The two-way primary for Tompkins County District Attorney is on the ballot Tuesday, marking the end of a fiery campaign season in which incumbent District Attorney Mattew Van Houten is attempting to best second-time challenger Edward Kopko.
In a solidly Democratic county, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary faces what may be a shoo-in victory during November’s general election –– no Republican candidate is running.
Tuesday’s primary sets up a rematch of 2016’s general election for D.A. After the 2016 primary, Kopko — who ran as an independent — filed a lawsuit against the Tompkins County Democratic Party, claiming it unfairly boxed him out of the primary.
Although each candidate said they will eventually support the Democratic nominee, the race has seen its fair share of mudslinging: Kopko had routinely slammed Van Houten’s record on racial justice, an increasingly pertinent campaign message amid a national reckoning on racial injustice in the United States.
Read The Sun’s May 12 District Attorney debate coverage here.
The Tompkins County District Attorney is primarily responsible for prosecuting criminal offenses committed within the county. These offenses can range from serious felonies to traffic violations such as speeding.
The Incumbent: District Attorney Matthew Van Houten
Van Houten, a Tompkins County native, graduated from Dryden High School and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated from Albany Law School in 1995. He has practiced law for most of his life and, in 2014, opened his own practice, the Van Houten Law Office, which focuses on family, criminal and civil law.
Running for his second term, Van Houten repeatedly touted his record. Since taking office in 2017, he worked on numerous progressive initiatives, including finding alternatives to incarceration such as felony and drug treatment court and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a program that allows officers to divert individuals who otherwise would be charged with offenses to rehabilitation services as opposed to arrests.
Van Houten defended his hiring policies in response to Kopko’s criticism that his office lacked diversity and plugged the 2018 establishment of the Mental Health Court as evidence of progress. The Mental Health Court aims to help individuals with serious mental health issues that are a primary cause for their repeated arrests and incarceration.
During the campaign season, Van Houten has criticized Kopko for having unrealistic expectations about the role of a D.A. given the limitations of the position.
Van Houten was scorned by many including Kopko for his conduct during the prosecution of Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson — two Black individuals tackled and arrested by Ithaca police following an altercation with another group in the Commons last April. The incumbent’s pursuit of charges in the case drew criticism at the time and Van Houten admitted to missteps during the process. Kopko frequently used the incident to challenge Van Houten’s record on racial justice.
On Thursday, in an oftentimes contentious Black Town Hall hosted by the Southside Community Center, Van Houten said he regrets “the trauma” inflicted upon DeGroat and Ferguson by the process. A judge dismissed the case in 2019.
Van Houten has campaigned on addressing systemic biases in the criminal justice system through implicit bias training and more community outreach programs between his office and the local community. One initiative he suggested to strengthen the connection between law enforcement and the community was the creation of a stronger community-police board that would hold Tompkins County officers accountable.
“I go to meet with the community leaders of color and listen to them … I seek that out … not for power, not for political purposes,” Van Houten said in the Thursday town hall.
Kopko criticized Van Houten for not personally prosecuting police misconduct due to what Kopko called law enforcement’s “improper influence” on Van Houten. Van Houten had recused himself in several cases involving police officers –– he believes a D.A.’s office has too close of a relationship with local police departments to investigate them. Instead, he favors the use of a special prosecutor in cases of police misconduct.
Van Houten has been endorsed by more than 40 local attorneys who claimed his extensive trial experience and usage of alternatives to incarceration are characteristics of a good District Attorney.
The incumbent has also expressed support for New York State’s bail reform legislation that expanded bail-eligible offenses and rolled back previous attempts to limit cash bail.
“Bail is not a punitive measure,” Van Houten said in a Zoom forum in May, but rather a way to “ensure someone is returning to court.”
Second-Time Challenger Edward Kopko
Kopko grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and attended the University of Alaska and Syracuse University College of Law. He served as a police officer in Fairbanks and later was the Judge Advocate General Corp in the U.S. Navy. After, he worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Pennsylvania. Kopko has resided in Ithaca since 1999 and has worked on a plethora of civil rights and police misconduct cases. He runs a civil rights law firm based in Ithaca.
Transparency from the D.A.’s office is a key part of Kopko’s campaign. Central to his message is that he will thoroughly investigate all police misconduct and report the findings to the public.
Kopko has also said he would focus on community advisory boards — local leaders who would have a role in the selection of assistant district attorneys that reflect the community’s interests. Kopko proposed a police misconduct board that would prosecute “dishonest law enforcement officers and dishonorable police behavior,” he told The Ithaca Voice in a February interview.
Van Houten called Kopko’s proposed police misconduct board with D.A. office attorneys “impossible” in Thursday’s town hall, pointing to conflicts of interest he claims the D.A. inherently has when working with police.
Kopko said he “would never recuse [himself] from the prosecution of a police officer,” referring to Van Houten’s use of special prosecutors to avoid conflicts of interest.
“It’s not that I have to have a relationship with the police, the police have to have a relationship with me,” Kopko said Thursday. “I am not so concerned about having a cozy relationship with the police.”
Kopko was DeGroat’s defense attorney during the Commons incident. DeGroat has publicly urged residents to vote for Kopko and criticized Van Houten for being too lenient on the police officers involved in the arrests.