November 4, 2005

D.A. Hopefuls Get Ready for Election Day

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On Tuesday, citizens from across Tompkins County will go to their voting booths to pick, among other positions, their next district attorney. Incumbent George Dentes ’76 (R) is facing challenger Gwen Wilkinson (D) for the position, which has the responsibility of prosecuting all crimes in Tompkins County.

Dentes, who is now in his fourth four-year term as D.A., said his campaign has been mostly focused on his experience and success rate. According to his campaign web site, he has a prosecution rate of 95 percent. But Wilkinson has challenged some of Dentes’ decisions and is running largely on a platform of changing the D.A.’s involvement with other powers in the county.

Dentes recently became part of a controversy on The Hill when he decided to pursue the conviction of several of the protesters at Redbud Woods. Those protesters were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, but an agreement they later signed with Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III included a promise by the University to try to get the charges dropped.

“Certainly it’s true that the D.A. has the power to do what he has done,” Wilkinson said, referring to Dentes’s decision to prosecute the protesters. But she added that better communication between the D.A. and University officials might have avoided the need to take the case to trial.

Dentes said that when Cornell University Police Department officers had asked him how they could avoid taking the protesters to court, he told them that they had the option of simply not filing the charges.

“I said, ‘look, it’s your discretion. If you don’t file the tickets, there won’t be a case.’ … Contrary to my wishes, they filed their tickets,” Dentes said.

“I would like to approach [the Redbud trial] like any other case,” he said.

Another controversial issue in Dentes’s and Wilkinson’s campaigns is that of Drug Court, an intensive drug rehabilitation program available to those convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.

Drug Court includes several court appearances – Dentes said about 50 to 70 – but in 2003 Dentes mostly withdrew from the program when the county legislature reduced the D.A.’s staff by one half-time position. That was the same amount by which they had increased it when Drug Court was first introduced, Dentes said.

“My opponent says I don’t support Drug Court. The truth is that the legislature is what took us out of Drug Court” by reducing the D.A.’s budget, according to Dentes.

Wilkinson said that the D.A.’s involvement is crucial to ensuring a fair balance during Drug Court hearings, but Dentes denied this.

“What was [the D.A.] doing [at Drug Court]? Almost nothing. … The judges don’t really need us,” he said.

He explained that even when the D.A. was present at Drug Court hearings, judges only consulted them for advice on minor violations of the program.

Dentes said that even without the D.A. present at the hearings, “The system works fine.”

He also emphasized that Drug Court is a post-sentencing option, whereas the D.A.’s job is only to secure the conviction, and that other drug rehabilitation programs exist.

Wilkinson stressed that Drug Court is a relevant issue to students because, though relatively few people in Drug Court come from areas where students live, many of the thefts that occur all over the county, including in student areas, and are perpetrated by drug users trying to fund their addictions.

Issues like the handling of the Redbud Woods protesters and the legislature’s cutting of the D.A.’s budget, Wilkinson said, indicate that Dentes has not communicated well with the other elements of Tompkins County.

“If I’m elected, I would ask to have a meeting with Cornell administration,” she said, suggesting that open communication would solve problems such as the one over Redbud. She also said that Dentes “abandoned the budget process … when he was told he would lose a part-time job.”

However, Dentes said that it was those other elements that failed in communicating. For instance, he said that his budget was cut in a legislature meeting “without any warning whatsoever” and without a chance for him to respond.

“[Wilkinson] doesn’t know how this government works,” Dentes said. “She’s never been D.A.”

With the election just a few days away, Dentes and Wilkinson both said the race is close, but they both also expressed confidence in their campaigns.

“There is quite a lot of support on both sides of the aisle,” Wilkinson said, referring to support she has from Democrats and Republicans alike. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Dentes said that in a county in which Democrats outnumber Republicans, just the fact that he has already been elected four times shows that he has bipartisan support.

“I can’t win without having appeal to people who are not Republicans,” he said.

Voting booths will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8. On North Campus, booths will be in Robert Purcell Community Center. On West Campus they will be in the Class of ’26 Hall, and in Collegetown they will be at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on Oak Street.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit
Sun City Editor