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Kate Murray enjoys name recognition in Nassau DA race, but lack of experience a key issue

Town of Hempstead Supervisor and candidate for district

Town of Hempstead Supervisor and candidate for district attorney Kate Murray walks Euston Road S. campaigning on Monday Oct. 12, 2015 in Garden City South. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Kate Murray had her campaign pitch ready, but during a recent morning of door-knocking at the homes of prospective voters, she never had to use it.

"I'm running for district attorney and -- " Murray, the longtime and highly visible Hempstead Town supervisor, began as she stood on a steep front porch in Garden City South.

"You've already got my vote," the homeowner shouted.

"That was easy," Murray said.Murray, a Levittown Republican, has the name recognition and popularity that makes such encounters frequent. But in this run, she faces perhaps her first true political challenge: District attorneys typically have extensive criminal law experience. Murray does not.

Her Democratic opponent, acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, who has tried criminal cases for 24 years, has made Murray's lack of similar courtroom experience her key campaign issue.

But Murray remains a formidable opponent. After 18 years in elected offices -- the last 13 leading America's largest township, with more than 750,000 residents -- Murray has built a brand as well as a career.

Her name is prominent on taxpayer-funded newsletters, on signs at town facilities and even on stickers given to residents to discourage solicitors. She has rarely won an election by less than a 3-to-1 margin.

And in her bid for district attorney, Murray, a lawyer who worked in the state attorney general's office before she was first elected to the Assembly, is highlighting her credentials as a manager and policymaker.

She is endorsed by the area's powerful police unions and has taken tough-on-crime positions, with a focus on Nassau's spike in fatal heroin overdoses.

"I'll certainly step up and have a real laser focus on separating out the drug dealers from the users in prosecutions and being very, very strong; very heavy-handed, quite frankly," Murray said in a recent interview at the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association offices in Mineola. She had just held an endorsement event outside, complete with a large billboard truck dominated by her first name -- KATE -- all in bright blue capital letters.

"With regard to possible plea deals, I'm going to take a very, very strong stance against any kind of leniency," Murray said.

She says Singas has allowed too many dealers to attend diversion treatment programs in lieu of prison. But Singas, who wants a state law to allow homicide charges for heroin dealers whose customers suffer fatal overdoses, says Murray is wrong, noting that the courts have sole discretion in choosing offenders for diversion.

"It doesn't matter if we scream and jump until we are blue in the face," Singas said in response, calling Murray "utterly unprepared for the job."

But Murray, who called Singas mistaken, says she knows how to be a district attorney.

"There's a fundamental distinction in the perception of what the district attorney is all about," Murray said. "I posit that you have to be a good manager -- you have to be the visionary for the office."

Speaking generally, legal scholars said a district attorney must first be a leader, but prosecutorial experience is critical.

"Most important is character, integrity and ability," said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor.

"But assuming the two [candidates] are equal on those scores, the better choice is the prosecutor, because the functions of a district attorney are mainly criminal law and prosecution," Rothstein said.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said attorneys other than prosecutors can be good district attorneys, including criminal defense lawyers, judges and heads of large litigation firms, as long as they have some kind of criminal law background.

"I'm not suggesting the career prosecutor is the only person who can do that job," said Levenson. "It's just that everything's different about criminal justice decisions, and issues of justice and ethics and the constitution are hard to come by from any kind of experience."

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello,77, a former assistant district attorney who has known Murray since she was a child, said she "has great administrative skills and this is clearly an administrative job.

"I think she has the qualities that a DA needs: a moral compass and a sense of justice," he said. "But I also think she has the compassion, and I think that relates back to her father."

Father was FBI agent

Murray's father, Norman, spent 27 years as an FBI agent, and with his wife, Lorraine, raised seven children in Levittown. Mondello met him in the 1960s; the two were active in the local Roman Catholic Church, St. Bernard's. Upon his retirement, Murray was a committeeman in Mondello's Levittown West Republican Club.

"He'd have his children help him on walk-throughs in the community, handing out literature," Mondello recalled. "Kate, as I remember, was very intelligent, very inquisitive and very much crazy about her father."

Murray cited the FBI work of her father, who died in 2013 at age 87, as one reason she's running for district attorney: "He'd regale us with his work. It was always about protecting neighbors, protecting communities."

Norman Murray also spent many years as an executive assistant to the supervisor of GOP-controlled Hempstead. With her dad active in the party, Kate Murray was working on political races before college, including Alfonse D'Amato's 1980 U.S. Senate bid.

Murray, who is single, has a bachelor's degree from Boston College, and a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston, where she worked in the school's advocacy program for battered women. After that, she did insurance defense work in New York and New Jersey.

In 1995, she went to work for New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco, a Republican. She served as an assistant attorney general in Manhattan, defending the state against lawsuits filed by prison inmates.

When GOP Assemb. Charles O'Shea resigned in January 1998, Mondello tapped Murray, then 35, to run for the seat.

She won with 73 percent of the vote in a February special election, winning a full term that fall. In 2001, she was elected Hempstead Town clerk.

Then, halfway through her term, in January 2003, Hempstead's GOP supervisor, Richard Guardino, resigned to take a job at Hofstra University.

Unexpected appointment

Mondello unexpectedly recommended Murray for appointment by the town board over more experienced officials. The Hempstead supervisor controls hundreds of patronage jobs as head of the county Republicans' largest power base.

"A lot of the party faithful, I can say this, were not really for it," Mondello said. "But I just felt she had the right stuff to get the job done and help the rest of the ticket, and she won with spectacular numbers."

In November 2003, Murray beat Democratic town councilwoman Dorothy Goosby by nearly 30,000 votes to secure her first elected two-year term.

Goosby, who remains on the town board, over the years has criticized Murray for announcing planned tax freezes early in election years. Overall, Goosby said she had "nothing negative to say about her," noting that Murray has worked with her to bring money to her district.

"When I ran against her, she gave me a hug and shook my hand and said we're still working together," Goosby said.

Touts large office

In the district attorney campaign, Murray touts her tenure leading a large public office. The town has a $436 million annual budget and nearly 2,000 employees, compared with the district attorney's office budget of $34.6 million and more than 370 full-time employees.

"One of the aspects of being district attorney is running a budget and figuring out where the resources are going to be," Murray said. "The Town of Hempstead is a beacon of good leadership, good management and good use of our resources."

Murray campaign signs calls her a "crime fighter" and a "tax cutter." Town budgets for 2012, 2013 and 2014 each reduced the total tax levy by an average 1 percent -- less than $10 dollars for the average homeowner.

But town taxes also rose under Murray, primarily early in her tenure and always in nonelection years. The total town tax levy, including all funds, is more than 40 percent higher than in 2003, records show.

Felix Procacci, a registered Republican who was nominated by Democrats to run against Murray in 2013, says Murray is a master at using town resources to boost her public image.

Since Murray announced her district attorney bid, residents have received several recent town mailings highlighting anti-heroin initiatives.

"She's never talked about heroin all these years, not once, and now we've gotten multiple mailers in the last three months?" Procacci said. "The perception of Kate Murray coming through these mailers is not the firsthand reality."

Town record ignored

Singas has largely ignored Murray's town record, other than to note Murray family members who have been on the town payroll. They include a brother and sister-in-law who earned more in gross pay than other employees with the same job titles, town records show.

Murray said the family members took civil service tests and had pay and promotion scales outside of her control. "What I find interesting is that while we have this heroin scourge . . . my opponent is talking about civil service matters," she said.

On social media, Singas also has tried to woo New York Islanders fans who blame Murray for the team's move from Nassau Coliseum to Brooklyn.

Murray opposed team owner Charles Wang's $3.8 billion Lighthouse project with 8.8 million square feet of retail and housing surrounding a rebuilt arena. Since 2006, Wang had sought town approval for the plan. After a final attempt at just renovating the arena with public funds was voted down, Wang said in 2012 that he was moving the Islanders from the Coliseum to Barclays Center.

Murray said she opposed Wang's larger plans due to environmental and traffic concerns. "It literally wasn't sustainable and there was no compromising" with Wang, she said.

Mondello said criticism over such issues has had little effect on Murray's overall popularity.

"No matter who [the critics] are, they have not been able to turn the tide with her," he said.

Moreover, Murray over the years has passed up few opportunities to tout her accomplishments, and boost her brand.

She typically holds town photo ops several times a week. Over the years, these have included presenting a giant spatula to a celebrity chef and riding a payloader to demolish a municipal building.

Now, Murray says she is ready for a countywide stage.

"Part of my passion in running is to continue my service to people on a bigger scale," she said. "Being DA, I'd get a chance and a challenge to protect people in a different way."

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