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Three candidates vie for Onondaga County District Attorney seat

Bill Fitzpatrick (R), Christine Varga (C), and Chuck Keller (D) are all running in the Onondaga County District Attorney race.
Bill Fitzpatrick (R), Christine Varga (C), and Chuck Keller (D) are all running in the Onondaga County District Attorney race.

This year’s Onondaga County district attorney race has included twists and turns. The Onondaga County Conservative Party threw its support behind Democrat Chuck Keller instead of Republican incumbent Bill Fitzpatrick.

It’s a move Fitzpatrick said was politically orchestrated by former county GOP Committee chair Tom Dadey.

"He persuaded a relatively small group of people that I was not the person I am,” Fitzpatrick said. “They almost invariably, to a man and woman, regret that. But it's the same thing that happened four years ago when I had two opponents, so at the end of the day, it doesn't bother me at all."

Keller said he met with Conservative party leaders and just told them where he stands on the issues.

"I didn't come in and give them a line of what they wanted to hear,” Keller said. “I told them who I was, and you can imagine the questions they asked, right? And I answered every one of their questions fully, and I specifically told them, I said, 'Listen, if you don't like what I'm selling, don't vote for me.'"

But the endorsement of Keller upset longtime Conservative Christine Varga. She threw her hat in the ring for the primary and earned the Conservative party line by winning almost 82 percent of the vote.

Varga used to work as an assistant D.A. in the district attorney’s office, but she said, despite that connection to Fitzpatrick, she’s running to win.

"This has cost me time and money. It's taken away from other things that I wanted to do. There were events and things, trips that we wanted to take, that couldn't be done. This is something that I'm very serious about. I felt it was important to do this for Onondaga County,” Varga said.

Now, the three candidates said they’re focused on the issues. Bail reform is a top topic of conversation.

Fitzpatrick calls the current reforms a “disaster,” saying judges should be able to consider a defendant’s dangerousness and their other crimes when making a decision about bail. He points to Victoria Afet, who pleaded guilty to killing a 93-year-old woman at Skyline Apartments.

"She's out on five distinct pending felonies. The judge in the case, following the bail reform, said, 'Oh, I'm going to take the least restrictive means possible, and I'm going to let her out on bail,' and a week later, a week later, she murders 93-year-old Connie Tuori," Fitzpatrick said.

Keller said while he believes the current bail reform laws need revising, something had to be done to protect people who did not have the financial means to post bail.

"The reason why those changes happened was because of the way the system had worked, which is, if you had enough money, you could be free. If you didn't have enough money, you could not. I don't think there is anybody who thinks that should be the criteria for whether or not you're at liberty,” said Keller.

Varga shares her concerns about bail reform by pointing out there are more than 7,000 outstanding arrest warrants in Onondaga County.

"There are 7,000 cases languishing in the criminal justice system. 7,000 cases that aren't being resolved. And some of those cases are things that really need to be addressed," she said.

In the days leading up to Election Day, the candidates said they plan to be out in the community, making their final pitches to voters.

Varga points to her extensive experience helping crime victims as an assistant D.A.

"Some days it would get frustrating because there would be so much work to do, but I loved working with people, and I loved the fact that you could accomplish something, that there was a sense of accomplishment for somebody, for helping somebody."

While Keller said he can provide a change in culture he believes the office needs more lawyers just starting their careers.

"They want to learn how to do the right thing, and there just isn't anyone holding their hand, showing them how to do it, and as a result, they are struggling,” Keller said. “When they struggle, the criminal justice system struggles because they are the face of the criminal justice system."

Fitzpatrick hopes his experience will set him apart.

"Ask yourself this one question,” he said. “If God forbid you came home, and someone you loved and someone you cherish, someone you cared about, had harm done to them, or maybe were the victim of a homicide, of the three candidates, who would you want pursuing the person that did that harm to your loved one?"

Early voting is already underway in Onondaga County. Election Day is November 7.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.