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Enough is enough: Soares brandishes a shirt carrying his message.

Challenger, but no challenger

With no opponent in sight, Albany County DA David Soares heads toward a presumed second term with an ambitious new program to clean up the streets—and persistent criticism of his priorities

By David King

Photos by Shannon DeCelle

“This is probably the steepest set of steps I have ever had to climb,” says Albany County District Attorney David Soares as he peers down at the set of brown, rotten stairs he has just traversed to reach the door of an apartment at 320 First St. in Albany’s West Hill. Armed with fliers, invitations to a block party he is throwing, Soares has spent a good part of the evening knocking on doors and greeting people in the neighborhood.

He pauses for a moment and looks down at a pair of window sills that separate the space between two apartments.

The sills are lined with long candles that serve as a shrine to fallen friends, or perhaps allies. Tattered sunglasses lie next to wilted flowers.

This is the kind of thing suburbanites might be used to seeing by the side of the highway as tributes to car-crash victims, but here in West Hill, this memorial is left on the front of a house. Graffiti sprayed across boarded windows read “Murda Mook” and “Free Milly.”

Soares stands silent for the first time this evening. His gaze shifts skyward, but the presence of the makeshift memorials for lost victims of crime and violence hangs heavily around him.

Up to now Soares has been all smiles and one-liners, chatting up the residents of First Street, but now he stands patiently at the door waiting to see who might answer. This is surely not exactly how Soares thought he would be spending the late summer of 2008, heading into his second term. Sure, he would have been strolling through neighborhoods, greeting children with a smile and asking parents for support. But with no opponent on either the Republican or Democratic ticket, the onetime maverick does not actually have to run for reelection.

Soares says he expected a campaign and, one way or another, he is going to give the people of Albany County one, regardless of the lack of opposition.

“There was a lot of excitement and expectation when I was first elected,” says Soares. “And I knew in four years I was going to have to summon all the energy and start over. I knew that going into my first term, and I was looking forward to the debate no matter who ran against me. Without an opponent I still plan on campaigning, I still plan on having that debate, and I still plan on going door-to-door and talking to people.”

Soares is dead serious.

 

He has been out in neighborhoods knocking on doors and talking to people about how he wants to fight crime in Albany and turn back the urban blight he sees consuming the city. “I still have an agenda, and the fact that there is no one to debate with . . . I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it’s of no consequence. I am not taking this for granted.” This weekend Soares plans to formally announce an initiative called “Enough,” a program that certainly would have had a major part in any true reelection campaign—if he had an opponent.

Soares has been developing the “Enough” hotline since May of last year, and this week the program launches into action. Block parties to announce the initiative will be held at 5 PM at the Livingston Avenue Park tomorrow (Friday) and at 5 PM at the Elizabeth Street Park on Saturday.

The program offers three ways for residents of Albany County to anonymously help stop crime on their streets.

The first option, “Voluntary Surrender,” welcomes people to anonymously surrender guns to Pastor Charlie Muller in exchange for $150 gift certificates to Crossgates Mall.

The second, “$500 Reward and Incarceration,” would give $500 to citizens who provide information over the “Enough” hotline that results in the confiscation of an unlicensed gun, and the arrest of the person who illegally possessed that gun.

The third option, and perhaps most daring, is called “Withdrawal.”

According to program literature, “Youth who have had enough of the gang lifestyle can call the hotline and be connected with experienced counselors and reformed ex-offenders who will provide information and guidance to help begin the process of leaving the violent street culture behind.”

Soares has the luxury to spend this fall focusing on initiatives instead of his campaign for reelection, but that does not mean he is without critics.

Allison Banks, an anti-gun-violence advocate who has been involved in the creation of “Enough” since the first meeting, has a unique relationship with Soares; she has interacted with him both as an advocate and as a crime victim. Her opinion of the district attorney is split down the middle.

“The first impression I got of David Soares was that he told me, ‘Your son was murdered and the person that did this is gonna pay.’ This is what he said: ‘The person who did this is going to pay. We are going to prosecute to the fullest extent.’ There is no question about the fact that boy murdered my son!”

Since losing her son Elleek to gun violence in 2006, Banks has spent time with Soares both as a victim waiting for the district attorney to deliver justice to the man accused of the killing, and as an advocate working with the district attorney’s office to come up with ways to reach out to the community to prevent more gun violence. And while Banks is working closely with the district attorney’s office on spreading the word about “Enough,” she does not harbor exclusively warm feelings for Soares.

The prosecution of Banks’ son’s alleged killer was delayed for two years due to a procedural misstep. This year, the defendant was acquitted, because—according to Soares—not enough witnesses stepped up. However, Banks believes the acquittal resulted at least in part from the DA’s office’s misplaced priorities.

Banks says she appreciates Soares’ community outreach efforts, but she feels he has been neglecting the main duties of his office. “While David Soares was prosecuting steroids users in Florida, he should have been here making sure he stood by what he said,” says Banks. “He told me, ‘He will not get away with that,’ he should have made sure those words were followed out. I’m not mad at him; he just didn’t do his job.”

Matthew Clyne, the brother of former District Attorney Paul Clyne, whom Soares bested for the position in 2004, has a similar criticism of Soares. “The steroids thing felt like a complete waste of county resources. I don’t get what benefit it is to Albany County in terms of allocation of resources toward prosecution. In my opinion street crime should be the priority, because that’s what drives people out of neighborhoods. Steroids don’t. The city is undergoing a difficult period. I think crime is definitely one of the reasons people are leaving the city. When he goes off investigating steroids in Florida he is going off in the wrong direction.”

Soares is used to hearing the “steroid case” brought up as some sort of failure to recognize that which should be most important to his office, and it baffles him. “I don’t know how anyone who truly understands the world of illicit drugs can point to a prosecution of a compounding pharmaceutical company that is distributing products in violation of state law as a failing. Especially with the number of convictions associated with this case as we’ve had—especially when that case triggers a cultural change in professional sports and triggers legislation at a federal level. I don’t know how any person can look at that case as a failing. The reality is there are crimes committed on streets of Albany County, but there are also crimes being committed on the street corners of the information superhighway. What this case represents to me personally is the range this little tiny office in Albany County has.”

Working together: Soares and community activist Charles LaCourt.

Back on the stoop in West Hill, Soares tilts his head towards the sky as a voice rings down: “Can I help you?” Soares begins to explain himself. But the man is too excited to listen. “I’ll be right down! I have to shake your hand at least,” he declares.

A group of girls slink by, curious about the well-dressed gentleman knocking on doors. “See, it is David Soares! I knew it!” squeals one of the young women.

Soares gives them a flier and invites them to bring any young kids they might know. The man finally opens the door. “I am so glad to see you out here. I voted for you. I will vote for you again!” The man gushes as Soares tries to explain the block party and “Enough” initiative. It seems pointless to remind the man that Soares is not actually facing a challenge in this election. Residents of this neighborhood who remember Soares’ 2004 election battle might simply not believe it.

Through his entire first term, a challenge seemed inevitable for Soares, especially because his harshest and loudest critics are prominent, longtime members of the Albany political machine.

Since his election as a maverick outsider, for Soares (and his political advisers) the question wasn’t just who would oppose him but how many and with whose backing. But slowly the reality is setting in.

Soares has by no means become one of the good old boys he spent much of his term in office squabbling with. Nor does the lack of opposition mean Soares is seen to have delivered on all his campaign promises and completely pleased his base. According to Clyne, the reason Soares is unopposed has more to do with luck than with anything Soares has accomplished himself. “It is the perfect political storm for him. It is one of those weird things where the stars align in a certain pattern, and he gets the benefit of it. For the Republican side, retaining control of the Senate is paramount. For Democrats, the congressional campaign is going to occupy more attention than this will.”

Soares says none of the rumors about an opponent or speculation as to why no opponent came forward affect what he has planned for his next term.

“Regardless of what the Democratic commissioner may say . . . all the individuals who were out there early on in the whisper campaigns, talking about posing a challenge . . . those were individuals that represented a certain ideology and belief system that was once Albany County,” says Soares. “I was prepared and I am prepared to continue to espouse a progressive, tough-on-crime, smart-on prevention agenda that is necessary to combat what is going on out on our streets. Regardless of the name of that opponent, the message is still the same, the drive is still the same, and the mission is the same.”

However, Clyne counters that Soares has been shielded locally from criticism that is being leveled at him more heavily in New York City. Clyne says Soares’ role in investigating Troopergate and his final exoneration of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer has been heavily questioned in the New York press. Clyne feels that local media have shied away from taking a hard look at Soares’ abilities as a prosecutor. Soares argues that no one but him is privy to the same information and is as qualified as he is to determine Spitzer’s guilt or innocence in the Troopergate matter.

“I don’t know anyone who has spent the time with the case that we have, that has evaluated the information and evidence and weighed it against the applied law who can arrive at a different conclusion that we can arrive at,” says Soares. “There is nothing we can do to overcome the media’s perceptions or what people think happened.”

And Soares insists that taking on large cases like Troopergate, the scandal involving former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, or even the Internet pharmaceutical bust, has not distracted him from the mandate of his office, but has allowed him to demonstrate the scope of his office and to investigate and prosecute where others are afraid to.

“I had someone comment about me to a friend,” says Soares. “He said, ‘That Soares, he seems to ice skate from one crisis to another.’ I think about that comment, and I don’t know that I ice skate from one crisis to another, but I am willing to take on issues and challenges that other people will think too controversial. I think that in this political climate, this economic climate, the public embraces someone who is willing to fight. They may not agree with the cause, but there is a respect factor for willingness to take something on.”

 

Back on First Street, Soares peers into an open door. A young boy in pajamas decorated with images of football players toddles to the door. “Is your mommy home?” asks Soares. A woman strolls to the door with a smile on her face, and Soares begins explaining the block party and the “Enough” initiative.

“There will be hot dogs and hamburgers, but I’m sure these small guys aren’t interested in that,” Soares says smiling down at the two young boys who scramble around their mother’s feet, looking up occasionally, curious and brave. “So, I will see you on Friday!” Soares says as he departs the doorway, “Bring my security, too!” he smiles, pointing at the two young boys.

A man and woman walk by. “It’s David Soares!” announces the woman. Soares hands them a flier. “We gotta do something ’bout the violence,” the man says. The woman agrees and then adds sheepishly, “We’re moving ’cause of it.”

Soares implores the couple to come to the party to help fight the violence. The man interjects, “Well, we’re moving ’cause of space.” Soares thanks the couple and softly but firmly adds, “You stay.”

Despite Soares’ successes and what seems to be a guaranteed second term, he still faces criticism from some who initially supported him.

Clyne says Soares’ original platform was simply too overarching for the office, and now his supporters are realizing he can’t deliver on his promises. “When he ran four years ago,” says Clyne, “he came out with a political platform that basically was not even a real, realistic program, one that was incompatible to his office. Dave was going to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws and institute socialization into the criminal-justice system, and he was going to ameliorate the rigorous inequalities that are perceived in the criminal-justice system. And of course that is really fanciful at best. Those who are most familiar with the legal system feel it is not the role of the prosecutor.”

Even Allison Banks, who helped work on the “Enough” program, has concerns and doubts about the program. Banks feels that the component that allows people to turn in others who have illegal firearms will not sit well with the community and may in fact be abused by some. And Banks, who is a member of the Albany Gun Violence Task Force, says she would like to see less of Soares on TV and more of him in the task-force meetings rather than his alternate, assistant district attorney Mark Harris.

Banks says that, no matter how she feels personally about the district attorney, she will continue to support his efforts to curb gun violence. But she is still mightily conflicted about the man himself.

“I support him because he has interest in going after the thing that’s killing our kids,” says Banks. “But this initiative might not work. We may never get guns off the street. We may continue to hear shots fired, and when that happens, what is he going to do then? If you are in a position to prosecute and put people away, you are able to set a tone. He let the man who killed my son off, and that is showing the city he doesn’t have the potential to do that. That’s the strong example he’s setting for the community. These little gun buyback programs, marches, walks, fliers . . . until you start prosecuting, locking people up, putting curfews on, dealing out punishment for killing people, you are going to keep having people dying.”

In his office, Soares is asked whether he can create headlines as big as the ones he received for visiting Florida for the cause of prosecuting gun-violence cases. Soares orders the printer turned on, the pages of press releases his office sends out regarding successful prosecutions each day printed out.

And while the printer flashes out fresh ink and crisp letterheads, Soares makes it clear that it is up to the media to choose the headlines, and up to the citizens of Albany to take a step up alongside its political leaders and take some responsibility.

“Fact,” begins Soares. “A year ago, if an African-American male picked up a handgun, pointed it at an individual, shot another African-American individual, the best you could get in terms of reporting on the incident is the third page of the local section, right by the furniture store ad. If you got more than two paragraphs, then you considered yourself lucky. The fact of the matter is that the reports of shots fired in the city of Albany have not changed. Quite to the contrary, last year you had fewer homicides or cases involving weapons than in previous years, but now you have a community whose senses have been heightened by the tragedy of a few weeks back. We prosecute those cases every day, and on average we send two young people away every day who have been involved in cases involving handguns. We prosecute cases involving burglars, rapists, and fraud every day, so to imply that the DA of Albany County is not in the county is absurd.”

But for now, Soares is tired of explaining himself to reporters and addressing his critics, and seems genuinely excited about the door-knocking trip he has planned for later this afternoon on First Street. However, he has one more thing to add: “‘Enough’ captured an important sentiment in the community. We are going to be walking the neighborhood today, and I have got to tell you I have had enough of looking at urban blight and the message that blight sends to every kid in that neighborhood. We are lying to these kids. We tell them go to school. But what’s the message we are sending them when we allow the city to literally decay around them? Think of the kid with his backpack coming out of the door in the morning. He sees the boarded-up building, overgrown trees, the dilapidated houses that are likely to eventually fall in on his own home. What is that saying to that kid? I’ve had enough of the blighted buildings. And I’ve had enough of the political rhetoric, ‘We need to do more for kids!’ Well, where is it? Where is the investment? Where is the after-school program? Where is it?

“So ‘Enough’ is more than one thing. But the greatest challenge we have right now is eliminating and reducing the handguns out on the street. There is a culture in this community whereby . . . ” Soares pauses, frustrated, unsure how to continue. “I’ve had enough of people walking into their houses and shutting the world out behind them, leaving others to clean up the mess. The reality is we can turn the city around. We can turn the tide back, but people have to step up and do what they can, how they can.”

 

Out on the street, Soares approaches a young man who is riding a scooter down the rough sidewalk of First Street. The cement juts into the air at intervals as from a tormented ocean of stone. Cheetos bags, cracker wrappers, Mountain Dew bottles, and empty juice boxes litter the area where he plays like floating splinters of some terrible shipwreck.

Soares lowers his head to speak face-to-face to the boy. “Is that Spider-Man?” Soares asks, pointing to the illustration on the board of the boy’s scooter.

Down the street a woman who is almost certainly the boy’s mother yells at Soares, “My son don’t talk to strangers, and he ain’t gonna take candy from you either!”

Soares fiddles in his pocket while replying to the woman, “You are doing the right thing, but I will be right down there to introduce myself.”

Soares finds what he has been looking for: his keychain with the Spider-Man logo—an emblem of the comic books that he read as a young immigrant, the comic books that he used to learn English. He shows it to the boy. “I like Spider-Man too,” he says, and leads the boy to his mother, who is still standoffish. He hands her a flier. She stands stoic, disapproving.

Others down the street announce, “It’s the DA!” The mother remains unimpressed. “You are teaching him the right things,” Soares assures her. “I’ll see you on Friday,” and he smiles widely as he departs.

The number for the hotline is (518) 765-ENOUGH (3668).


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