It may be hard to imagine that someone could defeat a district attorney by insisting he is too tough on crime, but that’s exactly what happened last week in Albany County. Throughout the summer and into the fall, a little-known lawyer named David Soares waged a relentless attack against his former boss, District Attorney Paul Clyne, by pounding away at a single idea: Democrats should vote out Clyne because he does not support reforming the state’s harsh drug laws.
Four-color flyers filled Albany County mailboxes, delivering the message:
“Paul Clyne supports the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws that cost taxpayers $550 million every year.”
“Paul Clyne supports the Rockefeller Drug Laws that cost young people their futures.”
“Paul Clyne supports the Rockefeller Drug Laws that lock up first-time non-violent substance abusers and have not cut crime.”
Soares’s stance on the drug laws has made him very popular among anti-Rockefeller activists. For them, his victory in the September 14 Democratic primary represents a major coup. They have been trying for years to convince state legislators to change the drug laws, without success. In this lobbying battle, their main opponent has been the state’s District Attorneys Association, of which Clyne is a vice president.
If Soares prevails in November, he will be the first district attorney in New York State to get elected with a campaign platform advocating drug law reform. First, though, he must defeat Clyne once again. Clyne is running in the general election on the Independence Party line, while another candidate has the Republican line. Soares, however, is expected to win. Already, his primary victory has begun redefining the dynamics of the state’s Rockefeller drug law debate.
“It’s the first time a political candidate has been defeated primarily because of their overzealous support of the drug laws,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which endorsed Soares. “It’s significant because it happened in a district that’s majority white and suburban, and Clyne lost in [almost] every neighborhood there. For D.A.’s in other parts of the state, I’m sure it was a little wake-up call to them on Wednesday morning. These guys have been bloated with their power. I think they’re going to realize that there’s a cost to their promotion of the drug laws and their resistance to change.”
The name Clyne may not mean anything to people in New York City, but in Albany County it has long been synonymous with political power—and with strict enforcement of the state’s drug laws. John Clyne, Paul’s father, had a reputation as one of the state’s toughest judges in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he sat on the State Supreme Court bench. His penchant for handing out long sentences earned him the moniker “Maximum John.”
Since becoming Albany County district attorney in 2001, Paul Clyne, 44, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the Rockefeller drug laws. Enacted by then governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973, New York’s drug laws are among the most punitive in the nation. Anyone convicted of selling two or more ounces of cocaine receives at least 15 years in prison. Prosecutors typically like these laws because the lengthy mandatory sentences give defendants a powerful incentive to plead guilty.
In Albany, Clyne was known for aggressively prosecuting drug cases, even as his constituents’ views about these laws appear to have been changing, perhaps because the Times Union and other Albany media outlets have covered the drug law debate extensively. In a recent poll done by the Drug Policy Alliance, 70 percent of Democratic voters said they oppose the laws. And, when deciding which candidate to vote for, they said they cared more about this issue than any other.
Soares understands why. The 34-year-old Cornell grad attended Albany Law School, then joined Clyne’s office. After two years, he says, “I realized that I was just becoming a case processor, especially working under this particular regime. And I realized my efforts were not having any sort of impact on the community I was supposed to be serving. . . . One of our biggest problems is the absolute focus on the low-level non-violent offender. It was really a factory.”
On June 3 at 2:07 p.m., Soares told his boss that he was going to run against him. Clyne laughed. Then, at 2:14 p.m., Clyne fired him.
In the weeks before the election, Clyne’s campaign mailed out flyers attacking Soares for being “unqualified” and for his support from the Drug Policy Alliance. A Clyne flyer with the headline “DON’T BE FOOLED” declared: “A New York City drug legalization group is trying to buy the Albany County District Attorney’s Office.” The Drug Policy Alliance, which is partly funded by billionaire George Soros, has financed campaigns in eight states to legalize medical marijuana.
This summer, the Drug Policy Alliance contributed $81,500 to the Working Families Party, which supported Soares. The Albany County Democratic Party brought a lawsuit against the Working Families Party and won a temporary court order a few days before the election, blocking it from spending money to help Soares. (Soares has the WFP line in the November election, but state election law prohibits one party from trying to influence another party’s primary.) After Soares won, the leader of the county Democratic Party announced that she was planning to drop the suit.
In this primary contest, both the Soares and Clyne campaigns spent more than $100,000, but Soares had the more aggressive field operation. About 500 volunteers worked on his behalf, making calls or knocking on doors. In the weeks leading up to the primary, volunteers spoke with more than 20,000 voters. On election day, a 10-car caravan snaked through the county, blaring messages of support from local politicians. Soares visited Albany’s housing projects, starting on the 12th floor of each building and working his way down, urging people on every floor to get out and vote.
When the results were announced later that evening, Soares had 14,030 votes and Clyne had 8,684.
Thedistrict attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn are up for re-election next year, and the Rockefeller drug laws are likely to be an issue in these races too.
Leslie Crocker Snyder, who is challenging Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, has talked publicly about her support for reform. (Last year, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, Inc. conducted a survey on her behalf, which found: “By far the most effective message seems to be the Rockefeller drug laws message.”) Senator John Sampson was the only state senator to endorse Soares. He is expected to challenge Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes; after Soares won, Sampson called him and they discussed campaign tactics.
Meanwhile, Soares was still limping around three days after the primary, his feet sore from all his last-minute running. When he talks about his victory, he almost sounds like he can’t quite believe it himself. About campaigning, he says, “I’ve never done this in my life. I never even ran for school president or student council. And here I am taking on the machine.”
When the conversation turns to the Rockefeller drug laws, however, he is emphatic. “It is unquestionable that from this November on forward, the days of this antiquated statute are numbered,” he says. “The fact that the most vociferous, inflexible member of the New York State D.A.’s Association is in jeopardy of losing his position—and primarily on the issue of the Rockefeller drug laws—is a moment for pause for every single elected official in the state of New York.”