Denis E. Dillon

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Denis E. Dillon (December 21, 1933 – August 15, 2010), was an American prosecutor and politician who served as District Attorney of Nassau County, New York from 1975 to 2005. Dillon was well known for his opposition to abortion rights, and the issue prompted his defection to the Republican Party in 1989, having previously been one of the very few Democratic politicians to have success in Nassau County. Prior to his defection, Dillon challenged incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo from the right in the 1986 election for governor, finishing in third place with 3% of the vote as the nominee of the New York State Right to Life Party.

First elected to a three-year term as District Attorney in 1974, Dillon was re-elected to 7 four-year terms, losing in his attempt to win a ninth term in 2005 to Democratic nominee Kathleen Rice. In the history of New York, only Robert Morgenthau of Manhattan and William V. Grady of Dutchess County have served longer as a District Attorney, although Robert M. Carney of Schenectady will also surpass Dillon's mark prior to the expiration of his current term.

Early life, education and career[edit]

Dillon was born in 1933 into a devout Roman Catholic family in the Bronx, and spent parts of his childhood living in the borough's Woodlawn neighborhood, where his father owned a bar, as well as the Rockaway Beach section of Queens and in Arlington, Virginia, an immediate suburb of the District of Columbia. Dillon graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor's degree in 1955.

Dillon graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 1962, having attended at night while working as an officer in the New York Police Department. Upon graduation, Dillon was hired by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, where he served until appointed an Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York in 1966. In 1968, Dillon joined the Eastern District's Organized Crime Task Force, becoming its director in April 1970 and serving until he resigned to run for District Attorney on May 16, 1974.[1][2][3]

District Attorney[edit]

1974 election[edit]

Dillon was originally elected in 1974 as a Democrat, defeating 12-year incumbent Republican William Cahn and Conservative Party nominee Francis B. Hearn with 52% of the vote in what the New York Times called a "major upset".

The campaign between Dillon and Cahn was brutal from the onset, and took place amidst the backdrop of the January 10, 1974 revelation that Cahn was under investigation by the office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where Dillon served as Organized Crime Task Force chief, for alleged grand jury tampering in relation to the revocation of indictments against three Republican Oyster Bay municipal officials involved with parking meter kickbacks. The investigation was opened in August 1973, when Dillon was approached with the allegations by Norman E. Blankman, an independent candidate for County Executive on the Integrity line, but the matter was quickly reassigned to another assistant by US Attorney Robert A. Morse because it lacked a nexus to organized crime.[4]

The investigation proceeded privately, but was upended on December 4 when Morse commit suicide by jumping from his fifth story apartment. Morse's death left the US Attorney's office vacant, pending the recommendation of a new appointee to President Richard Nixon from New York's two Republican senators, Jacob Javits and James L. Buckley. Much influence in filling the vacancy was expected to be held by Nassau County Republican chairman Joseph Margiotta, who as the boss of Nassau County's political machine became one of the foremost Republican power brokers statewide. Prior to Christmas, Margiotta approached Cahn's Chief Assistant District Attorney, Edward Margolin offering a recommendation for the vacancy, which was accepted. Margiotta proceeded to contact state Republican chairman Richard Rosenbaum, recommending Margolin for appointment; Rosenbaum then forwarded the recommendation, with his own endorsement, to Javits and Buckley. Concurrent to these events, Dillon had begun to himself seek the appointment, contacting Buckley to recommend himself for the position, and receiving the unsolicited recommendation of United States Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Henry E. Petersen.[5]

When word of Margiotta's recommendation that Margolin fill the vacancy reached assistants in the US Attorney's office, they contacted Department of Justice officials in Washington to express their concern that he could interfere with the investigation of Cahn. Margolin was soon dropped from consideration upon the disclosure that he had been subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury investigating Cahn, with the appointment instead going in late March to David G. Trager, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.[5][6]

Dillon first suggested that he was considering a campaign on May 14, the same day Trager was confirmed by the Senate to serve as US Attorney[6], and announced his candidacy on May 16, resigning from the US Attorney's office to do so. Dillon's candidacy was responded to favorably by party leadership, with Stanley Harwood, the Assemblyman and county chair, saying that Dillon's chances were "very good" and that his "extensive experience" in criminal prosecution would "bring a dimension into the campaign we haven't had before".[7] Dillon's candidacy was endorsed by the county Democratic committee on the first ballot in a June meeting, despite concerns from some that his status as a recent transplant to Rockville Centre from New York City made him a carpetbagger.[8]

During the campaign, Dillon attacked Cahn for a poor record of cooperation with federal authorities in his capacity as District Attorney, saying that "not once" during Dillon's time as the Eastern District's organized crime chief had Cahn's office shared information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and that it had "seriously weakened federal law enforcement efforts" in the county.[9] Dillon also attacked Cahn for having a lackluster conviction rate, saying that from 1970 to 1973, Nassau County had the highest rate of acquittals and cases dismissed prior to trial compared to Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties, while having the lowest conviction rate, something Dillon compared to "leading the league in errors, strikeouts, and men left on base". Cahn responded by accusing Dillon's campaign of cherry picking counties with a low case load for comparison, pointing out that many of the pre-trial dismissals were due to a diversion program not available in the other counties, and criticizing Dillon for being interested in "box score justice".[10]

[11] for politicizing the office by vetting his appointees for Assistant District Attorney positions through the county's Republican Party, which resulted in 99 of the offices 100 attorneys being registered Republicans.

Despite Cahn's weaknesses and having run a strong campaign, Dillon was outspent by a $300,000 to $30,000 margin and was not expected to win on election day. Dillon's victory was assisted by the unexpectedly strong coattails of successful Democratic gubernatorial nominee Hugh Carey, who won an upset victory in the county against the prediction of county Republican polling, and the general bad climate for Republicans in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.[12][13]

1977 election[edit]

Dillon was re-elected in 1977 on the Democratic, Conservative, and Liberal Party lines with 62% of the vote over Republican nominee Gregory P. Peterson.[14] Dillon's re-election was one of the few bright spots for Nassau County Democrats, who saw Republicans retain both the County Executive and Comptroller's seats, as well as an overwhelming majority on the county's Board of Supervisors.[15]

1981 election[edit]

The 1980 indictment of Margiotta led to speculation that Dillon, at the height of his popularity, would seek the Democratic nomination for County Executive against incumbent Francis Purcell, a Margiotta associate. Dillon ultimately declined the opportunity, instead accepting an offer brokered by his friend, then-Hempstead Town Councilman Peter King, of the Republican endorsement and ballot line for re-election as District Attorney. King, with whom Dillon had bonded over their opposition to abortion and support of Irish republicanism, obtained Margiotta's approval for the deal and Dillon received the Republican nomination without opposition. In the aftermath of Dillon's decision, Democrats largely abandoned their countywide effort for the November election, running their county vice chairman John Matthews as a sacrificial lamb against Purcell, and their planned nominee for Comptroller, Richard Kessel dropping out of the race, saying that the electorate would "vote for Purcell on the Republican line, Dillon on the G.O.P. line and then clickety-clack right down the Republican line".[16]

In November, Dillon was elected unopposed to a third term, having received the Democratic, Republican, Liberal, and Conservative nominations, as well as that of the Right to Life Party, which first attained statewide ballot access after the 1978 gubernatorial election. Dillon's unopposed re-election came amidst a Republican landslide countywide, with the party winning every contested race, including King's as County Comptroller.[17]

1985 election[edit]

During the 1985 campaign for District Attorney, Dillon again obtained the nominations of five parties and was officially unopposed, but opposition arose just days after the primary when, on September 14, Dillon led a march of 1,000 individuals, primarily drawn from regional Catholic churches and schools, at the Bill Baird Center, a Hempstead abortion clinic. Dillon's actions led to his candidacy being disavowed by the Liberal Party and its Nassau County Chair, Jack Olchin, and to the decision of Bill Baird, the clinic's namesake and a well known reproductive rights activist, to mount a write-in campaign against Dillon.[18]

1986 gubernatorial campaign[edit]

In 1986, Dillon ran for Governor of New York as the nominee of the New York State Right to Life Party. He finished in third place behind Democratic incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo, and Republican Westchester County Executive Andrew O'Rourke. In 1989, Dillon became a Republican because of the pro-choice stance of the Nassau County Democratic Party. Regardless of party, Dillon remained very popular, and was reelected seven times without serious difficulty. He was unseated in 2005 by 2010 state attorney general candidate and congresswoman-elect Kathleen M. Rice.

Death[edit]

On August 15, 2010, Dillon, a devoted Catholic,[19] died at his home in Rockville Centre after a long battle with lymphoma. He was 76 years old.[20]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Dillon Enters Race to Be Prosecutor of Nassau County". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  2. ^ Wheaton, Sarah (August 16, 2010). "Denis E. Dillon, Prosecutor on Long Island, Dies at 76". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Vecsey, George. "2 Racket Busters Square Off for District Attorney in Nassau". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  4. ^ Breasted, Mary. "U.S. Investigation in Nassau is Termed a 'Witch-Hunt'". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  5. ^ a b Breasted, Mary. "Nassau Prosecutor Investigated by U.S." The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  6. ^ a b Breasted, Mary. "Denis Dillon Weighs Race For Prosecutor in Nassau". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  7. ^ "Dillon Enters Race to be Prosecutor of Nassau County". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  8. ^ Silver, Roy. "Nassau Democrats See Opportunity For Victory". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  9. ^ "Rival Accuses Cahn of Shunning FBI". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  10. ^ Silver, Roy. "Foe Assails Cahn on Acquittal Rate". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  11. ^ Vescey, George. "Flamboyant Nassau District Attorney Enjoys Limelight". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  12. ^ Silver, Roy. "Margiotta Says GOP Power Remains". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  13. ^ Silver, Roy. "Cahn is Beaten by Dillon in a Major Nassau Upset". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  14. ^ "Vote in Nassau". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  15. ^ Silver, Roy. "Nassau GOP Shows New Strength". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  16. ^ Kornacki, Steve. "The fall of the Nassau Republican machine and the rise of Homeland Security chair Peter King". Politico. Politico. Retrieved 19 December 2017. 
  17. ^ McQuiston, John. "G.O.P. KEEPS SUFFOLK LEGISLATURE AND WINS A BIG VICTORY IN NASSAU". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  18. ^ Lynn, Frank. "KEY POSTS ON THE LINE IN ELECTION". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2017. 
  19. ^ "Longtime Nassau District Attorney Dillon Dies at 76". The Wall Street Journal. 
  20. ^ Wheaton, Sarah (August 16, 2010). "Denis E. Dillon, Prosecutor on Long Island, Dies at 76". The New York Times.