former Hynes aides told him, stories that he says spurred his decision to enter the race.
Mark Peters, a former anti-corruption prosecutor for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, has hammered Hynes for his lax attitude about corruption, as well as his penchant for cronyism in doling out high-paid staff jobs to pals. Peters, who headed the school board in his Park SlopeSunset Park neighborhood, has deluged Brooklyn mailboxes with sharp attacks on Hynes's high-threshold tolerance for local sleaze.
And then there is State Senator John Sampson, a soft-spoken former Legal Aid lawyer representing Canarsie and East New York. Last week, the city bar association found Sampson not qualified for the D.A. job, based on his lack of experience. (It approved the three other candidates.) Sampson shrugged off the finding, pointing out that a Brooklyn legal panel had approved him. In contrast to Kriss and Peters, Sampson's criticism of Hynes has been muted. At a NY1 debate last month, he said that Hynes allowed corruption to "fester" but offered no specifics. His only original criticism was that the D.A. has not been responsive to the borough's communities.
Sampson's harshest campaign words have been aimed, bizarrely, not at Hynes, but at Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Sampson traveled to Israel in June with Borough Park politician Dov Hikind, where he visited the Gaza settlements and condemned the removal of settlers there as a human rights violation. "This in certain ways is like slavery in America," said Sampson.
With a record bereft of any causes or important legislation that he's championed, Sampson's main rationale for running appears to be premised on the fact that he could actually win. He is the only minority candidate in the race, and his face and name bedeck glossy color posters from downtown Fulton Street to Starrett City. His handlers, who include political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, appear to be banking on a straight-out ethnic appeal to the borough's black voters, who make up 44 percent of the voting rolls. Last year, an African American named Johnny Lee Baynes, who had failed in two earlier local district campaigns, won a countywide race against a pair of competitors named Cohen and Newbauer.
That's the ethnic calculus at work in the current D.A. race, and it is why Sampson supporters were so delighted to see two other African American candidates, Sandra Roper and Paul Wooten, drop out this spring. While Joe Hynes can hope for the residual goodwill of those who remember him as the prosecutor who won convictions in the vicious 1986 Howard Beach racial attack, as well as for steady declines in crime, he must also cope with the blowback from his multiple indictments of the borough's black Democratic county leader, Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., charges that Hynes only sought after the Daily News editorial board repeatedly slammed him for failing to address corruption in the borough's courts.
Norman never formally endorsed Sampson, but he's made no pretense about his preference. Elegantly attired in his usual double-breasted dark suit, the Democratic boss paused last week outside State Supreme Court on Jay Street, as jury selection was under way for the first of his trials, to say that his sole electoral objective in the September 13 primary is to defeat Hynes.
"I will be doing everything in my power to get rid of Joe Hynes by telling all of the people I can to vote for John Sampson," Norman told the Voice. The county leader is so fixated on removing the D.A., a former close ally, that he has all but ignored what would otherwise be the real patronage prize in the election, that of the open seat of Surrogate's Court judge, where one of his severest critics, Margarita Lopez-Torres, has a good shot at winning the post. "I'm not involved in any of that," Norman said of the judicial race. "I'm thinking about one thing."
That's the conundrum of the 2005 Brooklyn D.A. race: an incumbent prosecutor presiding over an ailing office, a pair of energetic but long-shot reform candidates, and a little-known but well-bankrolled and machine-blessed potential replacement making the most of racial voting patterns.
While it's hard to get a handle on John Sampson, given the sparseness of his own résumé, the record is replete with the antics of the man who says he has been a mentor in Sampson's professional and political life. Bernard Mitchell Alter, a controversial and blunt-talking Court Street lawyer, said he recruited Sampson to join his law firm, Alter & Barbaro, back in 1993 because he heard that the young Legal Aid attorney was smart and able. Alter's firm is one of the most active in Brooklyn landlord-tenant cases, mainly on the landlords' side. Alter has represented some of the borough's most infamous property owners, including a convicted arsonist who twice made the Voice's Worst Landlords list.
Almost immediately after signing up Sampson, Alter, who used to head an east Brooklyn political club, began steering him into politics. "Yeah, I encouraged him to think about politics," Alter told the Voice last week. "I said, 'You are a good-looking guy, you talk well. Politics might be a good thing for you.' I suggested he seriously consider running."
Although nominally a Democrat, Alter rented himself out to the Giuliani campaign in 1993, recruiting black poll watchers to challenge voters at polling places where David Dinkins was expected to draw the lion's share of votes. Dinkins supporters complained that Alter's recruits, many of whom were apparently homeless, tried to intimidate voters. "Intimidation? Shit. Far from it," said Alter. "Once the smoke cleared, nothing came of it."
Three years later, Alter again went to work for the GOP, obtaining petition signatures for presidential candidate Bob Dole. "How do I square it? Hey, look, I'm a lawyer, my services are for hire," he said.
His Republican dalliances never hurt his standing with the Brooklyn Democratic organization. After Alter's friend Michael Feinberg was elected Surrogate's Court judge in 1996, Alter became one of the judge's most frequent appointees to handle estates. Records show that from the time of Feinberg's election until this year, when the scandal-wracked Surrogate's judge was forced from office for steering business to friends, Alter received 148 separate appointments from Feinberg, collecting more than $190,000 in fees. "Oh, you get these appointments, you mostly work for nothing," he scoffed when asked about his Surrogate's Court practice. What did he think about his friend's removal from office? "I really don't have an opinion about it," said Alter. "The court has spoken. My opinion is irrelevant."
Hynes's investigation of Norman began when an allegedly corrupt judge told the D.A. that the county leader regularly demanded that judicial candidates hire party-tied vendors and consultants. But in 2000, when the Voice's Peter Noel reported how Alter had demanded $140,000 to run the campaign for a sitting Civil Court judge in a small district race ("$140,000 for a Judgeship?" August 2329, 2000), neither Hynes nor Norman complained. Friends of ex-judge Maxine Archer told Noel she viewed Alter's demand as extortion. When Archer refused to pay, Alter promptly went to work for a challenger and, with the aid of his ally Congressman Ed Towns, beat Archer at the polls. Today, Alter makes no apologies for the incident. "I guess Maxine made a mistake, didn't she?" he said.
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