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The Contentious Issue That’s Boosting a Republican on Long Island

When the district attorney seat in Nassau County became vacant earlier this year, Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic state senator and a former federal …

The Contentious Issue That’s Boosting a Republican on Long Island

When the district attorney seat in Nassau County became vacant earlier this year, Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic state senator and a former federal prosecutor, was widely seen as a shoo-in.

But the special election next Tuesday has become increasingly competitive, largely because Mr. Kaminsky’s Republican opponent, Anne Donnelly, has effectively framed the contest as a suburban referendum on the state’s recent laws to loosen bail restrictions.

Backed by an influx of money from the local Republican Party, Ms. Donnelly’s campaign has run a barrage of ads that incessantly attack Mr. Kaminsky for supporting the state’s bail reform laws. They falsely depict Mr. Kaminsky as the mastermind behind the 2019 legislation; highlight mug shots of violent criminals her campaign says were released as a result of the law; and urge voters to “keep Nassau safe” by voting against “‘Turn ‘Em Loose’ Todd.”

The race has become a key test of just how far Democrats can pursue left-leaning criminal justice policies before those policies return to haunt moderate members, like Mr. Kaminsky, in competitive districts with ever-crucial swing voters — even in Nassau County, which has trended Democratic in recent elections.

Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said Ms. Donnelly was a “substandard” candidate who had distorted the damage done by changes in bail laws and who mischaracterized Mr. Kaminsky’s record on the issue. But he acknowledged that the race had become competitive because of the passage of bail reform.

“My question to the far left is: What do you win when you force things too far and you end up losing good progressives who are more moderate?” said Mr. Jacobs, who is also the leader of the Democratic Party in Nassau County.

Anne Donnelly, the Republican candidate, said that “bail reform makes people less safe.”Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Bail reform is also playing a notable role in neighboring Suffolk County, where Timothy Sini, the Democratic district attorney, and Ray Tierney, the Republican challenger, have both criticized the changes to state law, saying they endanger public safety.

“We fought hard against this law,” Mr. Sini, a former police commissioner credited with taking on the MS-13 gang, said during a recent town hall.

But nowhere has the issue seemed more divisive in New York than in Nassau County, where the district attorney contest has become one of the state’s most bitterly fought races.

Mr. Kaminsky and Ms. Donnelly have dueled over crucial newspaper endorsements, spent millions in advertising and traded accusations of lying and fearmongering about violent crime in Nassau County — made up of mostly affluent white suburbs that have long been heralded as the safest in the country.

“There’s been an extensive effort by Republicans in this race to give people the perception that crime is on the rise here, and that city crime, which is out of control, is coming here,” Mr. Kaminsky said in an interview. “That has been their underlying and explicit message from Day 1.”

Ms. Donnelly, who has worked in Nassau’s district attorney office for more than 30 years, said in an interview that Nassau was “a very safe county,” but that “bail reform makes people less safe and has put a revolving door on the front of the courthouse where criminals are not held accountable.”

“I made bail reform an issue against my opponent because he owns bail reform,” she said. “He voted for it. He made sure it got passed. It’s not moderate.”

In 2019, after regaining full control of the State Legislature for the first time in years, Democrats passed a law that sharply curtailed judges’ ability to set cash bail for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies. It was an effort meant to stop the poor from being jailed before trial simply because they couldn’t afford to post bail, while those charged with the same crime who had more resources were released.

The law created significant backlash after law enforcement officials raised the specter of dangerous criminals on the loose. It then became a political flash point in Albany, pitting moderate Democrats against the progressive wing of the party in 2020, an election year. Democrats ultimately agreed to roll back certain parts of the law that year after acknowledging some limitations.

At the same time, Republicans spent millions of dollars attacking Democrats for supporting the original law, as well as the defund the police movement, running ads that were meant to stoke fears over the supposed harm to public safety from the law.

Their tactic worked, to an extent. Democrats lost two House seats in 2020, as well as two State Senate seats just outside of New York City, including on Long Island. But Democrats in the State Capitol ultimately expanded their majority in the State Senate, buoyed by record turnout from the 2020 presidential election and an aggressive mail-in vote campaign.

Now, the district attorney race has catapulted the bail law, and Mr. Kaminsky’s involvement in it, to the forefront for a second year in a row.

“This race has become a talisman for how deeply this bail reform issue cuts with voters,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant. “You can bet that if Kaminsky were to lose this race, having gone into it as such a clear favorite, that the Republicans and some of their allies will double down and run against incumbent Democrats on this issue.”

Mr. Kaminsky said Ms. Donnelly was being “dishonest” in saying that he wrote the bail law in 2019. While he voted for the state budget that included the bail law, he was not a co-sponsor of the law and was one of the Democrats who lobbied for a more restrained version of the law, in 2019, as well as when it was rolled back in 2020.

“The Republicans have basically said, ‘What’s the penalty for lying?’” Mr. Kaminsky said. “I think being honest is a central character trait of being the district attorney, which has to have the most integrity of any position in government.”

Mr. Kaminsky entered the race with an edge.

Once a reliable G.O.P. stronghold, Nassau County has turned more Democratic over the past few decades as a result of demographic changes, mirroring a national political shift of traditionally conservative suburban voters slowly moving to the left. The county has more registered Democrats than Republicans — it voted twice for Barack Obama, as well as for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 — but it still has a sizable contingent of independent voters. The previous district attorney, Madeline Singas, who resigned this year to become an associate judge on the State Court of Appeals, is a Democrat.

Mr. Kaminsky jump-started his campaign with nearly $1.5 million he raised as a State Senate candidate. Since then, he has raised an additional $1.5 million, including $20,000 from Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor.

Ms. Donnelly, in her first run for public office, has received just over $250,000 in campaign contributions, including nearly $50,000 from Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir who spent millions of dollars last year in support of candidates running against Democrats who supported bail reform. Her campaign has also received substantial financial support from the county’s Republican Party, which has transferred more than $720,000 to her campaign account.

The Daily News editorial board endorsed Mr. Kaminsky, but he suffered a blow after the editorial board of Newsday, the largest daily newspaper headquartered on Long Island, announced on Saturday it was endorsing Ms. Donnelly. The endorsement portrayed Mr. Kaminsky as an ambitious politician who was late to push back against bail reform, “perhaps to stay in the graces of New York City progressives who hold the key to success for statewide office.”

National politics could also play a role in the race if President Biden’s sagging approval ratings energize more Republicans to vote next week or dampen enthusiasm among Democrats, especially in an off-year election.

Indeed, some political observers are eyeing the Nassau race — as well as the races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia — as an early test of Democrats’ ability to protect their slim majority in Congress in next year’s midterm elections, when many of the most competitive races will play out in swing suburban districts.

“As important as this race might be for people in Nassau, it’s about a heck of a lot more than who the next chief law enforcement officer in the county will be,” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, on Long Island.

“It’s about how specific issues like bail reform and other law-and-order issues will play to the impact of the party’s national brand,” he said. “Long Island, even if it doesn’t count in national elections because it’s in a blue state, is a typical suburban swing region, so what happens here can be a bellwether for what might happen next year.”

Katie Glueck contributed reporting.

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