Although Greg Lasak is a former chief of homicide in the Queens DA’s office and then spent the last 15 years as a judge presiding over the office’s most high-profile cases, Melinda Katz is the preferred candidate of acting DA John Ryan and his top deputy, James Quinn.
Such is the recurring rumor that I’ve heard from several of the campaigns over the past five months.
The story goes that given the late DA Richard Brown’s declining health, Ryan and Quinn (at the time number two and number three in the office) went to Katz last summer and asked her to run. It was no secret that Lasak wanted the job and, in late August, he stepped down from the bench in order to run.
Given that Lasak, Ryan and Quinn had essentially worked together throughout the Brown regime, the question is why the brass wanted Katz. Rather than ideology or disputes over the handling of cases, the feud appears to have stemmed from a mundane internal power struggle years earlier in which Quinn prevailed, Ryan took his side and Lasak left the office to become a judge.
Given that Katz is term-limited and cannot run again for borough president in 2021, she may have seemed like an ideal choice in the eyes of Ryan and Quinn. Katz, who had won twice in borough-wide races, was on good terms with then-party boss Joe Crowley, and she is a prolific fundraiser. Perhaps most important to Ryan and Quinn was her lack of criminal court experience, since that would ensure their continued influence in a Katz administration.
In terms of ideology, both men are vituperative reactionaries. The acting DA recently went ballistic over an off-hand comment made by a Tiffany Cabán campaign volunteer about the late DA Brown that according to Ryan “besmirch[ed] the memory of a great man.” Quinn, meanwhile, is best known for his attack on Kalief Browder. In short, very little will change in the office if Katz wins.
That game plan, however, is starting to look like a flop.
Even though the new Queens Democratic Party boss, Congressman Greg Meeks, endorsed Katz, he doesn’t appear to be working very hard for her. Meeks and Lasak were trial partners in the DA’s office in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Daily News endorsed Lasak — quite a helpful development to his campaign — and slammed Katz while doing so for having “zero experience in criminal law.” Oddly, the News claimed that Lasak has been part of a “broader awakening,” a realization that the criminal justice system has had a “disproportionately harsh effect on blacks and Latinos.” At an April DA forum in Jackson Heights, Lasak scoffed at that notion.
At another forum in Jamaica last month, Lasak also explained his top-down managerial style. “Meetings? I hate meetings — they’re a waste of time,” he said. “I’ll let everyone know to get with the program or get out.” It’s hard to see much change occurring without meetings to monitor progress.
As suggested by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s endorsement, Cabán now appears to be the front-runner, and many of the candidates are likely to attack her at the NY1 debate tonight. The News editorial backing Lasak previewed one line of questioning. Cabán “calls for shuttering Rikers Island without building new borough-based jails to house up to 5,000 pretrial detainees,” write the editorial board. “What?”
Sources working with the Cabán campaign say that rather than new jails, her plan is to renovate existing facilities such as the currently shuttered Kew Gardens jail. Instead of the massive new jail proposed by the de Blasio administration, which would reach nearly 30 stories and include roughly 1,500 beds, Caban envisions a state-of-the-art facility about one-third of that size. Until that’s completed, defendants accused of violent crimes would continue to go to Rikers.
Finally, one more rumor to report. Although Betty Lugo, a non-factor in the race, has spoken about running on the Republican line in the fall, Lasak would make a far stronger challenger. To call a contest between Cabán and Lasak a study in contrasts is an understatement.
Photo: Melinda Katz. Credit: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz (DB).