By G. Michael Dobbs
HOLYOKE – “Experience” seemed to be the theme of the evening at the first debate between candidates for Hampden Country district attorney.
Although the first debate between the candidates came early in the election cycle – on April 10 – it was clear that with a relatively large field the candidates want this head start to draw differences between each other.
Brett Vottero, Hal Etkin, Shawn Allyn, and Anthony Gulluni met to discuss issues and answer questions from a panel of Latino journalists as well as audience members at the Morgan School in Holyoke. The Massachusetts Latino Democratic Committee and the Chicopee City Democratic Committee sponsored the event.
All the candidates at this time are Democrats, meaning the race will be settled by the primary in September.
The auditorium at the school was standing room only with both supporters of the candidates and the curious attending.
In opening statements Etkin recounted his career in law both in private practice and as an assistant district attorney. He was also the director Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Center – otherwise known as the Police Academy – for nine years.
Etkin asked the audience to go to his website (www.etkinforda.com
) for his weekly announcements on initiatives he would undertake if elected. His ideas include a continuous gun buy back program and a program to make sure victims of domestic violence are transported to and from court in a secure manner.
Allyn spoke of the “unmatched range of experience” he offers voters. He has practiced law since 1999 as a defense attorney, but was also a social worker in the Department of Family and Children.
Allyn called both addiction and youth violence as part of a “serious public health crisis.”
Vottero described his 30 years experience practicing law, much of that time as a prosecutor for “the largest law firm in Western Massachusetts” – the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office. He said he is running for the position in order to set the priorities for law enforcement in the county.
Gulluni spoke of both his time working with at-risk youth at the Salvation Army as well as his time as an assistant district attorney prosecuting more than 100 cases in Superior Court.
One of the initial questions from the panel asked the candidates to describe one of the biggest personal challenges that they overcame.
Etkin related how he lost his parents by age 14 and was raised by his sisters. He said he wants to convey the message to youth today that “this is still a great country and good things can still happen.”
Vottero said that while he has “lived a fortunate life” early in his career as a prosecutor he handled a case of domestic violence in which an eight year-old boy beat a three year-old boy to death. He said that those kinds of cases “leave an impact.”
Allen recounted that coming to the realization that he is a gay man was his biggest personal challenge. He noted he has the support of his former wife and her husband.
Gulluni said that while he has had “a great life and a great family” the attack on the country on Sept. 11, 2001 was a defining moment for him and inspired him to get into law enforcement.
When asked how he would engage the Latino community in the county to be come more involved in anti-crime activities, Gulluni said he would focus on improving inclusion and access in the office and make sure “all of the communities are represented and fell comfortable in our office.”
Etkin was asked about his statement that if elected in his first term he would send more criminals to jail than ever before and if incarceration was the best way to treat offenders.
He replied he should have used the phrase “serious offenders” in the statement. He is advocating a program in which first time drug offenders would have their cases continued without finding so they could receive counseling and treatment. He would also try to stem the jail time for young offenders by bringing them to jail to show them what serving a sentence there would be like.
“Sending people to jail is expensive and doesn’t work,” Etkin added.
Allyn was asked about racial profiling and said the police officers need to receive more training to avoid the practice.
Vottero used a question about new domestic violence legislation, which he supports, and to speak about treating recidivism. He explained that prosecutors don’t spend enough time considering who the defendants are and how to prevent them from committing crimes in the future. He recounted that one in 118 incarcerated prisoners is white, one in 36 are Latino and one in 15 are African American.
“We need to know why. The answer is not easy,” he said.
Not all of the candidates agreed on the subject of minimum and mandatory sentences. Allyn said he didn’t support the practice except in the cases involving violent repeat offenders. Vottero added that he said the same thing four years ago when he first ran for district attorney.
“Treating people the same – that’s just the problem. We need to look at the individual. Minimum/mandatory sentences have not been effective,” Vottero said.
Gulluni called them “an effective tool” in certain cases. Etkin said he didn’t support them and that the country “has great judges who get it right.”