The day after locking up the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth Thompson reaffirmed a campaign pledge to "transform" the agency.
"I'm excited and look forward to the very important work that awaits us," Thompson told reporters Wednesday near his Brooklyn home. "We have an opportunity now to transform the D.A.'s office, to make it the greatest law enforcement office in the country," he said.
Kenneth Thompson speaks to the press the day after his victory over Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes in the Democratic primary. NYLJ/Rick Kopstein
During what he acknowledged was "a very tough campaign," Thompson relentlessly attacked six-term incumbent Charles Hynes for low conviction rates, a passive stance on stop and frisk and an alleged pattern of wrongful convictions. But with the voting over, he struck a conciliatory note, thanking Hynes for his 24 years of service, crediting him for backing alternatives to incarceration and reentry programs.
Thompson said he would release in the coming weeks details of his agenda and transition team for an office that employs 500 attorneys and 1,200 staff to prosecute more than 115,000 misdemeanors and felonies a year.
Though some observers viewed Thompson's victory as surprising, Thompson said he was "not shocked," noting his win was based on "diverse" support. "I could feel people wanted change," he said.
In that mood, most voters apparently brushed aside Hynes' argument that his experience was far superior to Thompson's.
Thompson refused to say if he would make "wholesale changes in personnel." He emphasized that the jobs of rank-and-file assistants were "not in jeopardy" and promised to "motivate, support and encourage" prosecutors. But he did say that he would bring in "new people," putting "excellence over politics."
Thompson, 47, a first-time political candidate, scored a convincing 10-point win over a man who took office as Brooklyn's top prosecutor in 1990, making him the longest-serving district attorney in the borough's history by 12 years. Thompson is a former Eastern District prosecutor and founding partner of Thompson Wigdor, which, he said, will continue operations without him.
Hynes, 78, was the first elected Brooklyn district attorney defeated since 1911 and the first ousted in the city as a whole since 1955.
Hynes' name will appear on the ballot lines of the Republican and Conservative Parties in November, but he said he will not campaign. Such a race probably would be futile in a community as heavily Democratic as Brooklyn.
George Arzt, Hynes' campaign spokesman, said Hynes called Thompson at about 10 p.m. Tuesday to concede. Arzt said the conversation was "extremely cordial," which would have been a departure from the sometimes bitter exchanges of the campaign. Thompson also said the call was "cordial," with Hynes offering him office space to make the transition.
Hynes told dejected supporters Tuesday night that, "The Democratic voters of the county, today, viewed [my] record, compared it with the record of former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson and decided to change directions."
On Wednesday, Arzt said that the district attorney was unavailable for comment, having left on "an extended vacation." He said he did not know Hynes' future plans.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes. NYLJ/Rick Kopstein
Hynes' long career in public service includes stints as fire commissioner and special prosecutor in the racially charged 1987 Howard Beach case.
Arzt said the Hynes campaign had been "confident" he would prevail, though betting it would be by a tight 52 to 48 percent. "The margin came as a shock to all of us."
Arzt speculated that Hynes' ouster could be explained, in part, by "a mood for real change" among city voters that was also reflected in the Democratic mayoral primary.
Thompson will be Brooklyn's first black district attorney.
Arzt also noted that the campaign had to endure numerous stories in The New York Times questioning the district's attorney's performance. "The pounding…took a great toll," he said.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Manhattan-based political consultant who generally works on Democratic campaigns but did not have a role in the Hynes-Thompson race, observed that "Hynes was in office for 24 years. If the other guy was called 'Thompson' or 'Johnson' or 'Goldberg' or 'MacGillicuddy,' it wouldn't have mattered. It was time. In order to win, you have to be the right person at the right moment, and in this case, Thompson fit the bill."
Sheinkopf added that the borough had changed since Hynes became prosecutor. "It is no longer the city of churches and saloons. It has become the new Manhattan, and it wanted a prosecutor who represented the new kind of culture."
But Hynes' support also slipped among traditional backers.
Arzt said that he lost in black neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Brownsville, and won ultra-Orthodox areas by smaller-than-expected margins.
Dov Hikind, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who has been in the state Assembly since 1983, was one of the few Orthodox Jewish leaders to endorse Thompson.
"Joe Hynes has had his days and years and it's time, at least in the D.A.'s office, for real change," Hikind said Wednesday.
Hikind said Hynes alienated many Jews by what the assemblyman said was inconsistency in how he prosecuted cases of alleged sexual abuse directed toward children in the Orthodox Jewish community. Hynes' attitude seemed to vary according to the extent of criticism he received in the media in his office's handling of individual sex abuse cases, Hikind said.
"First, he was not so tough, then he was extremely tough, almost to the extent of being insulting to the Jewish community," Hikind said. "He almost became a different person."
Hikind said he believes Thompson will take more consistent and even-handed approach.
Defense attorneys were left wondering, after more than two decades of dealing with Hynes, what kind of prosecutor Thompson would be.
"I don't think anyone, including Ken Thompson, knows what to expect out of a new administration," said Ronald Kuby. "Thompson has never managed a large office and has certainly no comparable experience to managing one of the largest [district attorney's] offices in the entire country."
Kuby said he thinks an early indicator of the direction Thompson will take the office will be in how he handles the review of cases involving retired Brooklyn homicide detective Louis Scarcella and whether Scarcella fabricated confessions. Kuby noted that Thompson has criticized Hynes for his office's review of convictions secured with Scarcella's involvement.
"I look forward to an aggressive and thorough reinvestigation of what I would call the 'Scarcella cases,'" Kuby said. "The process existing right now has an outside panel performing some type of unspecified investigation with current senior ADAs reviewing the work of their predecessors and in some cases their colleagues. Thompson has criticized that. So, presumably, he will institute a better system."
At his press conference, Thompson said he planned to "look at all the cases Scarcella worked on," even if the detective played only a "secondary role."
Personally, said Kuby, "I never found Joe to be arrogant. I always found Joe professionally to be smart, willing to listen and when he recognized a mistake, he would move to correct it. I think the Scarcella cases are deeply troubling to him as a professional."
Kuby said he hoped Thompson was just engaging in "campaign rhetoric" when he criticized Hynes for what Thompson said were low conviction rates. In fact, Kuby said, Hynes' conviction rates have suffered because the district attorney was proactive in diverting the prosecutions of some offenders into alternative programs such as treatment.
"No objective observer of the criminal justice system with a modicum of intelligence thinks the conviction rate is a good way to evaluate the effectiveness of the prosecution," Kuby said. "When you start to evaluate effectiveness by notches in a gun, you encourage prosecutorial overreaching and misconduct."
Jay Schwitzman, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, who personally backed Hynes said he would now do what he could to assist Thompson.
"We will work with [Thompson] to continue to make sure the criminal justice system in Brooklyn works as effectively as possible," Schwitzman said. "I'm relishing the idea of a new D.A.," he said, adding, he was "looking forward to changes taking place."
Schwitzman said he thought Thompson would apply more scrutiny to police versions of events when it came to testimony, for example, on the recovery of contraband. "The status quo can be changed. …It certainly needs to be looked at," he said.
Michael Farkas, a criminal defense attorney, said there was always "uncertainty" when a new district attorney takes over, but said he and fellow attorneys were hoping Thompson would "continue the very good work that D.A. Hynes began and perpetrated with alternative to incarceration programs."
Like Kuby, Farkas said that on the campaign trail, Thompson seemed sometimes "at odds" with diversion programs. He said that Thompson's stress on conviction rates suggested "as a prosecutor he wanted to be tougher."
"I'm certainly not asking for prosecutors not to be tough on crime, but hoping there's an expressed recognition of the progressive way Brooklyn approaches criminal prosecution and crime prevention," said Farkas.
At his press conference, Thompson said he would keep intact the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program, a diversion program for non-violent felony offenders, and a reentry program dubbed Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together.
Thompson said Hynes had to be "honored" for those "innovative" programs.
@|Andrew Keshner can be reached at email@example.com. Joel Stashenko also contributed to this report.