Slate of independent Democrats pushes back against county club in Brooklyn’s judicial race
John O’Hara the 'lightning rod'
A group of five independent Democrats have created agita in Brooklyn’s Democratic establishment by announcing they are running for civil judgeships — without the blessing of the Kings County Democratic Party.
John O’Hara, Isiris Isela Isaac, Sandra Roper, Thomas J Kennedy and Patrick J. Hayes make up the slate, announced Monday by the group’s communications director, Gary Tilzer.
Tilzer is a reformer with previous success in getting candidates like Margarita Lopez Torres and Diana Johnson elected, along with the first Hasidic women elected to public office in the United States, Civil Court Judge Rachel Freier.
The district leaders negotiate with County to pick who the judicial candidates are, Tilzer told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“We believe judges should come from a broader spectrum,” said Tilzer. “Our slate is designed to give Brooklyn a choice of independent judges.”
Tilzer said that reform clubs “used to be counted on for the last 40 years to provide opposition to the county. They’ve stopped being the opposition.”
A spokesman for the Kings County Democratic Party countered that “the reform clubs are not supporting this slate, apparently, and neither are we because all but one refused to go through the basic screening process we ask of any judicial candidate.”
One longtime observer of the political scene, Stephen Witt, creator the blog Kings County Politics, noted, “Every candidate is afforded the opportunity to go before the screening committee … it’s part of politics.”
If the five independents Democrats get on the ballot, the voters will get a ballot with 10 names on it. The five highest vote-getters win. (A sixth candidate, Civil Court Judge Carolyn Wade, is in without her name appearing on the ballot since she is running unopposed.)
O’Hara, running for civil court judge in Brooklyn, serves as the lightning rod on the slate.
Six months ago he was a convicted felon, a circumstance that came about after he found himself up against Brooklyn’s longtime District Attorney Charles Hynes 20 years ago.
O’Hara ran against Hynes’ pick for Park Slope Assemblymemeber, James Brennan, in 1996. One year later, O’Hara became the only person ever convicted in New York for voting in the wrong election district.
It took three trials to convict him; the third trial worked because prosecutors found someone to testify that O’Hara’s apartment literally did not exist, O’Hara said.
Two decades later, after a dozen appeals, his conviction was finally overturned in January by former DA Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit, under Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. The Review Unit had found three boxes of documents and notes taken by Hynes’ people that refuted what happened at that trial.
From that experience, O’Hara says he takes away a strong sense of justice.
“There were 22 convictions overturned; I was 22,” O’Hara said last week at a presentation before Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn. “The person who said the apartment didn’t exist had lied; the DA had a deal with her. It’s unfortunate. So for 20 years, I was a convicted felon. It’s an experience that you bring to the bench, I guess. It’s unusual … It brings a perspective.”
O’Hara thinks the time is ripe for reform. “There’s been such a change in the last year or two, a big change. I think it has to do with Bernie [Sanders] running, and then [Donald] Trump getting elected, two events that have really motivated people to take an interest,” he said.
“As an attorney, I see how the Civil Court can sometimes correct the problems that are overlooked in our criminal justice system,” he said. O’Hara succeeded in freeing David McCallum, who spent over 30 years in prison for a double homicide he did not commit, and successfully fought for seniors at a nursing home in Park Slope where a friend, Civil Court Judge John Phillips, was being involuntarily held. After Phillips died, O’Hara discovered that the home did not have a license.
“We shut the place down. The guy payed millions of dollars, it was great. It kind of had a happy ending, in a sense,” O’Hara said. “So, my point is, sometimes [things] criminal courts and prosecutors can’t or won’t take care of, they can be worked out in the civil system, as I did with those nursing home cases.”
O’Hara says he is preparing a lawsuit against Hynes. Tilzer says he expects that “a lot of stuff about a lot of people” could come out during the suit.
“This lawsuit, and others … will control the outcome of the campaign,” he added.
Tilzer called O’Hara’s comeback “a Cinderella story.”
The powers that be don’t want races in the judicial election, he said. After learning about the five challengers, “they’re in shock.”
“We’re just trying to give the people of Brooklyn a choice,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”
More about the slate
Thomas J. Kennedy is an attorney at Glancy Prongay & Murray LLP.
Patrick Hayes is founding member of the Law Office of Patrick Hayes. He was formerly an assistant DA in Kings County.
Isiris Isela Isaac is the principal court attorney for the state Supreme Court in Brooklyn.
Sandra Roper is senior attorney in her own firm.
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