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Toporowski Hoping Absentee Ballots Will Turn Albany County DA Race

Matt Toporowski
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Matt Toporowski

Trailing in early unofficial results, Albany County District Attorney candidate Matt Toporowski says it's way too early to call the race. Speaking with WAMC News around midday Wednesday, Toporowski says thousands of mail-in ballots must be counted to clarify the state of the race. He also said he will not proceed to November's general election if he loses the Democratic primary.

Matt, what is the state of the race from your point of view right now?

From our point of our point of view, you know, it's reflection that we ran a very strong campaign, you know, over 6,000 people voted for me, or just about 1,100 or so votes behind. And there's still 28,000 ballots out there. So, you know, at this point, we still believe that we're in this race, and that these absentees will come in and we'll start to see a reflection of the strong message we brought to the race and just kind of get more of a sense of where we're at but I think from a get go here at the polls, you know, we won a few election districts and we got to wait to see where these absentees fall.

So you're nowhere close to conceding the race at this point?

No way. I mean, not at all, you know, you got to remember also all these voters, I mean, all these people that sent absentees and you know, did the application process, we gotta get every vote counted here, we owe it to them to get a full result here. And right now we're far from it. I mean, 28,000 are out there, and we've only had maybe what was it? Just 15,000 or so come in, 17,000? So the majority of the ballots are still out there.

There's a conventional wisdom that mostly absentee ballots hew to what we see in in person voting, you know, in past elections, at least. So how do you make up the difference here?

Well, I've heard that you know, and that may be a true generally speaking, but I think we have to remember the political climate that we're in and that the winds of change have been blowing here very strongly in the last few months, and certainly during the time period where people were sending in their absentee ballots, and we've talked to a few other campaigns that have had some absentee balloting down in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, and sort of a rural slash city area similar to Albany. And what we heard is that the absentees were favoring the challenger down there, and in a race similar to ours, a challenger actually won on the absentee ballots. And from what I've heard, when Chesa Boudin ran in San Francisco, he was also down at the polls and then the absentees came in and they put them over the top and he won that day's race there. So, you know, we're definitely still hopeful and looking forward to see where these ballots come in. But we also have other anecdotal stories where they favorite challengers.

Since you brought his name up. He's a very interesting district attorney. His parents were famously in the Weather Underground and served jail time. He's come in with a lot of reforms in San Francisco, would you say that he's a model for you should you become the next DA in Albany?

I think a lot of the changes he's put in place in his office, I've shown to be effective on the stats on the data that there have been able to reduce crime there, make people more safe by again, focusing on some of these root causes, root drivers of crime, substance abuse, mental health issues. I mean, he helped get people out of the jails, the local jails there early during the pandemic, which again, saved a bunch of lives and crime did not go up. And so there's certainly many policies that he's put in place that have been proven to be effective at keeping people safe and having strong communities. So you know, I’ve certainly been looking to see what he's accomplished there, and if elected, hope to put a lot of same progressive policies in place here.

You know, it's a political position you're running for. How much attention did your campaign put on getting the vote out in absentee ballots knowing that some people would be voting in early voting, some people would be doing day off, and then many more would be voting by mail for the first time?

Well, you know, like any campaign, we focused on that voter contact. And so what we did was just build a very strong calling program and texting program, and we're able to energize those callers. A lot of them were young people from other campaigns. Some were from the Warren campaign, some were actually down in Brooklyn, but we're still making calls up here. And so we had a very strong voter contact program, and we just kept blasting through these lists of absentee voters, permanent absentees, people who had requested their ballots. I mean, we were getting daily updates from the BOE on the names of the people who had requested and we started calling them so you know, again, that's what we got to wait to see these ballots come in because we put such a hard effort into reaching these voters and we got a lot of good responses on the on the phones we kept hearing this: It’s time for a change, I'm ready for change.

If you are able to defeat David Soares and then win the general election, and we should say in Albany, oftentimes November's general election is really just a perfunctory election because there's such overwhelming Democratic enrollment in the city, and in the county, for that matter. If you are able to go in and change that office, how confident are you that you'll be received well by people who've been working for DA Soares for the last generation?

Well, look, I know that there's a lot of people there that are committed to public service. And what I plan to do if I win is come in, speak with these people and let them know, you know, if you want to be here, you're going to have a place here. My vision is definitely different from where it's been. And I'm hoping you will join me in this effort. In fact, I'm going to need you to accomplish this and so I hope that positive approach, a different approach to criminal justice, one that's not just focused on punishment, over policing, calling for more police, as the DA is now doing, that that'll resonate with some of these prosecutors there. Maybe some of the younger prosecutors, they're definitely a shift in leadership there. But I'm confident that I mean, I know some of these lawyers, we've worked together in the past and I've never had a bad relationship with any lawyer in this legal community. We have a great legal community in Albany County, really the Capital Region. And so, you know, I'm confident that I don't tend to go in there lopping off heads, I tend to go in and asking people to join me certainly get a change in leadership and bringing some more lawyers of color back onto the staff, diversifying the leadership and the lawyers making decisions on the frontlines.

Matt, you have the backing of the Working Families Party in this race. If you lose the Democratic primary to David Soares when all the votes are counted, would you continue on to the general?

No, I think at this point, I'm respecting the democratic process and the nomination. And I want to support, you know, whoever goes forward, any Democrat here that goes forward to the general. I think that I made that clear, you know, when I was at the Democratic Convention locally, I do respect that process. So I don't intend to go forward on the Working Families line, I'm pushing to win this, this nomination here.

What did you learn about, you know, the needs of this community, the needs of the county as you were campaigning over the last few months?

I'll tell you, honestly, I've met with so many people over the course of this campaign. And the common theme, the common thread, I keep getting back from people across the board, elected officials, community leaders, fellows in the criminal justice system, other professionals in there is that they don't have a real relationship with the DA’s office. It's all window dressing. There's no returning of phone calls or responding to letters written. There's a real lack of relationships. And I think this is reflected in the in the surge, the recent gun violence in the city of Albany, because the DA’s approach now my opponent, he just says, let's send more police in. And the reality is we know, we know that a community based approach to serious crime is more effective. It's proven. And in fact, after a lot of this initial violence, you heard elected leaders that that know that to be true, like the police chief, Mayor Sheehan calling on the community, we need your help, we need your help. So I've been building the community relationships throughout this campaign. And what has been so startling to me is that there's literally no relationship with this DA’s office. In fact, there's a real lack of trust, as illustrated by Dr. Alice Green’s report on structural racism, which the DA ignored. And so this is an elected official that doesn't want to be accountable to people but doesn't want to answer to the people. And that's a real problem.

On a human level, is it torture right now waiting for these absentee ballots? I mean, normally, by Tuesday night we know you either won or you lost.

For me, this is a moment of pride. I mean, I gave this campaign everything I had I put it all on the line every day for months and I just am sitting back and reflecting on you know, the national endorsements we got, the local endorsements from not just Mayor Sheehan but from county legislator Carolyn McLaughlin, Assemblymember Phil Steck, Councilmember Alfredo Balarin, Judy Doesschate. And then you know, all these national endorsements as well, Bernie, Zephyr, Cynthia Nixon, and then the organizational support. Albany County Young Democrats, The Working Families Party, like you mentioned, Better Prosecutors PAC. And the fact that we raised over $125,000 in this race as a first time candidate, mid a worldwide global pandemic and that people are voting for change, that we brought a strong message, and that we've always been on the issues in this race. We didn't launch political attacks. We didn't. You know, lob these last minute attempts to throw voters off the issues. We stayed on the issues. I ran a good clean campaign, and I'm just looking back on, you know how many people we've touched, how many people support the campaign, and win or lose, win or lose, Ian, I know that many of the people that have supported this campaign, either on it or voted for it, they're going to go forward in their own way, in their own way, in their own communities, and always be active in criminal justice reform. And to me, that's a win.

Last thing. Soares in our interview suggested that you were untrustworthy, that you hadn't told the truth about how you exited his office in a series of articles that was written by the Times Union. What was your reaction to that?

You know, again, I think it's a political attack because the reality is, they weren't happy with my performance there and I wasn't happy with how they want to handle cases there. It was a fundamental disagreement that they over prosecute and over punish, that's what they recommended to me to do in meetings with supervisors. And it's reflected in the Vera Institute's data. We've had a high incarceration rate under Soares and stayed up there. And so I left. They said you should think about resigning. I said, okay, I'll resign and I left. So I don't think that was a me not telling the truth. In fact, what I saw it was as the DA’s office really abusing their power, saying we can't talk about personal matters, but then doing it and not only the DA himself doing it, but then sending out employees to do it, which is to me, there's some campaign issues with that. He's having employees campaign, they're coming out and saying stuff, that's a real issue. And so when you have someone who's an elected position, the most powerful position that in the criminal justice system, they could take your freedom, abusing the power in this way to win an election, people should be concerned with that.

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