Former DAs Gene Keeler and Paul Czajka run for that post again
HUDSON – Both once served as Columbia County district attorney; both were involved in high-profile cases during their terms; both men have held positions in the county court system since leaving the DA’s job.
Now Paul Czajka, a Republican with the endorsement of the Conservative and Independence parties, and Eugene Keeler, a Democrat also endorsed by the Working Families Party are running against each other in the race for district attorney. And despite the superficial similarities between their careers, they differ sharply on how they would approach the task of being the county’s next top prosecutor.
The contest between the two men evolved after Mr. Czajka unexpectedly resigned his post as county judge early this year and announced that he would run for DA. The incumbent, Beth Cozzolino, had not made her intentions known publically at that time, though she has since launched a campaign for county judge, seeking election to the seat vacated by Mr. Czajka (pronounced “CHY kuh”).
Mr. Keeler, who ran unsuccessfully against Ms. Cozzolino four years ago, announced his candidacy last winter.
Over the summer Mr. Keeler, who is also a former public defender and is the “conflict defender” in county court, produced a tabloid newsprint brochure he calls Columbia County Justice News, which contains material critical of Mr. Czajka and Ms. Cozzolino. Last week, Mr. Czajka’s campaign responded with a newspaper advertisement that took aim at Mr. Keeler’s claims. But in separate interviews with the candidates over the last two weeks, each man talked very little about the campaign, focusing instead on what he would do if elected and how he views the office. The reports on those interviews are presented here in the order in which the interviews occurred.
Mr. Keeler, 61, lives in Greenport. He was raised in Hudson. He holds both a law degree and a master’s degree in social welfare.
Mr. Keeler describes himself as “the reform candidate,” saying that he advocates “significant changes” in the county’s criminal justice system. He has also said that the county system lacks “social justice,” and he said in the interview that the system is “closed” and “abusive,” accusing his opponent of having an “abusive personality” as a judge.
If elected DA, Mr. Keeler said he would introduce a new managerial style, one that uses a “team approach,” with input from officials from all aspects of the justice system, including attorneys for defendants and social services and probation agencies.
He also said he would adopt an “open file policy,” allowing all parties to see all materials pertaining to a defendant’s case, although, when questioned, he said he would exclude certain records, including information that might identify confidential informants.
“If you have a good case there’s nothing wrong with having an open policy,” Mr. Keeler said.
He said justice under his administration would be “community based,” adding, “I don’t have a monopoly on justice.” He said that a more appropriate resolution of legal issues can be achieved if the DA hears many points of view.
“I can hang anybody, but you don’t want to elect somebody who would take joy in doing that,” he said.
He said his top priority would be “looking for the anti-social personality” and keeping the public safe from those types of people. He said it was necessary to “diagnose the person first” and then make a determination by applying three tests: Looking at the facts; looking at the law; looking at “the interests of justice.”
Of violent, antisocial offenders who cannot be cured, he said, “The DA should spend time and energy to go after those people.”
His next priority would be to help the victims and then to intervene in the life of the criminal so that person does not become a repeat offender.
He said that because the DA is the gatekeeper for the Drug Court program, he would seek to increase the use of that approach, which seeks to rehabilitate substance abusers rather than incarcerate them.
“We have to manage justice,” said Mr. Keeler.
Mr. Czajka, 57, was born and raised in Livingston and currently lives there. He said he had given up his seat on the bench — he was in his second 10-year term — because he believes that the district attorney “has the ability to do a substantial amount of good” for people as the top law enforcement official in the county.
He was first elected DA in 1987 when he was 33 years old. Looking back on that time, he said, “There was a lot of conflict among the players in the court system” and he felt he could change that quickly. “I was going to fix everything,” he said. He now sees his youthful goals as unrealistic in light of his experience as a prosecutor and judge. He said he’s learned how important it is “to look at the whole picture in the whole system.”
Responding to a question about Mr. Keeler’s pledge to maintain open files on criminal cases, Mr. Czajka said that the promise has “little meaning” because state law requires prosecutors to share their files with defendants, and he said it has been his practice to make that information available. “I’ve always erred on the side of disclosure,” he said.
He said that in determining how to handle a case, “the more information the better,” adding that it would be “irresponsible to close the door on any legitimate information from any legitimate source.”
He said he was very skeptical about the drug court program when it was introduced and when the state transferred all Drug Court cases to Judge Jonathan Nichols, the other county judge. But since then, Mr. Czajka said, “Judge Nichols’ work has proved me wrong,” and he now sees great value in the program, though “clearly it’s not for everyone,” he said. Mr. Czajka said it is not an option for violent offenders and is effective only for those defendants who “want to engage in rehabilitation.”
As for the overall principles that would guide him as district attorney, Mr. Czajka listed his goals as: rehabilitation, specific deterrence of criminal behavior, general deterrence, and “just desserts,” which he summed up as a situation where a “defendant deserves to be punished.” As he finished his list he said, “obviously, the goal is rehabilitation.
He said that if elected he would resume his old practice of informing news media of the status of all prosecutions and would post that information online to keep the public informed.
He said he expected to lead by example, be a hands-on administrator and make the District Attorney’s Office “responsive to the people of the county.” He said that the DA has to “take charge” of the decisions in his office and can’t rely on reaching consensus in every case: “He cannot try to make everybody happy,” Mr. Czajka said.