By Barrett Seaman
There’s another Democratic primary going on in Westchester besides the musical chairs game being played to succeed Nita Lowey in Congress. Also to be decided is who will be the county’s District Attorney for the next four years. The choice is between an experienced incumbent, 66-year-old former FBI agent and judge, Anthony A. (Tony) Scarpino Jr., and Mimi Rocah, 49, a Harvard-educated former Assistant U.S. Attorney, a protégé of Preet Bharara with a face well-known to viewers of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where she was a legal analyst.
If Rocah had not challenged Scarpino, he probably would have easily won re-election in November, as he did against the only Republican in the race, both in 2016 and now, White Plains attorney Bruce Bendish. For now, however, he must survive the June 23rd primary, which will require in part making a good showing in the Thursday, May 28, Zoom debate sponsored by the Westchester League of Women Voters.
That Rocah would be a serious challenge became clear in late January, when Scarpino squeaked out a 51-49 percent win over her among county Democrat district leaders—a contest an incumbent should have won handily. Since then, she has out-raised him by a better than three-to-two margin, and with a month to go in the race, she has a four-to-one advantage over him in cash on hand.
Mimi, as she is called in all her campaign messaging, also has a big edge in endorsements, starting with Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney in the Southern District and Trump nemesis, celebrities Rob Reiner and Jane Lynch, and recently Hillary Clinton, who isn’t known for putting a hand on the scale of local elections like this. In the rivertowns, Mimi is endorsed by the Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry and Mount Pleasant Democratic Committees as well by Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray, .
Scarpino has the backing of the local Teamsters and building and construction workers as well as a posse of local defense attorneys. Local representatives State Senator Pete Harckham and Assemblyman Tom Abinanti have come out for him as well.
Rocah’s challenge has brought out the softer side of the incumbent. In addition to his regular press releases announcing the arrest or indictment of criminal suspects around the county, he has added messages offering support for the victims of domestic violence and criminal justice reform, including early release of non-violent criminals.
Rocah has attacked her rival for taking questionable campaign donations from defense attorneys who have cases before the DA and having DA staff members work on behalf of his campaign. She has also accused him of being soft on abusive cops. In return, the Scarpino campaign claims Rocah has failed to disclose who paid for her digital advertising.
Rocah rose to prominence under Bharara, who promoted her three times, earning her stripes in cases against organized crime, Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s involvement in covering up Trump’s affairs, and gun and narcotics traffickers. During the height of the Mueller investigation, she frequently appeared on Morning Joe, opining about the president’s legal vulnerabilities. She portrays herself as an effective boss who will make the 238-member DA’s office run more efficiently than Scarpino has. “It’s not about him being a bad person, or not having his heart in the right place,” she told The Hudson Independent last January, “It’s not so much what he’s doing wrong; it’s what he’s not doing.”
Like all political races this year, deprived as they are of human contact, the Westchester DA contest is hard to measure. Both camps are said to have done polling, but nobody’s sharing. The Rocah camp is pleased with their phone outreach—50,000 calls in two weeks—and good virtual showings at their events, in particular the one with Hillary. Word of mouth in the river communities suggests Rocah has a strong following among party activists. Whether there is a comparable Scarpino cohort somewhere out there in the county is not clear.