“It was a difficult decision,” he said. “It happens to all of us. We reach the point when it is not as easy to do the work.”
Active in Democratic politics since his youth, Mr. Brown had risen to become a state appellate judge in June 1991, when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo tapped him to replace the Queens district attorney, John J. Santucci, who had retired. Mr. Brown won his first election that fall and went on to win re-election six more times.
Mr. Brown said in a recent interview that the criticism lodged against his office is “totally unjustified.” His senior staff highlighted a number of innovative programs the office has launched over the years. Mr. Brown was among the first prosecutors to create a domestic violence bureau and to set up an office to help immigrants navigate the legal system. Queens also processes arrests faster than the other counties in New York City, and has dozens of alternatives-to-incarceration programs.
Yet the office still prosecutes minor marijuana offenses and fare evasion. It also employs a number of hard-nosed policies aimed at compelling people to plead guilty. Queens prosecutors, for instance, will only negotiate plea deals before a grand jury indictment, a period when defendants have not seen the evidence against them. The office also encourages defendants to waive their rights to a speedy trial or risk losing a chance at a plea deal.
Grass-roots campaigns pushing for more progressive, forward-thinking prosecutors have helped transform district attorney elections in several major cities. In Philadelphia, the longtime civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner, the city’s new district attorney, won over voters last year with a radically progressive campaign to end mass incarceration.
But some political strategists and law enforcement officials question whether Queens — where pockets of conservative voters remain in one of the most diverse counties in the country — will elect a prosecutor with a left-leaning platform.
Historically, the Democratic Party has had enormous influence in choosing the city’s district attorneys. The races often attract little interest, and low voter turnout allows the favorites of the political machine to win, cementing long, unchallenged tenures. Nowhere has that been more true than in Queens, where the Democratic Party has picked the county’s district attorney for decades.