Ulster County Democratic District Attorney hopeful Dave Clegg is dealing with the fallout this week after a George Soros-backed political action committee unaffiliated with his campaign produced mailers featuring him shaking hands with Ismail Shabazz, a Kingston activist and convicted weapons dealer known for his harsh criticism of police.
In an interview this week, Clegg noted that his campaign had not produced the mailer and dismissed the notion that a routine campaign handshake somehow represented an endorsement of Shabazz’s views on law enforcement.
“I had nothing to do with it,” said Clegg of the mailer. “I didn’t choose that photograph, nor would I have.”
But some in local law enforcement, most of which have endorsed Clegg’s opponent, current Chief Assistant DA Michael Kavanagh, expressed outrage over the mailer and called on politicians supporting Clegg to rescind their endorsements.
In a statement on behalf of the Mid-Hudson Association of Police Chiefs, Association President and Saugerties Police Chief Joe Sinagra wrote, “Mr. Clegg’s touting of his association with this convicted felon who advocates violence against police officers is an affront to every man and woman who serves to protect this community.”
On Monday, the union representing state troopers weighed in with their own letter condemning the photo, while a retired NYPD detective who worked the case against Shabazz pointed to the activist’s long history of hostility towards law enforcement and at least one other picture — culled from Clegg’s campaign website — showing the candidate embracing Shabazz. Raymond Nafey wrote that in a series of recorded conversations with the informant, Shabazz spoke about his desire to “physically injure” members of local law enforcement.
“A community activist, such as he was, in truly the worst sense,” wrote Nafey.
Kavanagh said it would be up to voters to decide whether the handshake with Shabazz should count against Clegg. But the career prosecutor added that he understood why members of the law enforcement community were upset by the image.
“They’re wondering why someone who wants to be the chief law enforcement officer in the county is associating with somebody who refers to cops as pigs and was recorded selling weapons while expressing the hope they’ll be used on cops,” said Kavanagh. “They’re wondering why somebody like Shabazz supports Clegg.”
Clegg, who said that he was introduced to Shabazz by a minister friend at the campaign kickoff, called the attacks on his campaign “shameful” and “purely political.”
“It is outrageous for somebody to suggest that I can’t shake somebody’s hand.”
The mailers were produced by the New York Justice and Public Safety PAC, a group funded by Soros to support candidates committed to progressive criminal justice reform. The mailers tout Clegg’s credentials as a defender of civil rights with a forward-looking vision for the district attorney’s office. Featured prominently in the mailers is a photograph of the 66-year-old litigation attorney and Methodist deacon shaking hands with Kingston resident Ismail Shabazz.
Shabazz, 64, is well known in Kingston for his work on youth and community issues. He is a past president of the Kingston chapter of the NAACP and helped start an anti-violence program aimed at city youth.
Shabazz has also been an unrelenting critic of law enforcement in Kingston and Ulster County. On social media he routinely refers to cops as “PIGS” an acronym for “Police in Gangs” and has accused individual police officers — without providing evidence — of everything from drug abuse to rape. Shabazz has also associated with radical black nationalist groups, including the New Black Panther Party. In 2014, he helped form an offshoot of the group dubbed “Black Panthers for Self Defense.”
In 2014, Shabazz’s association with those groups drew the attention of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Among Shabazz’s causes was the case of Assata Shakur. In the late ’60s and early ’70s Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army — a Black Panthers offshoot which carried out robberies, bombings and the targeted assassinations of police officers in New York City and elsewhere. In 1977 Shakur was convicted of the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster; two years later, she was freed from prison in a daring raid by fellow BLA members. She later sought asylum in Cuba, where she remains.
In 2014, Shabazz attended a rally in support of Shakur in Harlem. There, he was approached by a convicted felon turned FBI informant assigned to infiltrate the resurgent black civil rights movement that sprung up in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police say that between 2014 and 2015, Shabazz sold the informant six firearms including an illegally sawed off shotgun, an assault rifle and two pistols. Police say that audio recordings of the deal captured Shabazz discussing recruiting members of the Bloods street gang into his political organization and talking about using the weapons against police officers.
But despite the evidence, federal authorities declined to bring charges against Shabazz. Instead, in May 2015 District Attorney Holley Carnright brought state charges of criminal sale of a firearm against Shabazz. Shabazz denied advocating violence against police and claimed that he was a victim of entrapment. (Among other things, Shabazz claimed the informant showed him documents suggesting he was a federally licensed firearms dealer). Shabazz’s former attorney, civil rights litigator Michael Sussman said that his client just wanted to get the firearms off the streets of Kingston and believed they were destined for “Liberation movements” in Africa. In October 2016, Shabazz struck a plea agreement with the special prosecutor assigned to the case. Shabazz pleaded guilty to a single count of attempted criminal sale of a firearm and was sentenced to two years in state prison. Shabazz was released in October 2018.