The daughter of Greek immigrants, Madeline Singas often served as a translator for her parents and extended family.
She says the experience motivated her to serve as a voice for others as a criminal prosecutor for more than two decades, and spurs her now as she runs for Nassau County district attorney.
"Growing up as a first-generation American and sort of being an advocate for my family and my extended family -- always being the one to go with them whenever they needed help to get through the red tape -- I felt like I was always a voice for people, and that just continued," said Singas, a Democrat who serves as acting Nassau district attorney.
In her race against Republican Kate Murray, the Hempstead Town supervisor, Singas, 49, touts her 24-year record as a prosecutor in Nassau and Queens.
In mailings and television ads, Singas criticizes Murray for lacking criminal law experience and casts Murray as a longtime GOP official who will not aggressively pursue corruption cases because of her deep ties to local politicians.
Singas, of Manhasset, calls herself an "outsider beholden to no one."
After the arrest of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on federal corruption charges this year, Singas promised to crack down on public corruption, including county contracting abuses. In April, her office launched a review of Nassau's contracting system and issued a report recommending that the county hire an independent inspector general to vet contracts.
Singas also says she has worked to fight Long Island's growing heroin crisis, proposing state legislation to increase penalties for drug dealers. And she says she will draw on her legal experience to help the office try complex cases.
"My opponent has never been a criminal prosecutor, has never practiced criminal law," Singas said. "This is a very specific skill set that you need before you can walk into the county's top law enforcement job . . . I do not believe she has the training or the experience for a job of this level."
Murray, 53, of Levittown, stresses that she runs the nation's largest township, which has a $436 million annual budget and nearly 2,000 employees. She said Singas lacks the leadership experience to run the district attorney's office, with a $34.6 million budget and more than 370 employees. The office "needs a real firm hand, someone who has led," Murray said.
On the subject of managerial skills, Singas notes that she has run the office since former District Attorney Kathleen Rice left in January to take a seat in Congress, and that she had served as Rice's top deputy beginning in 2011.
"I feel very prepared to do the job because I've been doing it since January and I've been doing it at a high level since 2011, since Kathleen made me her second in command," Singas said.
Singas has been married for 19 years to software salesman Theo Apostolou, and is the mother of 13-year-old twins. She was born and raised in Astoria, Queens, the youngest of two daughters born to Bill and Eugenia Singas.
Neither parent spoke English when they emigrated from Greece in the late 1950s. Bill Singas worked at a bakery before saving enough money to open Singas Famous Pizza in Elmhurst, Queens, in the late 1960s -- the first in a chain of restaurants. Singas and her sister, Effie, never worked at the pizzeria because her parents insisted they focus on their studies.
Singas attended the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City's most selective public schools. She graduated from Barnard College in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in political science, and received a degree in 1991 from Fordham University School of Law.
"My parents instilled in me and my sister the notion that we can do whatever we wanted to -- that they came to this country to open doors, they came to this country to make sure we could achieve whatever goals we wanted to as long as we studied, as long as we were educated, and we were willing to work hard," Singas said. "My sister is a doctor, I'm an attorney, and now I'm sitting here as acting DA. I feel that is really my parent's dream come true and shows the American dream is alive and well."
After law school, Singas worked as an assistant district attorney in Queens, prosecuting felonies including kidnappings, murders and sexual assaults. "The moment I said 'Madeline Singas for the people' I knew I found my calling," Singas said recently at a candidates forum in Garden City.
A start in Queens
In 2000, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown tapped Singas to help form a special victims bureau to focus on domestic violence and sex crime cases.
In an email, Brown, a Democrat, said Singas "served as the Deputy Chief of our Domestic Violence Bureau, which the Department of Justice praised as a model for the nation, and during her tenure here conducted herself at all times with integrity and professionalism."
Jane Manning, a former Queens assistant district attorney who is vice president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, an advocacy group that has endorsed Singas, worked with Singas for nearly seven years in the 1990s. "She was one of the people that as younger DAs, when we didn't know what we were doing, we went to Madeline," Manning recalled. "We looked to her as an example."
In 2006, Rice hired Singas to lead the Nassau district attorney's special victims bureau. One of the bureau's initiatives was partnering with Safe Center LI, a Bethpage nonprofit that provides counseling to domestic violence and child abuse victims. Prosecutors were assigned to work with victims at the center instead of having them travel to police precincts or courthouses. The idea was to avoid "re-traumatizing" them by cutting the number of times they had to recount their experience to investigators.
Singas also won a first-degree murder conviction against Leonardo Valdez-Cruz of Westbury, who was charged with torturing and murdering his estranged girlfriend, Jo'Anna Bird, at her New Cassel apartment in March 2009.
Singas also got a murder conviction against Edgar Sanchez, who was charged with beating his girlfriend Elisabeth Parisi, 24, to death before dumping her body in Sands Point in 2005.
"Every one of my cases I feel meant so much to that person whose case it was," Singas said. "Once a citizen's life intersects with the criminal justice system it's so impactful, it so consequential."
Murray, who served as a victim's advocate in 1988 as part of a law school internship with the Suffolk University Battered Women's Project in Boston, has taken aim at Singas' domestic violence record.
A Murray television campaign ad criticizes Singas' handling of a 2006 case in which Singas asked a judge to dismiss charges against a Syosset man accused by his estranged wife of threatening her life. Investigators with the district attorney's office had determined that the woman's claims were not credible. Singas and investigators said the woman had provoked the incident in an effort to manipulate the court system to win her divorce case.
"It's shameful that Singas would blame an alleged victim, saying she provoked the abuse," Murray said.
Singas stands by her handling of the case against the man, which a judge eventually dismissed, saying a prosecutor had given improper legal instructions to the grand jury. She said her treatment of domestic violence victims over two decades speaks for itself.
"I have held the hands of women who have been abused, and raped. I've sat with families who have had their daughters murdered by batterers, so this is a subject that I know well, that I am unfortunately intimately aware of, and skilled at handling," Singas said.
"For Kate Murray to politicize that and to somehow spin the facts into I allowed an abuser to get away with something is absolutely manipulative and reckless," she said.
Taking on corruption
Singas said that as acting district attorney, she's tried to make public corruption a focus.
She launched a review of Nassau's contracting system in April after federal prosecutors charged Skelos and his son, Adam, with attempting to illegally influence the awarding of a $12 million county contract to a company Adam worked for. Dean and Adam Skelos have pleaded not guilty.
In a report in July, Singas described the county's contracting system as a "recipe for corruption" because there was no requirement for vendors to disclose criminal convictions, and no easy way to track conflicts of interest.
Singas also has launched investigations into Nassau's awarding of taxpayer funded contracts to politically connected vendors, including a $12 million debris cleanup contract to a company that contributed $2,925 to a political club run by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's top aide on the day the contract was approved.
GOP activists have criticized Singas on social media, saying the investigations represent a politically motivated effort to attract news coverage as she runs for district attorney. On Twitter, her Republican detractors question whether Singas can be impartial when she has accepted campaign endorsements from Democratic lawmakers.
Singas says she has run her office apolitically, and has instituted a policy that bars employees from contributing to her campaign and restricts their political activity to avoid any conflicts of interest.As she heads into the final days of the race, Singas is spending campaign funds on TV ads and mailers to boost her name recognition. A Newsday/News 12/Siena College Poll found that 53 percent of likely Nassau voters were unaware or had no opinion of Singas, compared with 31 percent for Murray. Singas said she is aware of the name recognition gap. But she said the poll, published Oct. 5, was conducted just before her campaign began airing television ads in which she bills herself as a seasoned prosecutor -- a jab intended to highlight Murray's lack of criminal law experience.
She also has spent nights and weekends introducing herself to voters at candidate forums and church festivals. She even stood outside the New York Islanders' opening home-game at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, in an effort to appeal to a faction of Long Island fans who blame Murray for the team leaving Nassau. Hempstead rejected a $3.8 billion development plan around Nassau Coliseum which the team said was needed to remain on Long Island. Murray has said she opposed the plan because it would have had a major impact on traffic, the water supply and the environment.
"It's true, I haven't been a public figure for that long," said Singas. "I have been quietly doing my job day in and day out for 24 years behind the scenes making sure justice is done in the counties I've served. I'm very proud of that, but now it's time to come into the spotlight and I'm prepared to do that."