Seeking Progressive Gains, Soros Donates to Local D.A. Campaigns

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — With much of the election energy focused on next year’s presidential election, most of the contests in New York state have stuck firmly to the all-the-politics-is-local playbook, hinging on issues like schools and crime.

Seeking Progressive Gains, Soros Donates to Local D.A. Campaigns

But one district attorney race on the banks of Lake Ontario has become an unlikely big-money referendum on traditional law-and-order prosecutors, much like similar battles in Boston, Philadelphia and Queens, New York.

The race in Monroe County pits a Republican incumbent, Sandra Doorley, against an insurgent challenger, Shani Curry Mitchell, a progressive newcomer who has drawn the attention and backing of billionaire George Soros.

Since early October, Soros has spent more than $800,000 on ads supporting Mitchell through one of his political action committees, helping to bring visibility to a candidate pledging to stop “the overprosecution of the poor” and minority groups, and restore trust between law enforcement and communities in the county.

The outside spending benefiting Mitchell, who is running on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines, has drawn a fiery rebuke from Republicans and Doorley, who accused Soros of meddling and foul play.

“George Soros doesn’t know a damn thing about me,” Doorley said. “His New York PAC doesn’t know a damn thing about me.”

Just to the southwest of Rochester, another campaign — the only legislative race in New York this November — is operating on an entirely different economic model, as a 22-year-old, Austin Morgan, is attempting to ride last year’s Democratic momentum to pull off an upset in state Senate District 57.

Morgan, who began his candidacy last winter while still an undergraduate at Cornell University, is running a shoestring campaign: His most recent filing with the State Board of Elections showed he had exactly $3,819.07 on hand.

That’s enough to pay for gas in the 2012 Ford Escape that he drives around the district, a giant chunk of the state bordered by Pennsylvania and Lake Erie.

His campaign manager, Ravo Root, is a high school friend — “We were in band together,” Morgan said — who is still in college in Potsdam, New York, some 300 miles from the district.

The seat that Morgan is trying to win is a comfortably conservative one, most recently represented by the former Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican.

Young stepped down in March after failing to oust the minority leader, Sen. John J. Flanagan of Long Island, following the party’s devastating losses in 2018. Those losses flipped Albany’s upper chamber to Democratic control for only the third time in the past 50 years.

But Republicans are seemingly not taking the seat for granted; the Republican state Senate campaign has spent $90,000 to assist their candidate, George Borrello, something Morgan sees as a sign of nerves.

If Morgan were to win, it would be a resounding upset, and perhaps reflective of how the impeachment-related developments surrounding President Donald Trump have filtered down to local races. That possibility, Republicans say, is exceedingly dim.

“George Borrello is an extraordinary public servant and we are confident he will win resoundingly on Tuesday,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Republican minority in the Senate.

The race in Monroe County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, may be a closer call. That Democratic advantage is also the case in Ulster County, in the Hudson Valley, where Soros’ PAC, the New York Justice and Public Safety Political Action Committee, has also put at least $184,000 behind David Clegg, a Democrat who is running against Michael J. Kavanagh, a Republican.

Indeed, the races in Monroe and Ulster are among the district attorney races that the Justice and Public Safety PAC has invested in, including support of the Working Families Party during Tiffany Cabán’s near miss earlier this year in Queens.

But that narrow loss did not douse Soros’ interest in local races; his PAC has contributed to five campaigns this election cycle, up and down the East Coast: In Virginia, the PAC has given $621,144.97 to the commonwealth’s attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, and $462,212.37 to the commonwealth’s attorney candidate Steve Descano. In Pennsylvania, the PAC has given $53,900 for research, polling and campaign literature to Friends of Jack Stollsteimer, another Democrat, in the Delaware County district attorney race.

Like Cabán, Mitchell has been running on a platform of criminal justice reform and more equitable prosecution, saying that too many low-level, nonviolent offenders are being put in prison in the county. And the money being spent on her behalf, she says, is a testament to that message.

“I think it’s because someone has dared to come out and run a campaign on change, on a platform that’s about seeking true justice and true safety, and that resonates,” said Mitchell, who worked under Doorley as a prosecutor in the Monroe office for several years. She added: “I had the guts to do it.”

Morgan’s pitch is decidedly more pragmatic, telling voters that they should elect a Democrat because that party is now in charge of both houses of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“Look, Cathy Young was in the majority and she delivered: That’s how she got it done,” Morgan said, sitting in his storefront campaign headquarters in Jamestown, New York. “With a Democratic majority, the only way we’re getting funding, or legislation or attention from Albany is from someone who is going to be in that Democratic caucus room.”

Indeed, Morgan is unstinting in his praise of Young; in accepting the nomination in March he called her “a titan of Albany,” and said he voted for her in 2018.

But he is unapologetic about his disdain for his opponent, Borrello, the Chautauqua County executive, accusing him of using “a great deal of vitriolic, divisive, hateful rhetoric in this campaign,” including calling Albany “the bowels of hell,” something Morgan says is an insult to the civil servants working there.

“They are beautiful hardworking good people,” he said. (Borrello said the remark was made in jest. “My opponent has nothing else to talk about,” he said, “so he has to make mountains out of molehills.”)

Morgan has a compelling personal biography: He grew up on 10 acres in the small rural town of Freedom, New York, in a “single-wide trailer on a dirt road.” His father is a mechanic and his mother is a teacher’s aide.

Last year, while still a student at Cornell, he interned in Albany with state Sen. Leroy Comrie of Queens, and discovered a niche in education and agricultural policy. While he praised Comrie as “the best example of a public servant I could think of,” Morgan is more conservative than most downstate Democrats, voicing support for gun rights, for instance, and questioning elements of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature gun-control law, the SAFE Act.

He admits he has an uphill battle — Young defeated her Democratic challenger in 2016 with 79% of the vote, and ran unopposed in 2018.

Borrello says he respects Morgan’s precocious pluck, but believes he would do a better job of cutting bipartisan deals in Albany’s often backroom bargaining sessions than the inexperienced Morgan.

“Without having a strong person in the role of state senator, so much of what we do locally is in jeopardy,” said Borrello, who was a businessman before entering public office.

Doorley, who was first elected as Democrat in 2011 before switching her party affiliation in 2015, said she did not vote for Trump in 2016, and called the Republicans “the party that I run on to be able to do my job,” saying district attorneys should be apolitical.

“I’m really running on my record and my relationship with the community,” she said, noting drops in both local jail population and overdose rates during her tenure, something she attributes to her office’s prosecution of heroin dealers in the county and prevention efforts.

The Soros connection to the race is undeniable, and one that the state Republican Party attacked, calling Soros “a radical liberal” who is “trying to infiltrate New York’s criminal justice system.”

Whitney Tymas, a senior adviser for the Justice and Public Safety PAC, said their efforts in New York and other states were nonpartisan and based solely on their interests in reforming the criminal justice system.

“What we’re really doing is leveling the playing field,” Tymas said, noting the inherent advantages of incumbency and often low voter engagement in district attorney races.

Doorley, who is the president-elect of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said she rejected criticisms of her record, but acknowledged that the onslaught of advertisements for her opponent were a challenge.

“You know what I say to my D.A.s all over the country? No one’s safe,” she said. “You don’t know why, you don’t know where, but you could be the next target.”

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