The suburbs of America’s cultural capital are nearly as dense as the city itself. As the concrete collides, the scenery grows. And just outside of New York City, even in relatively posh Westchester County, there’s a palpable appetite for change. Progressive trends in criminal justice may eventually be read as one of the 21st century’s more obvious and necessary faits accomplis. But until those far-off histories are written, leadership will either rise to ride the crest of popular hunger or feebly stand athwart.
Strictly assigning herself to the former column is Mimi Rocah, a long-tenured former federal prosecutor who worked in perhaps the nation’s most famous U.S. Attorney’s Office: the Southern District of New York (SDNY). She’s running in the coming year’s Democratic Primary against current Westchester District Attorney Anthony Scarpino–a former judge and law professor who previously served a stint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Rocah announced her run in early December, describing the motivation for her run as an attempt to fight back against the “hateful policies” and “attacks on the rule of law” by President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Rocah also called to mind a more broader moral and ethical impetus of the time, citing “the idea of having more women in positions–elected positions, positions of power–deciding how the levers of power are used…”.
Over the years at Law&Crime, I’ve frequently turned to Rocah for her insight on legal issues of national importance. The following interview was carried out in late December while Rocah was in New York and I was back home in Texas.
COLIN KALMBACHER: Could you give us some basic demographic information: name, rank, serial number and all that?
MIMI ROCAH: My name is Mimi Rocah, and I’m running for Westchester DA. I worked as a federal prosecutor for 16+ years, from 2001-2017. As an AUSA [Assistant U.S. Attorney], I was involved in the prosecution of organized crime, gun traffickers, corrupt public officials, narcotics traffickers, sex traffickers, and child predators. From 2012-2017, I was Chief of the Justice Department’s Westchester Division under President Obama. In this role, I also served as primary liaison with law enforcement agencies and other prosecutorial offices such as the Westchester DA’s Office, and coordinated and co-chaired multi-county task forces on specific issues such as human trafficking and the opioid overdose epidemic.
Since 2017, I have been Pace University School of Law’s Distinguished Fellow in Criminal Justice and a Legal Analyst for MSNBC and NBC News. My family and I live in Scarsdale, and I have served as the PTA School Safety Chair at my kids’ elementary school and have organized and led numerous forums in Westchester on public corruption, sexual and domestic violence, and online child predators. I also have been involved with gun safety issues working with Moms Demand Action Westchester and I volunteer with My Sister’s Place, a leading organization in Westchester which helps victims of domestic abuse and trafficking.
I graduated from New York University School of Law, magna cum laude and Order of the Coif, and earned a B.A. in American History, magna cum laude, from Harvard University. Before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I clerked for the Honorable John Gleeson, United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and the Honorable Chester J. Straub, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. I also worked as a litigation associate at the law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore.
You’re going up against an incumbent who faced no opposition before–he was nominated by the local party instead of voters–is your campaign also an implicit rebuke of northeastern machine politics that rely on such backdoor nominating committees and party insiders? Is this, in essence, a campaign aimed at actually making the Democratic Party a bit more democratic?
I fundamentally believe that primaries are good for the Democratic party. And, I respect people who volunteer for local parties and work to support for Democratic candidates here in Westchester, but I don’t agree with those who think we should give every elected Democrat a free pass to re-election. For this race, I was told that I should just wait four years until the incumbent was expected to retire, but you can’t fight for justice by “waiting for your turn” if you want to be part of the solution.
Since Trump’s election, Westchester has become more Democratic, and as people become more engaged, they want–and deserve–to have choices for who will be representing them. With groundbreaking reforms happening in criminal justice around the country, we need to make sure we have leadership ready and excited to take on the new challenges and opportunities presented. This is not a time to sit on the sidelines or be complacent; the rule of law is under attack and the values that define our nation are being undermined like never before. I’m inspired by the activism I see here in Westchester, so for me, running for this office at this time is a natural move.
You caused an uproar when you criticized Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in non-political terms on MSNBC earlier this year. In hindsight: do you think you might have handled that a bit differently? Sanders increasingly appears to have a path to the Democratic Party nomination–would you, running as a Democrat, support Sanders against Trump if it comes down to it?
Oh yes–I could have handled it a lot better! Look, I was making a point about women and some of the issues that many women voters have with Senator Sanders and his campaign, but the way I said it was certainly not my best moment. But no matter what–and let me be 100% clear–I will support the Democratic nominee against Trump.
The incumbent took office promising a focus on reining in violent crime, the heroin epidemic and hiring a more diverse staff. Not exactly a major reform agenda–but perhaps eminently doable. What’s the major problem with the status quo in Westchester?
There’s nothing wrong with addressing those issues, but as with so many things involving this office, we need to ask whether these are just campaign slogans and window dressing. We need to ask: are we really doing everything we can with the full powers of this office to make Westchester safer, to make our justice system more fair, and to set an example for justice around the country? I think the answer is we are not. With hate crimes on the rise, people scared about shootings on a daily basis, real concerns about mass incarceration and conviction integrity, and too many communities not feeling represented by the DA’s office, I believe we cannot afford a “good enough” mentality, or to be passive when it comes to the rule of law during this critical time – in this office or any public office. We need a driver for criminal justice reform, a DA who will use every tool at her disposal to protect and respect the victims, witnesses, and defendants; we need new and innovative ideas to reduce crime; get guns off our streets and ensure justice for all. Especially in the area of criminal justice, which is evolving quickly even just in the past four years, the status quo isn’t enough. I worked as a prosecutor in a system more progressive than New York was until recent reforms — so I know what it means to have a bail system that doesn’t incarcerate just because someone can’t afford cash bail, and I understand the benefits of open and early discovery.
The major trend in most high-profile district attorney races as of late has been left-wing and/or socialist candidates offering sweeping reforms and the end of business as usual–Larry Krasner was kind of the first-mover here in Philadelphia; Tiffany Caban’s disputed loss in Queens stands out; as does Chesa Boudin’s victory in San Francisco–are you running as a progressive prosecutor?
I see myself as progressive and I spent 16 years as a federal prosecutor. New York passed major, long-overdue reforms this year that to make our criminal justice system fairer, but those changes need to be implemented and we need to continue to look for ways to do more. I am guided by the words of my friend and mentor Preet Bharara, “do the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way.” If that defines a “progressive prosecutor,” I’d be honored to wear that label.
What’s a case you’re particularly proud of prosecuting at SDNY which might give voters a sense of your priorities?
There are many so indulge me while I narrow it down to two. When I was Chief of the Westchester Office of the SDNY, I was a leader of the Westchester Anti-Trafficking Task Force. As part of that Task Force, I received a phone call from someone who worked for the Westchester Department of Social Services that a girl had been kidnapped and taken across town lines to be sex trafficked by someone she met on the internet. We quickly sprang into action and through the best of cooperative law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level, two girls were rescued after having been sexually abused and sex trafficked, and the man was prosecuted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. This is happening in Westchester and we need to focus on the connection between the internet and sex trafficking of minors and we need collaborative law enforcement to do that.
In 2016, a 13-year old amazing girl named Shamoya McKenzie, a rising star on her basketball team, was caught in gang crossfire and shot to death in the car with her mother in Mount Vernon. Though the shooter was arrested quickly, I knew that there were more people responsible for her death and we needed to charge a larger case against several members of the gang. It took some convincing of the current DA to allow that to happen, but eventually it did (shortly after I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office).
How about a story about a voter interaction that you’d like to share with our readers?
Shortly after I announced my run, Shamoya McKenzie’s mom reached out to me and said that she supports my campaign. She said that she believes that I am the right person to help ensure that what happened to her daughter doesn’t happen to others. I was so touched by her faith in me and inspired even more to do all I can as a leader in law enforcement to help eradicate gun violence.
Did you have a plan when you decided to run? A campaign theme you decided you’d run on?
I decided to run because I can’t, and won’t, sit on the sidelines while Trump and [Attorney General] Bill Barr work to destroy the rule of law in this country. I have been inspired by the women across the country who decided to run, and I know that I have the skills and experience to be an effective and energetic DA. The reality is that we will be doing everything we can to ensure that Trump is a one term president, but the effects of his recklessness and bigotry will be felt long after he leaves office. The dangerous rise in hate crimes will not automatically stop once he is out of office–we must work at every level of government to uphold the rule of law and demand more from our leaders. In terms of a campaign theme, so far the words of my friend and mentor Preet Bharara, “do the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way” have served as an important motto. Also — “we can do more.”
Give our readers some nuts-and-bolts about your campaign so far. How is your relationship with local Democratic clubs, organizations and the local party? Any endorsements you’d like to mention?
I am reaching out to Democratic leaders – some are comfortable with the incumbent and others are excited about my candidacy. Some of the Democratic committees have new members that are more aligned with activist movements, and I’ve enjoyed traveling across Westchester to meet with different communities. I’m also talking with Indivisible Westchester and its grassroots volunteers who have been driving change and excitement on the ground here. I want to engage with everyone and I will be working hard over the next few months to talk with people from Pound Ridge to Mt. Vernon and everywhere in between about my candidacy and vision for the office.
An entirely different trend in law and justice as of late concerns municipalities’ collaboration (or lack thereof) with federal immigration priorities. How will you deal with ICE retainer requests?
It is not the job of the local DA to do ICE’s work for them, and ICE and their actions in our courthouses has made it more difficult to get justice–they harass victims and intimidate witnesses. Regardless of immigration status, everyone is entitled to justice, and I will not enable ICE’s effort to undermine our criminal justice system. Our current DA says that he supports efforts to keep ICE out of our courthouses but he didn’t, for example, join a lawsuit by Attorney General [Letitia] James to ensure that. I would have.
How do you feel about the cash bail system and New York State’s recent changes to more or less dispense with that process for lower-level offenses?
The determining factor in whether someone accused of a crime should be held in jail pre-trial should never be solely based on whether or not they have money. Cash bail was overused and misused here in New York, and these reforms are long overdue changes that will make our system fairer and help address mass incarceration. My experience with bail as a federal prosecutor was much more similar to the new laws that will take effect in January, so I feel very comfortable with these changes. But this is a first step in bail reform, not the last, and we should constantly be re-evaluating this system to make it better.
What’s your campaigning and organizing style like? Are you running any paid media yet? Tell us about your ground game, voter contacts, fundraising and so on.
Right now, I am talking to everybody–meeting with groups, organizations, and leaders across Westchester about my candidacy. It has been inspiring and humbling to see the excitement about my candidacy.
We have rolled out two policy platforms–I am committing to creating a Human Trafficking Unit and an independent Conviction Integrity Unit. We will be continuing to put out policy proposals over the coming months. I was proud to have Pound Ridge Chief of Police Dave Ryan endorse my commitment to create a Human Trafficking Unit.
On fundraising, we raised more in our first two weeks than the opponent had on-hand in his July filing, and doubled what he had been able to raise in 6 months. Our average donation was $90.56, his average donation was over $500. And unlike the incumbent, I will not take money from local elected officials, attorneys with cases in front of the DA, police unions, DA employees or anyone who works for or has business in front of the office. This is in line with reforms proposed by the Center for Public Integrity after issues arose with respect to campaign donations in other District Attorney’s Offices.
In press coverage of your campaign announcement you spoke about “the idea of having more women in positions—elected positions, positions of power,” as integral to your run. This is essentially an argument that identity can function as a proxy for the locus of power, right? Could you elaborate on how Westchester County’s DA being a woman will translate into a shift in priorities at the office?
First of all, representation in office matters and right now only 24% of elected prosecutors around the country are women (and that’s due to a recent rise), so changing that to a more even ratio is important. And, since Trump’s election, a lot of the positive changes we’re seeing in progressive activism and making a more representative government have been driven by women. So it’s the broader issue of women taking the lead in restoring decency, fairness and integrity in government that I’m talking about more than the specific issue of what having a woman as DA would mean for Westchester.
You also railed against the “criminal in the White House right now” but that alleged criminal’s family business has a large property in Westchester–could voters expect increased scrutiny of that infamous golf course in Briarcliff Manor with Mimi Rocah as DA?
A central part of my platform is that no one is above the law, period. Some criminals wear a mask; others wear an expensive suit and have a bad orange combover. But, no matter how wealthy or powerful someone is, the rule of law must apply. And it’s not just about Trump; we’ve had our share of bad actors in politics and finance here, and they also must be held accountable. The current DA has not done enough to root out public corruption in Westchester. As in all cases, we will follow the evidence and charge as appropriate.
How has it been so far managing your work at Pace and MSNBC appearances with running your campaign so far?
My MSNBC contract just ended, and the class I teach at Pace will begin in the Spring.
But for my most important job, raising my kids, there has been some adjusting to a campaign schedule, but they are incredibly excited to be a part of it. My 10-year old son has deemed himself a “campaign aide” and actually helps me a lot! I could not be more proud of them for understanding that this is a unique time in our country when we all need to step up.
Speaking of your work at Pace, how have your students and colleagues reacted to your campaign? Any law students out there helping out?
Understandably, Pace Law School is remaining neutral in this election as the current District Attorney is also affiliated with Pace. Some former law students who are now graduated are helping with the campaign.
Your campaign is a national story but local voters are perhaps more likely than anyone to read this interview. What are the Westchester-focused priorities that you would concentrate on as DA?
Westchester needs a DA who will fully modernize the office and use the full extent of its powers to reduce crime, keep people safe and drive the types of changes we need to protect people’s rights. We need to address the increase in hate crimes and I’ll bring a data-driven approach to reducing gun violence and getting guns off the streets. We need to do more to address the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, and corruption. Westchester is the only major suburban county without a Conviction Integrity Unit, which we will create and I have already announced my plans to create a human trafficking unit.
The 2020 campaign is shaping up to be particularly brutal but let’s talk about hope. Where does hope factor into your campaign?
Running for office is, in itself, an act of hope; a belief that things can get better if you get involved and make change happen. Our country has been through difficult times before and we’ve always come back and I know we will come back from the damage Trump has done to our nation. But again, hope by itself won’t be enough – we need to channel our hope into engagement and action to create the necessary changes.
Until recently, district attorney races haven’t been known as marquee races. Explain to our readers why the job of district attorney is so important and how the immense power the office holds can be redirected toward certain priorities with a change in leadership.
The DA is the public face of the justice in any county, and the DA must be front and center on making justice system fairer and addressing issues that are impacting a community. Here in Westchester, we need active leadership to prevent hate crimes, reduce gun violence and hold people accountable for their actions, regardless of their wealth or status. Also, this is a platform to push back against the hateful agenda of the Trump Administration. So, when AG Bill Barr said if communities do not show more respect to law enforcement officers, they may lose “police protection” a few weeks ago, I would have gone to the heads of Police Departments with whom we work and said, that’s not right, please join me in a statement that says in our community, law enforcement deserves respect, but so do our communities and no one will ever be deprived of equal protection.
I think people have become much more engaged and aware since the 2016 election, and there is a greater recognition of the importance of local offices. At the same time, the view of the DA is changing — for too long the office was about being “tough on crime” and racking up the most convictions for the longest sentences, leading to a destructive culture of mass incarceration. We are now seeing DA offices across the country changing to be more about crime prevention and community partnerships. We need to continue to modernize our DA office so that it can meet the needs of our county and keep people safe.
What is your overall political vision and theory of change?
I believe that our democracy works best when everyone is engaged and makes their voice heard. When change is needed, as it is now, no one can afford to remain on the sidelines, and if you aren’t working address injustice, you aren’t doing your part. I am running for office because I have a vision for the office that is broader than that of the current occupant, because I believe that this is how change happens: When people refuse to accept a flawed status quo and demand more. Like I’ve said, I believe in “doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons” and I am ready to be the leader Westchester can count on to bring new energy and commitment to this office.
This interview has been edited for length.
[image via Mimi Rocah for District Attorney; used with permission]