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In bellwether Nassau County, Democrats run on law and order

Democrat Todd Kaminsky and Republican Anne Donnelly debate during a town hall at Newsday’s studios in Melville, New York.
Charles Lane
WSHU Public Radio
Democrat Todd Kaminsky and Republican Anne Donnelly debate during a town hall at Newsday’s studios in Melville, New York.

Toddy Kaminksy is running on a record. The Democratic candidate for district attorney in Nassau County is a former federal prosecutor who’s been a member of the state Legislature since 2015, first in the Assembly, then in 2016 as a senator, replacing the long-time state Republican figurehead, Dean Skelos.

But it’s his record on recent changes to the state’s bail laws that’s now posing a challenge as he vies for the job as top county prosecutor. And as next week’s vote approaches, Kaminsky and many other Democrats are feeling pressure to pivot away from issues like criminal justice reform, which have become a priority for more progressive members of the party since the murder of George Floyd.

In 2019, Kaminsky helped craft legislation that eliminated cash bail for many offenses and limited the ability of judges to hold people in pre-trial detention. The bill was highly contentious among members of law enforcement and their unions, and some of its provisions were scaled back last year.

Kaminsky’s Republican opponent, Anne Donnelly, has been using his ties to the legislation in a series of attacks, hammering him as being weak on crime.

“Bail reform has let dangerous people back out into the community to commit crime again,” Donnelly said during a town hall debate hosted by Newsday. “He supported and voted for the original bail law as it was written.”

In response, Kaminsky has sought to downplay his role in the legislation, while also continuing to voice support for reform among his party’s more liberal voting base. In recent interviews, he’s said his work on the bill was simply to use his experience as a prosecutor to inform the Democratic party’s progressive wing.

“People think it went too far,” he said in a recent campaign stop outside a supermarket in Hempstead. “People want to make sure that if someone is going to be violent, that they're held in and not able to go commit an act of violence”

But at another campaign event at an early voting center down the street, Kaminsky stressed he still believes criminal justice reform is important as he shook hands with a mostly Black, after-church crowd of voters.

“It’s a false choice to have to pick between whether you stand with reform or whether you stand with law enforcement,” Kaminsky said. “I stand with both.”

Suburban Democrats

The backdrop for Kaminsky’s careful dance on criminal justice reform is a county divided along many of the same political fault lines that separate the country, and election strategists are watching districts like this one as an indicator as to whether Democrats can maintain control of Congress in next year’s midterms.

In the past four presidential elections, voters in Nassau County picked Biden, Clinton, and Obama by between 51% and 53%. The county is also growing more diverse. Situated on the eastern edge of Queens, it’s home to a growing Hispanic and Asian population. And yet, the Nassau legislature has been controlled by Republicans for the last 12 years.

Faced with that electorate, Democrats in Nassau have very different platforms than their counterparts in the five boroughs. Several have openly courted endorsements from police unions, while candidates in New York City have shunned it, and advocates for police reform in the county complain they have almost no influence in the upcoming election, even from candidates who quietly support them.

“They're scared of talking about this issue that they reluctantly support because other statewide Dems are all being nailed for it,” said Jeremy Joseph, a member of advocacy group LI United to Transform Policing.

With national police reform bills stalled in Congress, Larry Levy, dean of suburban studies at Hofstra University, warned that more progressive Democrats could ultimately prevent the party from pushing through wider changes.

“If you're going to throw around terms like ‘defund the police,’ that make no sense to most voters,” he said, “You're going to put your colleagues at risk and put yourself in a position of not being able to accomplish anything, because you're going to be in the minority."

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.