New York Times

Published: September 16, 2004

Democratic Stronghold Jolted in Albany


In an election that was largely a referendum on the state's unpopular Rockefeller drug laws, a political neophyte who vowed to soften the laws defeated the incumbent Albany County district attorney in a surprising blow to the state capital's political establishment.

By an unofficial tally of 14,030 to 8,684 votes, the newcomer, P. David Soares, vanquished his onetime boss, Paul A. Clyne, in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. Many said the battle had symbolic historic overtones: not only does Mr. Clyne largely favor the Rockefeller drug laws, but his father, the former Albany County court judge John J. Clyne, also sentenced Elaine Bartlett to 20 years to life for her first offense of selling four ounces of cocaine. That case and Ms. Bartlett's 16 years behind bars were often cited in arguments for overhauling the drug laws.

The upset was a major setback for Albany's once powerful Democratic political organization and the city's current Democratic mayor, Gerald D. Jennings, who sometimes aligns himself with the Republican governor, George E. Pataki.

Perhaps more significant, Mr. Soares's victory showed that the Rockefeller drug law issue had traction at the ballot box, and that it could pose a threat to state lawmakers who have failed -- despite repeated annual promises -- to change the drug-sentencing laws signed by former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller more than 30 years ago.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Soares, 34, said that changing the laws became the centerpiece of his campaign. He said it was largely because Mr. Clyne, 44, was seen as the public face of opposition to reformers' main idea of giving judges discretion to divert those convicted of drug crimes to treatment programs rather than long prison sentences.

Mr. Soares said if he wins in the November against Roger Cusick, the Republican candidate, he would provide more access to treatment and ''exercise intelligent use of prosecutorial discretion.''

At the same time, he said he would testify to lawmakers, if called, and serve as an example to other district attorneys in New York in arguing why the laws need to be changed.

''It is inherently unfair and creates a low standard for law enforcement,'' Mr. Soares said of the current system. He called the punishments disproportionate to the crimes.

The primary result was also a boost to the Working Families Party because it highlighted the party's powers to organize, raise money, make phone calls and knock on doors, as it did in aiding Mr. Soares in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 82,300 to 43,516, as of February.

Recently, Letitia James of the Working Families Party won a seat on the New York City Council. In the spring, the party successfully pressured the Republican-led State Senate to raise the state's minimum wage, a move that Governor Pataki vetoed.

For his part, Mr. Clyne pointed out how the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a foundation chaired by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, recently sent at least $80,000 in campaign contributions to the Working Families Party. Mr. Clyne called it proof that his opponent's campaign was bankrolled by people in New York City who improperly funneled the money to Mr. Soares, a claim that his opponents have rejected.

Correction: September 22, 2004, Wednesday Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about the defeat of Paul A. Clyne, the incumbent, in the Democratic primary for district attorney in Albany County -- a race that was seen as a referendum on New York State's Rockefeller-era drug laws, which he largely favors -- misstated the affiliation of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, who opposes them. Mr. Soros is on the board of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that also opposes the laws; he is not chairman of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a lobbying arm of the group.



©2004 New York Times