THE TWO CANDIDATES who seek the job as district attorney have each been elected to that post before, decades ago. Both men are from this county and have long records of public service. And as harsh as it may sound, neither Eugene Keeler, running on the Democratic and Working Family lines, nor Republican Paul Czajka, also on the Conservative and Independence Party lines, has much chance of using the job as Columbia County DA as a stepping stone to higher office. Each man believes that as district attorney he can make the justice system work better.
Mr. Keeler, who has also served as a public defender and is a licensed social worker, has cast himself in the role of “reform candidate.” He charges that the justice system in the county is run by a “gang” that practices “social, economic and political discrimination.” These are serious allegations, but Mr. Keeler offers only anecdotes to support his claims. Because this is a political race not a court case, the real challenge facing Mr. Keeler doesn’t depend on flimsiness of his evidence but whether his can use his exaggerations and innuendo to tarnish his opponent in the eyes of voters, which is precisely what he has tried to do.
Voters may have seen the 20-page tabloid called Columbia County Justice News, which Mr. Keeler produced as his main piece of campaign publicity. In addition to including Mr. Czajka as a member of a courthouse “gang,” Mr. Keeler has speculated that Mr. Czajka is poised to abuse his pension rights. The publication is exactly the type of political trash talk that the First Amendment of our Constitution was meant to protect. But this misguided effort has backfired, leaving Mr. Keeler’s campaign with not a shred of credibility.
Both Mr. Czajka and Mr. Keeler agree that a district attorney exercises extraordinary power. Mr. Czajka describes the person who holds that post as the top law enforcement officer in the county. When police arrest someone, it’s the district attorney who decides whether the suspect will be charged and what the charge will be. In his attempts to impugn the reputation of Mr. Czajka, who was twice-elected DA and then twice again elected County Court judge, Mr. Keeler has relied on speculation over facts. That may work in politics, but it spells disaster when lives and liberty are at stake. Mr. Keeler asserts the DA should be a role model, but this is not how role models — or district attorneys – should behave.
Mr. Czajka says he has learned from his two terms as DA and from his time on the bench that he can’t single-handedly fix the all problems of the county’s criminal justice system. But his appreciation for the limits of his abilities and of the magnitude of the challenge appears to have made him more determined than ever to make real improvement in public safety and to find ways of breaking the cycles of crime that trap criminals, victims and taxpayers.
He has shown a willingness to listen and grow, acknowledging, for instance, that he initially harbored deep skepticism about the benefits of the Drug Court program, which can help substance abusers stay out of prison and turn their lives around. Having seen the program work, he now supports it for those offenders ready to change their lives. That’s important because the district attorney determines which cases are referred to the program.
At the same time Mr. Czajka makes no apologies for his tough approach in the past toward criminals, especially drug traffickers and those who act violently. He believes that his actions as DA in pursuing those cases deterred crime in this county. He believes in deterrence and that the full force of the law has to be brought to bear on criminals worthy of what he calls their “just desserts.” But he also knows that justice is sometimes served best when a district attorney decides not to prosecute, that the job requires restraint as well as zeal.
A district attorney makes the call on crimes so ugly and disturbing that even the most graphic TV shows fail to capture the pain and destruction caused. Society needs people with the training, skill and good judgment to hold the people responsible for those crimes accountable. Paul Czajka is the candidate for district attorney in this race who is qualified to do that on your behalf and mine. Please vote for him on November 8.
Koweek for county judge
ONE OF THE TWO county judgeships is up for election this fall, with two candidates seeking the seat: current District Attorney Beth Cozzolino and Hudson City Court Judge Richard Koweek.
County Court judges hear criminal cases, and preside over Family and Surrogate courts too. They may also fill in at times in state Supreme Court, where many civil cases are tried, so they have to possess a broad knowledge of the law.
Before going further, here’s a disclosure: a few years ago our home was burglarized. Police quickly caught the person responsible and Ms. Cozzolino’s staff handled the case. I was impressed with the outreach from her office and with the result. The DA had services for crime victims and policies that seemed clear and consistent. In my position as a newspaper editor I already knew her as a likeable and capable public servant. I believe from all this that she has the temperament and experience to serve as a judge.
Richard Koweek, born and raised in Hudson, has a record of civic involvement that reads like a textbook on what’s best about Columbia County, everything from volunteer firefighter to coach for kids’ sports teams. He’s practiced many types of law — civil and criminal — and while he has less experience with felony cases than Ms. Cozzolino, just reading our Police Blotter reports each week reminds me that he sees a far greater variety of misdeeds and bad behavior in his courtroom than most other judges in this county.
It’s not surprising, then, that a panel of lawyers from the state Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for this region found Judge Koweek “Qualified” to serve as County Court judge. Judge Koweek volunteered to be interviewed by the commission, which is set up by the state court system.
What is surprising is that Ms. Cozzolino, who has been DA for 16 years, declined to say whether she went through a similar process to have her peers determine whether she is qualified. She says that the people of the county will determine her qualifications. That’s true, but those of us who are not lawyers are left to wonder how we should make that evaluation.
I’m left with my recollections of news stories over the last decade or so, a period during which I can easily recall at least three examples of cases in which the DA’s office was slow to act, leaving me questioning the judgment involved. The first case was when deputies arrested a town clerk at the request of a vindictive town supervisor, then a state trooper hauled a teenager into court for failing to return a cheerleader uniform and, most recently, a family of farmers was taken away in handcuffs for allegedly mistreating their cows.
Though charges were eventually dismissed in all these cases, they left the impression of a justice system in which, at the very least, no one effectively communicated standards or the need to exercise common sense.
It may be unfair to hold Ms. Cozzolino responsible for the mistakes of her subordinates or to critique her management style. But in the absence of an evaluation from her peers, the record is the only thing I have to go on. And the record leaves unsettling questions about her judgment, which is no small matter when choosing a judge.
Richard Koweek has demonstrated his ability to preside as a judge in a challenging courtroom. He knows the community. He has the approval of legal experts who understand what judges must know. He should be elected the next county judge.