Sixteen years ago, David Soares upended his former boss in the decisive Democratic primary for Albany County District Attorney. Now, Soares himself is facing a challenge from a former attorney in his office.
Back in February, a former Albany County assistant district attorney tossed his hat in the ring. Matt Toporowski contends four terms of Soares' policy of "overprosecute and overpunish" has put the community in crisis.
Toporowski cites the statistic that Albany County has a 50% higher rate of incarceration than the rest of the state, claiming Soares is "still fighting a failed war on drugs."
"Incarcerating nonviolent offenders at the same rate as violent offenders. It's just their approach here. It was an apporach I saw in that office when I work there and ultimately led me to resign from that office. I think that the true mark of success of a DA's office is having the community's trust.
And if you're focused simply on punishing, conviction and incarcerating people, you know, I think you're you lose that community's trust. You need to really be focusing on, how are you helping people, how are you helping the community at large."
Toporowski feels he can deal the community a fairer hand when it comes to criminal justice.
"So if you're prosecuting pettty theft, petty shoplifting, talking about theft below a hundred bucks. I'm talking about people stealing what they need to live and survive. What you're prosecuting there, what your criminalizing, is really poverty. And so if you're saying that you're going to decline to prosecute those crimes, and I am saying that, I'm saying that we would be treating, you know, substance abuse, mental health issues and really people don't have the means they need to survive that we are helping them with services and not just saddling them with misdemeanor convictions, jail or probation. That's just going to exacerbate the problem. So it's certainly not giving them a pass. You're still seeking accountability from these people, potentially with some restitution or something like that. But you are really diverting them to service or treatment or resources that they need, again, so that they don't re-enter the criminal justice system, because the problems just persist. You want to try and solve and address these issues up front."
In 2004, Citizen Action backed Soares as an "insurgent candidate" who "won against the odds." The group also endorsed him in 2012. Toporowski contends once Soares established himself in office, he stopped communicating with those who supported him early on, effectively becoming part of the system that he had presented himself as trying to change.
"My plan and, I'm very proud to have the Working FamiliesParty endorsement, Citizen Action endorsement, and endorsement by the Albany County Young Democrats at this point. And again, it's about accountability. And what you're talking about accountability is about transparency. And so that means having a website that has plenty of data on how we are handling cases, how we are resolving cases, and making reports publicly available to the public, so they can critique when they need to, and you know what, if they critique DA's office and the DA's office repsonds to that critique. That's how you keep that dialogue, that relationship going, that accountability going, and that's how you stay up-to-date on important criminal justice reforms. Here Soares opposed the criminal justice reforms of 2019. He opposed the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. He's a named plaintiff sued to block a commission that was passed full bipartisan support by this legislator to act as a watchdog over prosecutors."
Toporowski worked under Soares as an assistant DA from 2013 to 2015. He is 34, the same age Soares was when first elected. Toporowski, who attended the College of St. Rose and New York Law School, has worked as a litigator and trial attorney with the Wagoner Firm, PLLC.
He says he'll being his commitment to community service to the DA's office, if elected.
"Being a partner with community leaders here in the community, building relationships with them, so they always feel comfortable speaking with me about a host of issues, and that they know when they come to my office the door is always open, or I'm always going to answer the phone. And better yet, I plan to go out and meet with these community leaders regularly, have my assistants go out to the community at neighborhood meetings. Make sure they're there at all the different neighborhoods in the city of Albany and in our suburban towns, so that they feel heard, they feel updated on cases."
Toporowski sees several issues that need immediate public airing, including racial disparities in convictions and finding case resolutions that meet the needs of both victims and accused, so he is pushing for a debate with Soares .
"I'd like to debate as soon as possible, in the parameters for this debate for me, I will debate whatever terms that we can come to. I think for the public's sake and for the voter's sake it should be an in-person debate between me and Soares on the stage, and at least streamed or televised to the voters. I think they deserve it. There's been an open public debate for district attorney in every contested Democratic primary for this office. It's even more important that we have when this year, since we can't have contact with voters directly, and I think they deserve much more from us than our slogans, signs, mailers and taxicab stickers. And so I'm willing to debate Source by any means necessary, sooner the better."
The primary is June 23. All eligible voters are being mailed ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic.