Clark, whose 2015 win in this loyally blue borough made her the first woman of color to serve as district attorney anywhere in the state, faces a challenge from the left in the June 27 primary in the form of civil rights attorney Tess Cohen. Cohen has argued that the incumbent hasn't proved to be the criminal justice reformer she pledged to be. "She made changes when she came into the office," Cohen said to the Gotham Gazette's Samar Khurshid. "But her reforms are the reforms that people were starting to do 10-15 years ago, and it's not where reforms are now and where we know we need to go."
Cohen has further charged that Clark has lost the trust of residents thanks to several scandals, which Khurshid explains include "favoritism in promotions, accepting large donations from corrections officers that fall under her jurisdiction, bungling the prosecution of a Rikers Island physician's assistant accused of multiple rapes, and retaliating against her own staffers who complained about working conditions."
Cohen, though, acknowledges that she has a tough task as she tries to become the first white person elected borough-wide in this diverse community since the 1980s. "Certainly the fact that I would be running to represent people who are dealing with systemic, implicit or explicit racism that I have never and will never experience weighed heavily on me as I was making a decision," she said, "But in the end, what I see is an opportunity to make things significantly better for communities of color in the Bronx, and that outweighs my other concerns."
Clark, unsurprisingly, views what she calls her own "smart on crime" record very differently than Cohen does. "My job is not just prosecution," she told the Gazette, "We can't prosecute our way out of the work that we do. … This job is about prevention." The incumbent, who has the local party establishment on her side, also continues to tout herself as a reformer, despite Cohen's criticism, adding, "I think my community knows that I'm one of them."
The dynamics are distinct across the East River in Queens, where Katz's main intra-party opponent is former Queens Supreme Court Administrative Judge George Grasso. Katz famously won the 2019 primary to serve as district attorney for this similarly Democratic borough by 60 votes against Tiffany Cabán, a progressive who now serves on the New York City Council, but this time her foe is arguing she hasn't done enough to prosecute crime.
"In my opinion, this is an artificially created crime wave by what I call progressive activists in the state legislature and City Hall," Grasso said as he launched his campaign last year. He added, "They're not reducing the daily jail population, they're creating major stress on public safety across the board in Queens and throughout the city."
Grasso, who is a former NYPD official, has the backing of Bill Bratton, who served two separate stints as police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani and Bill de Blasio. Katz, for her part, sports endorsements from Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and several major unions. Also in the running is Devian Daniels, who lost a 2021 primary for a Civil Court judgeship 80-19; Daniels has the support of Hiram Monserrate, a former state senator who continues to seek elected office more than a decade after he was expelled following a conviction for assault.
McMahon, finally, is up for a third term in Staten Island, a longtime Republican bastion that favored Trump 57-42, but he currently doesn't face any serious opposition ahead of the April 6 filing deadline. McMahon previously served one term in the U.S. House after he won in 2008 following a cascade of Republican debacles, but he went on to lose to a pre-disgrace Mike Grimm. He's had far more staying power as district attorney, though: McMahon won his 2015 race 55-45, and he prevailed in an uncontested contest four years later.
● Progressives have had tremendous success passing all sorts of reforms at the ballot box in recent years, including measures that have expanded Medicaid, increased the minimum wage, and created independent redistricting commissions. How have Republicans responded? By making it harder to qualify measures for the ballot.
Daily Kos Elections' own Stephen Wolf joins us on this week's episode of The Downballot for a deep dive on the GOP's war on ballot initiatives, which includes burdensome signature requirements that disproportionately impact liberals; ramping up the threshold for passage for citizen-backed measures but not those referred by legislatures; and simply repealing voter-passed laws Republicans don't like. But Republican power is not unfettered, and Stephen explains how progressives can fight back by defeating efforts to curtail ballot measures—many of which voters themselves would first have to approve.
New episodes of The Downballot come out every Thursday morning. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. You'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● IN-Sen, IN-Gov: Politico writes that a trio of unnamed "high-level Hoosier Democrats" are hoping that former Sen. Joe Donnelly will step down as ambassador to the Vatican to run for Senate or governor this cycle. The story adds that Donnelly, who lost re-election in 2018 to Republican Mike Braun 51-45, is "said to be eyeing an exit from his current post," though there's no word if he's looking at a comeback. One person who firmly turned down Democratic entreaties to run for Senate, though, is former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who responded, "Absolutely not."
On the GOP side, Rep. Jim Banks now has the public backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the race for the Senate seat that Braun is giving up to run for governor. Banks still has no serious intra-party opposition in sight, while Braun starts as the primary frontrunner against Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and wealthy businessman Eric Doden.
● MI-Sen: While former Rep. Mike Rogers recently expressed interest in seeking the Republican nod for Senate or president, WILX reports that last week he "confirmed he will not be running for office at this time and is focusing on solutions we can do at home to meet the challenges of China." There's no direct quote to indicate if Rogers is leaving himself some room to campaign for something later this cycle, though we doubt Republican power brokers are going to be holding their collective breath for a more definitive answer from a guy who retired in 2015.
● MT-Sen: Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report tweets that Republicans are talking about Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, who can potentially self-fund, as a possible opponent for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. Sheehy, who earned a Purple Heart, does not appear to have said anything publicly yet.
● PA-Sen: The deep-pocketed Senate Leadership Fund made it clear this week it would support rich guy Dave McCormick should he seek the GOP nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Bob Casey. The group responded to the news that state Sen. Doug Mastriano is considering a bid following his landslide loss in last year's race for governor by saying it is "focused on Dave McCormick as a candidate who can run and win this race."
● LA-Gov: Former state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson on Wednesday earned the backing of Rep. Troy Carter, who is the only Democrat in Louisiana's congressional delegation, ahead of the October all-party primary. Wilson, who received an endorsement from termed-out Gov. John Bel Edwards the previous day, has no serious intra-party opposition.
● CA-27: Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commissioner Franky Carrillo has filed FEC paperwork to raise money for a potential bid against Republican Rep. Mike Garcia. Carrillo, who is a Democrat, was featured in the Netflix series "The Innocence Files" detailing how he spent 22 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
● NV-03: Former state Sen. Elizabeth Helgelien announced Wednesday that she would seek the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Rep. Susie Lee, but her presence in the race did not impress the Nevada Independent's Jon Ralston. "She was a state senator for a cup of coffee," Ralston tweeted, continuing, "resigned for personal reasons, then moved out of state, then came back to finish last in a state Senate primary in '18." Helgelien's teenage daughter was sentenced to life in prison last year for murdering her father, who was Helgelien's former husband.
● WI Supreme Court: Progressive Janet Protasiewicz is taking advantage of her huge financial edge to go up with a new spot ahead of the April 4 accusing her conservative opponent, former Justice Daniel Kelly, of having "un-recused himself" from a case after he "pocketed $20,000 in contributions from" one of the plaintiffs and his family. Another ad touts Protasiewicz as "a prosecutor fighting for justice for victims of crime" who "believes women should have the freedom to make their own decisions on abortion."
Protasiewicz's campaign, reports Wisconsin Politics, is responsible for almost $8 million of the $9.5 million her side has deployed in the general election (most of the balance is from A Better Wisconsin Together), while right-wing PACs have spent $5 million. And because Protasiewicz is on TV while Kelly is relying on outside groups, only she's able to take advantage of the much cheaper rates ad candidates are entitled to and thus can run far more spots for the same outlay.
● PA State House: Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel announced that he was resigning after multiple women, including two Republican colleagues, accused him of sexual harassment. A special election will be held to succeed him in the 163rd House District, a Delaware County constituency that backed Joe Biden 62-37. In Pennsylvania it's up to the parties, rather than primary voters, to select nominees for specials.
Once Zabel's departure takes effect on March 16, his party's majority in the 203-member state House will tick down to 101-100. A special to fill a safely red vacant seat will coincide with the May 16 statewide primary, and the Associated Press says there's time for Democratic Speaker Joanna McClinton to also schedule the contest to replace Zabel for that date.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Chicago, IL Mayor: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas received an endorsement Wednesday from wealthy perennial candidate Willie Wilson, who took fifth place with 9% in last week's nonpartisan primary for mayor, while the prominent SEIU Local 1 backed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson ahead of the April 4 general. This labor group, which represents building workers, has long been a major spender in mayoral races, though it backed losing candidates Chuy Garcia and Toni Preckwinkle during the last two contests.
Vallas himself received $1.2 million in major contributions reported Tuesday, with $500,000 of that coming from major GOP donor Craig Duchossois. Vallas was able to take in this much because, while state law nominally puts contribution limits in place, those limits disappear for all candidates if just one of them self-funds at least $100,000 or accepts a donation this large from their immediate family.
Wilson broke this barrier for the first round all the way back in April of last year, while Vallas himself did it for the general by putting down $100,100 of his own money last week. People or companies that do business with the city are still barred from donating more than $1,500 to a candidate per year, but there are almost no other restrictions.
Wilson and Vallas are far from the first candidates to make these limits go away, though. Illinois, as the Chicago Sun-Times explained in 2020, didn't have any contribution limits whatsoever until lawmakers established them in 2009 in response to the massive scandal that ultimately forced Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who narrowly beat none other than Vallas in their 2002 Democratic primary) from office. This "millionaires'" exemption was ostensibly included to prevent candidates from getting badly outspent by self-funding opponents, but in practice politicians routinely take advantage of it so they can haul in as much money as they can.
Johnson also has his well-funded backers, with Crain's Chicago Business' Justin Laurence writing that his supporters at SEIU Healthcare recently put $750,000 in its PAC and are likely to donate to the commissioner's campaign as well. But his rival will likely stand to benefit far more from his ability to take in unlimited campaign contributions: Laurence writes that "[l]arge checks from the business community are expected to continue" to go to Vallas, whom politicos anticipate will enjoy a big financial edge.
P.S. This tactic isn't even limited to candidates in competitive races. Then-state House Speaker Michael Madigan famously threw down $100,001 in his uncontested 2018 general election, which allowed him to bring in an extra $12 million that he largely sent to committees he controlled. Candidates don't even necessarily need to worry about losing $100,000 of their own money because they can list it as a loan, which is what Vallas did.
"If you think you'll be able to pay yourself back from campaign funds there's very little cost to using it," said the head of the campaign finance reform group Reform for Illinois, adding, "The fact that loans are allowed also makes a mockery of the whole original 'self-funding' purpose of it."
● Lehigh County, PA District Attorney: Candidate filing closed Tuesday, but Gavin Holihan appears to be the only person on the ballot to succeed his boss and fellow Republican, retiring 25-year-incumbent Jim Martin. Lehigh County supported Joe Biden 53-45, but local Democrats who wanted Holihan to run under their banner weren't able to find a backup candidate after he pledged his loyalty to the GOP. Republicans have controlled this office since 1960.
● OK Ballot: Oklahoma voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana by a 62-38 margin in a low-turnout race that Bolts Magazine notes took place on a date chosen by one of its most ardent opponents.
Supporters of what became known as SQ 820 submitted signatures with the intent to place it on the November 2022 ballot, but the campaign was delayed by various legal challenges. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who used his own State of the State speech to attack SQ 820, ultimately set it to take place between regularly-scheduled school board contests in February and April, a move that ensured that it was the only item on the ballot. Ultimately, just 25% of registered voters showed up for Tuesday's race, which was half of November's turnout.
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