Staten Island DA Race Boils Down to What a District Attorney Should Be

Do voters want Michael McMahon, experience in civics, or Joan Illuzzi, experienced in law enforcement, to lead their district attorney's office?

Joan Illuzzi and Michael McMahon, who are running for Staten Island district attorney, during a NY1/Staten Island Advance debate. (Screengrab: NY1)
Joan Illuzzi and Michael McMahon, who are running for Staten Island district attorney, during a NY1/Staten Island Advance debate. (Screengrab: NY1)

For all the questions facing the next district attorney of Staten Island—how to stem a heroin epidemic and surging domestic violence, how to unite police and community after a grand jury last year opted not to indict a white police officer in an unarmed black man’s death—the question that seems to be deciding who will get the job is a simple, but philosophical one.

Just what should a district attorney’s role be?

The two candidates, Democrat Michael McMahon, a former congressman and city councilman, and Republican Joan Illuzzi, a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, have differed only marginally on many issues, but widely on just what a district attorney should be—setting up a showdown between the politician and prosecutor, with Mr. McMahon claiming Ms. Illuzzi has no civic experience and Ms. Illuzzi claiming Mr. McMahon has no law enforcement chops.

“I’m going to be a hands-on DA, and I’m going to weigh in and discuss the important cases and investigations and participate in the day-to-day operation of that office, because I know how it’s done, know what has to be done,” Ms. Illuzzi said in an interview in the kitchen of a Staten Island Elks Club lodge, where her campaign had just hosted a women for Illuzzi rally. “Can you be the captain of the ship if you’ve never been sailing? I can’t come up with enough analogies about this: I love my dentist, my dentist is great, but I don’t want her performing heart surgery. Twenty-seven years ago, I chose law enforcement. My opponent didn’t. So when you’re talking about being the chief law enforcement person on the Island, you want somebody who has law enforcement experience.”

But Mr. McMahon argues there’s a reason why the vast majority of the city’s law enforcement unions have backed him—because he better understands the role of what he repeatedly called the “modern district attorney”—someone to lead the office and bring home funding, which he has argued Ms. Illuzzi will be unable to do.

“Those people in law enforcement understand that these campaign slogans are not what the office of district attorney is about,” Mr. McMahon said over a late breakfast at Karl’s Klipper in St. George on Staten Island, after he held a press conference nearby about domestic violence. “The modern district attorney is somebody who leads the office, who establishes the priorities and the policies of the office, who procures the budget for the office, and who is ultimately—and this is very important—who is the conscience of the office. And that comes down to as much about integrity and character as it does connection to the district that elects you to be its district attorney.”

Staten Island is well-known as the city’s most conservative borough. At the women’s rally for Ms. Illuzzi, three elected officials introduced her—two of them men—and focused their remarks largely on tearing into Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose policies they argued made the city less safe, requiring Ms. Illuzzi’s leadership. The mayor remains deeply unpopular on the island. When one speaker referenced Ms. Mark-Viverito, a woman in the audience screamed out: “Send her back to Puerto Rico!”

But despite the borough’s Republican reputation, the conventional wisdom was that Mr. McMahon had all the advantages in the race. He’s a moderate Democrat who represented the more diverse and left-leaning North Shore, but who was also able to win Island-wide when he ran for Congress in 2008, a seat he lost in the Tea Party wave two years later. Ms. Illuzzi is an unknown in the world of Staten Island politics, and waded into a party filled with in-fighting. Mr. McMahon has vastly out-raised her, and has mustered the support of unions representing cops, firefighters, and correction officers, many of whom call Staten Island home.

And yet, going into the election it is Ms. Illuzzi who has all the momentum. She has netted endorsements from the Daily News, the New York Post, and the hometown broadsheet, the Staten Island Advance. She will appear on the Republican and Conservative lines—after wresting away the Conservative line from Mr. McMahon in a hard-fought primary she forced through an opportunity-to-ballot campaign.

“I was extremely happy about it—I wasn’t so surprised, because I have been going out to people and knocking on their doors for oh, a month and a half, I think was doing that,” she said of the primary. “And I have been listening to them and they have been listening to me.”

It wouldn’t be the first district attorney’s race to come down to a politician versus prosecutor narrative—on Staten Island or elsewhere. Guy Molinari, the former borough president and congressman, was knocked as a career pol when he ran unsuccessfully for district attorney, as was former-DA and now-Congressman Daniel Donovan, though he had served some time in the Manhattan DA’s office before moving into the political world.

“There are national examples of success for each, more a matter of voter taste than anything else,” Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island, told the Observer in an email. “The job combines community outreach and management of lawyers. The key I think is an assessment about the ability of a candidate to pick up what they may be weak at. The management of lawyers piece is something where you can lean on a strong executive ADA or chiefs, the political part of the job less so because it is the public presentation of self.”

Joan Illuzzi at a "Women for Joan" rally on Staten Island. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)
Joan Illuzzi at a “Women for Joan” rally on Staten Island. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

On the trail, Ms. Illuzzi emphasizes her experience—even in cases the other side has tried to point to as failures, like her decision not to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or the hung jury in the Etan Patz case.

“The luxury of the prosecutor has always been and will be the fact that we don’t get paid by arrest, indictment, or conviction—we get paid to do what’s right, every single day, and I have a stellar reputation for doing just that,” she said. “So whether it’s to dismiss a high-profile case which looks on the outside easy to prove, or to go forward on a very, very difficult case which looks on the outside as if it’s impossible to prove—when it’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”

Mr. McMahon, meanwhile, emphasizes his work as an elected official—noting his experience goes all the way back to his days on civic associations. He argued his resume is “quite full” while Ms. Illuzzi “really has no connection to the community.” The DA will have to work within government to get funding—something he said he’d done when he brought home $300 million in Congress for a massive project to rebuild the Staten Island Expressway and for years in the City Council.

“My point is that when it comes to understanding government, how to get those resources, I think I know how to do that and I think I’ll be more effective than, certainly my opponent, who doesn’t even recognize the need to do that and disputes my figures and disputes whether Staten Island is entitled to its fair share or not philosophically,” Mr. McMahon said.

Mr. McMahon has been arguing that Staten Island ought to share in some of the wealth that is raked in by asset forfeiture in other jurisdictions—this year Manhattan saw a huge windfall as a result of cases against bank BNP Paribas—and should have a bigger budget.

Ms. Illuzzi said she is simply a “pragmatic person” and noted every DA will go after whatever funding he or she can find. But Mr. McMahon’s stature as a Democrat won’t make him any more or less likely to bring home more cash from City Hall, she said.

“The other four DAs are also Democrats,” she said. “They don’t get any more or less tax levy because they have some sort of innate or supernatural skill to get funds filtered into their borough.”

One thing both candidates talk about on the trail is heroin, the use of which has soared on Staten Island in the wake of an opioid pill crisis—heroin is cheaper and offers a similar, if more dangerous, high.

“We need to make sure that we take the investigation into heroin to the source of where the heroin is being manufactured and packaged and intelligence needs to be gathered on who is transporting this poison to our island,” Ms. Illuzzi said. “We need to put out of business these entrenched drug dealers who are making the money out of the blood of our community.”

She added: “Anybody who can come here and tell you this is an easy fix, I got this, is delusional.”

Mr. McMahon, meanwhile, said supply is only half the problem.

“My opponent talks really about going after the supply, and yes, but that’s only half of the equation—we have to go after the demand. We have to provide treatment for those who find themselves in throes of drug addiction, and here’s not enough treatment on Staten Island, every expert says that, and prevention, too, is really lacking on Staten Island.”

He added: “Anyone who says we don’t need to do more is a crackpot.”

Former congressman Michael McMahon at a press conference on Staten Island. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)
Former congressman Michael McMahon at a press conference on Staten Island. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

One issue that hasn’t come up too often in the race is perhaps the most obvious one. The district attorney’s office on Staten Island became the focus of national attention after a special grand jury convened by former DA Daniel Donovan, now a congressman, opted not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man Mr. Pantaleo was trying to arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The decision led to protests and anger at the secrecy surrounding grand jury proceedings, and has led to tensions between the DA’s office and communities of color.

Both candidates have signaled they’d be open to some more transparency surrounding those proceedings—Ms. Illuzzi said she’s considering the option of using a grand jury report, already allowed for in the law, to give “the community a modicum of transparency which they very much desire.”

Mr. McMahon said the district attorney’s office went “radio silent” after the decision, which “fueled the mistrust.” He said people misunderstood grand jury law, which can’t be changed in the middle of a case or because people don’t like the outcome. “I would certainly work with the state DAs association and the legislature to bring a more modern level of transparency to to the process.”

Mr. Flanagan—who noted that whomever wins the seat will likely hold it unless their office bungles a major cases—noted how rarely the two brought up the Garner on the trail.

“The pol versus prosecutor dimension means little; the most interesting thing is that which unites them — how little they have to say about the [Garner] case,” he wrote, noting it was “good politics, not profiles in courage.”

For Mr. McMahon, the election is a chance at redemption. It’s also likely his last shot—to lose a second Island-wide election would likely end his political career. For Ms. Illuzzi, the race has been a rollicking introduction to campaigning for someone used to being judged on her professional resume alone. It helps Mr. McMahon that the office is not particularly political—his votes on healthcare or property taxes are less relevant. It helps Ms. Illuzzi, too, since it allows her to run as a qualified outsider.

Ms. Illuzzi has the demographic advantage, Mr. Flanagan noted with older Republican voters more likely to turn out. Mr. McMahon has the name recognition.

“Prediction too close to call, maybe each side scraping for votes for a day or two before it is decided,” Mr. Flanagan wrote.

But for a race to lead a relatively non-political office, the campaign has been a tough one. Mr. McMahon has attacked Ms. Illuzzi for her record of not voting in several elections for district attorney, owing back taxes, and twice trying to sue the city while she worked for the city. When Ms. Illuzzi dropped her married name, Orbon (she had hyphenated before), she was knocked for trying to appeal to the borough’s Italian population, and Mr. McMahon’s supporters and his campaign spokespeople have often referred to her as Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon in quotes to the press. Ms. Illuzzi has slammed Mr. McMahon as a career politician and for raising property taxes after the September 11 terrorist attacks—a vote that helped end his career in Congress when yellow signs saying Mr. McMahon raised taxes popped up all over Staten Island in 2010.

This year, there are two sets of yellow signs popping up around the borough, as the Advance reported last week. One features a picture of Mr. McMahon and says: “McMahon raised property taxes 18.5 percent and cut the district attorney’s budget. Now he says he would do it all over again.”

Another says: “Illuzzi: doesn’t pay her taxes, doesn’t vote, doesn’t deserve to be district attorney.”

Ms. Illuzzi argued her 27-year career as an assistant district attorney—heading the hate crimes unit, being handed the biggest cases—speaks for itself. “You can’t attack my experience, you can’t attack my reputation. So the personal attacks, to me, are a cheap blow,” Ms. Illuzzi said. “I also speak of some of my opponents disqualifications to do this job, but I only speak about his professional decisions.”

Mr. McMahon, unsurprisingly, doesn’t see it that way. He said Ms. Illuzzi has “politicized” the campaign by associating him with other politicians (namely, the unpopular mayor). He said Ms. Illuzzi’s voting record and lawsuits are fair game, “in defense of attacks that are launched at us.”

“The voters should consider it, because they don’t know her at all—and the only things we do know is her claim about her record, which has not been validated by anyone, or the things we’ve read about in the newspaper about her voting records or the taxes or the lawsuits,” he said. “What other information do the people have?”

The election is Tuesday.


Staten Island DA Race Boils Down to What a District Attorney Should Be