Ulster DA’s race sets experience against a new approach

Mike Kavanagh and Dave Clegg.

Democrat Dave Clegg and Republican Mike Kavanagh, seeking the post of Ulster County district attorney at Nov. 5’s election, offer voters competing visions of the role of the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

Kavanagh, 48 and a Saugerties resident, is a career prosecutor and son of a former Ulster County DA and State Supreme Court judge. He currently serves as senior assistant district attorney, second in command to DA Holley Carnright, who will step down in December after 12 years at the post.

Clegg, 66 and a Woodstock resident, is a trial attorney who has spent the bulk of his career litigating non-criminal cases including taking on corporations like Walmart and going after corporate polluters. He also competed in last year’s Democratic primary for Congress, losing that race to Antonio Delgado.

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Whoever takes the job come Jan. 1 will inherit an operation that deals with roughly 600 felony and 4,000 misdemeanor cases each year in Ulster County Court, Kingston City Court and 20 town and village courts across the county. The office includes 42 assistant district attorneys, investigators and support staff, and runs on an annual budget of about $4.75 million.

The next DA will have to adapt to a rapidly changing legal landscape brought on by a flood of reform-minded legislation that will drastically speed up the pace at which prosecutors must turn over evidence to the defense in criminal cases, while eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The dynamics of the local criminal justice system will also change with the retirement of County Court Judge Donald Williams, a former DA and uncompromising jurist known for heavy sentences and skepticism of alternatives to incarceration. In January, Williams will be succeeded by reform-minded Democrat Bryan Rounds, who’s running unopposed for the seat.

Kavanagh is campaigning as an experienced prosecutor who sees the job through a more traditional lens — holding offenders accountable and standing up for crime victims. Clegg has embraced a vision for the office focused on progressive reforms like specialty courts for addicts, veterans and the mentally ill, and programs designed to divert young offenders from the criminal justice system.

The contest is not a strictly a matter of traditional versus progressive views. Kavanagh supports diversion programs for low-level offenders; Clegg has promised a stern approach to violent felony crimes.

But their differing approaches can be seen in their endorsements. Kavanagh is running with support from police unions representing state police, Ulster County sheriff’s deputies and local police departments. Clegg’s only law enforcement endorsement comes from Ulster County Sheriff and fellow Democrat Juan Figueroa. Clegg has earned endorsements from Democratic elected officials including Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, as well as progressive activist groups like Indivisible Ulster and Citizens Action of New York. Both candidates are rated “highly qualified” for the job by the Ulster County Bar Association.

Kavanagh grew up in Woodstock absorbing lessons on the law from his father. E. Michael Kavanagh served as Ulster County’s district attorney from 1978 to 1998 before going on to serve as a State Supreme Court justice and appellate judge. Kavanagh graduated from Fordham University and Widener University Law School. Following law school he spent eight years as a Dutchess County assistant district attorney, followed by two years in Austin, Texas, where he practiced criminal defense and civil litigation. Afterwards, he returned to Ulster County with his wife Jen and took a job with the former Kingston-based law firm Mainetti, Mainetti & O’Connor. He has worked in the Ulster DA’s Office since 2012.

In his capacity as chief assistant DA, Kavanagh has tried a number of high-profile cases. He’s also worked on criminal justice and prevention initiatives. He participates in the Ulster County Inter-Agency Task force, which focuses on education students and parents about the dangers of opioid abuse. Kavanagh also serves on the planning committee for a proposed opioids court that would divert addicts from the criminal justice system into treatment and supervises a team dedicated to focused enforcement on domestic violence.

“To me, it’s the best job in the courtroom,” said Kavanagh of the prosecutor’s role. “I take tremendous satisfaction in doing some of the things we do; holding violent offenders accountable and standing with victims.”

Clegg is a Staten Island native who came to the Hudson Valley as a student at SUNY New Paltz in the ’70s. After law school, Clegg worked at a legal aid group in western Nebraska, where he handled civil rights and criminal defense litigation for members of the Lakota Sioux nation who were struggling with poverty and discrimination. After moving to Kingston in 1981, Clegg spent nine years as a part-time assistant public defender and five as assigned counsel working with defendants in federal court for the Northern District of Albany. The bulk of his experience — and nearly all of his recent legal work — has been as a trial attorney in civil cases. Clegg said his experience litigating hundreds of civil cases made him well suited to the role of district attorney.

“I bring a level of trial practice that is not there right now,” said Clegg. “I’m bringing skills into the organization.” 

In addition to his legal work, Clegg has been active in community service with a focus on racial and economic justice. He is a deacon in the United Methodist Church with a degree in divinity from Yale. As chairman of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission, he was part of an effort to bring principles of “restorative justice” to Kingston schools. Restorative justice emphasizes reform over punishment and seeks to have offenders recognize the negative impact of their actions and make amends to victims.

Clegg has promised to take a similar approach to criminal justice in the county, a strategy he calls “Smart on Crime.” The approach, he said, emphasizes alternatives to incarceration for low-level and non-violent crimes, the use of specialty courts to deal with the specific needs of groups like veterans, opioid addicts and the mentally ill, and prison re-entry programs to help prevent recidivism.

“There are some innovative things that have not been tried here,” said Clegg. “That will allow us to refocus our resources on prosecuting serious crimes, violent crimes and the major drug traffickers who are bringing heroin and fentanyl into our community.”

Clegg said that he would also address what he believes is bias in the criminal justice system that leads to disproportionate rates of incarceration for minorities. Clegg added that he would also put prosecution of environmental crimes on the radar at the DA’s office and initiate a program of “trauma-informed” services for crime victims.

While Clegg is running on a promise to reorient the DA’s office in line with progressive principles of criminal justice, Kavanagh is running on his experience and what he calls a pragmatic approach that embraces diversion programs and rehabilitation for addicts, while taking a traditional prosecutorial stance towards more serious crimes.

“As a law enforcement agency we are charged with protecting and standing up for victims and keeping the public safe,” said Kavanagh. “Mr. Clegg’s platform seems more focused on protecting the rights of defendants. Of course you always have to be aware of the rights of defendants, but there’s a defense attorney and judge for that. We are here for the victims and the general public.”

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Kavanagh said the DA’s office would need an experienced hand at the helm next year when a series of criminal justice reforms take effect. Kavanagh said, for example, that discovery-of-evidence reform had been passed without a corresponding increase in funding for police labs. As a result, he said, prosecutors would have to prioritize cases and push hard to get forensic evidence analyzed within the new time frame or risk having cases dismissed. Kavanagh also expressed concern about the impact of bail reform on diversion programs. Without the threat of jail, Kavanagh said, it was likely many addicts would simply choose to return to the streets rather than entering and complying with a court-supervised rehab program.

“These changes are coming whether we agree with them or not,” said Kavanagh. “And you need someone who really understands the system to deal with them.”

Clegg, meanwhile, has accused Kavanagh and his supporters of misrepresenting his experience in the criminal justice system and ignoring his work as a defense attorney, including two cases in recent months. But Kavanagh said that while Clegg may have some decades-old experience in the criminal court system, he isn’t a regular in the justice courts and county courthouse where defense attorneys and prosecutors ply their trade.

“I’m sure he’s a very experienced civil attorney,” said Kavanagh. “But aside from a few cases here and there, nobody in the DA’s Office has seen him do anything this century.”

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