ELIZABETHTOWN - Incumbent Essex County District Attorney Julie Garcia and challenger Kristy Sprague faced off in a debate at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School Aug. 27, exchanging barbs for more than an hour on subjects such as conviction records and fiscal responsibility.
Sprague, who has 11 years of experience as an Assistant District Attorney in Clinton County, won a coin toss and was the first to field a question chosen by moderators from public submissions.
Sprague challenged Garcia's skills as a prosecutor and her commitment to fiscal responsibility, claiming that Garcia had inflated her department's budget.
"A drug case dismissed for lack of evidence, another drug case dismissed for lack of evidence and failure to provide the Grand Jury enough evidence and instructions," Sprague said, brandishing case records. "These are very basic things a District Attorney has to do. If anyone has ever heard the phrase 'convict a ham sandwich,' well, this administration couldn't."
Garcia countered by criticizing Sprague on her ego, accusing her of providing misleading information and using fear tactics to acquire votes. She said the budget in her department has actually decreased 12 percent during her tenure, and said office staff has dropped from 11 employees to eight.
"When anyone tries to play on the public's fear, I think it's completely inappropriate," Garcia said. "Going through specific cases without giving all of the background information is a tactic; it's called a fear tactic."
While her records are readily available, Garcia claimed the Clinton County District Attorney had refused requests to release information about Sprague's record as a prosecutor, making it difficult to make comparisons.
"I've got nothing to hide," she said.
Sprague blamed Garcia for mounting a lawsuit that aimed to disqualify Sprague's petition signatures on the basis of her living outside Essex County. She even accused Garcia of sending a registered sex offender whom she had prosecuted for rape to her home to serve notice for the suit, which was rejected Aug. 14.
At the debate, Garcia said it was her commitment to open government and willingness to ask questions that created a rift between her and Republican leaders.
"The Republican party leadership in Essex County is a train wreck," Garcia said. "I find it very difficult to relate with them on any level. In fact, I think when any party is in control for a long period of time, this is the kind of government that is created."
Both candidates agreed that party politics have no place in the DA's office.
Sprague argued Republican leaders simply chose the better candidate, seeing poor performance by Garcia in the last four years.
"They asked her to do her job, and she didn't do it," Sprague said.
Garcia said her record is above average and that allowing plea deals is sometimes a better exercise in justice than always pursuing a conviction. She pointed to the progress she and her staff have made tackling drunk driving, both by tough prosecution of the crime and strong prevention efforts against underage alcohol use.
Sprague, on the other hand, said Garcia avoided taking felony cases to trial, instead choosing to leave them in her staff's hands. She also asserted Garcia paid far too much attention to DWIs while letting other, more pressing issues fall through the cracks and making deals with repeat offenders.
"Unlike my opponent, I am not afraid of going into the courtroom and fighting for victim's rights," Sprague said. "I'm not a talker, I am a doer - I lead by example and I train new attorneys how to win cases successfully."
In her closing remarks, Garcia said the election was as much about transparency in government as it was about choosing a good DA.
"I committed to you before I asked for your commitment to me," she said. "I know the people that live in this county, and I hope I've earned your trust."
Sprague finished by saying she is the more qualified candidate and the more able prosecutor.
"Maybe my opponent is doing the best she can, but I can do better," she said.
Both candidates are set to face off in a Republican primary Sept. 15. Sprague defeated Garcia for the Republican endorsement in June. Garcia, in turn, gained the endorsement of Democrats.