Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe will not seek sixth term

After nearly 20 years in office, Michael O’Keefe announced he will not seek a sixth term as district attorney of Cape Cod and the Islands in the 2022 elections.

“It’s a bittersweet decision but I think it’s the right decision,” O’Keefe said in an interview Wednesday. “I've had a great career here and I'm very grateful for the voters of the Cape and Islands who have supported me over all these years.”

After four decades in the district attorney’s office — first as assistant district attorney under then-district attorney Philip A. Rollins, who held the position for 32 years — O’Keefe said it’s time to move on.

“I’ve worked in this office 40 years and you know that’s a significant amount of time,” O’Keefe said. “I've had an impact on statewide issues that affect the criminal justice system and I've had a great career.”

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe in his Barnstable office after announcing he will not run for reelection in the November election and will retire in January 2023.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe in his Barnstable office after announcing he will not run for reelection in the November election and will retire in January 2023.

O’Keefe, a Republican, offered some words of advice for the next district attorney.

“I learned very early on to do things and make decisions based on what I thought was the right thing to do and not what the political landscape might have expected or wanted,” he said. “The politics takes care of itself and that's certainly been true for my situation here."

He also encouraged his successor to hire the right employees.

"One of the things that I learned very early was never be afraid to hire somebody who's smarter than you are, and that will serve you well," O'Keefe said. "Work hard and surround yourself with good people because they're the ones who are gonna make or break the office."

With almost a year left of O’Keefe’s term, he said he hasn’t yet thought about future plans, and instead will continue to focus on his current role as district attorney.

“The term doesn't end until a year from now so we're going to continue to serve the people of the Cape and Islands just as we have always done,” he said. “We're going to do that every day until the term ends. And then someone else will be DA and I'm sure that the people of Cape Cod will pick the right person for this.”

O'Keefe's announcement follows news in October that Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings would also not run for reelection this year and would retire. After nearly 50 years in law enforcement and completing his fourth term in office as sheriff, Cummings, also a Republican, said it was time to leave.

As a state police officer before he was sheriff, Cummings said he worked almost 20 homicides that O’Keefe prosecuted, and said O’Keefe was “the best prosecutor around” to fill Rollins’ shoes when he was elected as district attorney in 2002.

“There haven’t been any problems at the district attorney's office during my 24 years as sheriff, so to me, that’s quite an accomplishment,” Cummings said. “It's been a pleasure to work with Michael O’Keefe during his longtime relationship in the law enforcement field. He’s served the county well.”

State Rep. Timothy Whelan (R- Brewster) said the end of O’Keefe’s tenure as district attorney will be a “loss to the region and to the administration of justice.” Whelan has declared his candidacy for Barnstable County sheriff, and he said he hopes the next edistrict attorney is someone Whelan can work with, should he be elected.

“Obviously in my role, hoping to be the next county sheriff, I know that I'm going to be having a very close working relationship with whomever the next district attorney is,” Whelan said. “I just hope that it's somebody that prioritizes public safety, but also someone that I can strongly look forward to building a successful working relationship with, as we're serving the citizens of the Cape and Islands.”

O'Keefe grew up in Waltham and attended Boston College and New England School of Law at night, according to a biography on the state's website. He worked as a Dennis police officer and was appointed assistant district attorney for the Cape and Islands district by Rollins in 1982. O’Keefe was elected district attorney in November 2002 and has held that post ever since.

He began his career in the district attorney’s office prosecuting criminal cases, and tried to conclusion over 250 jury trials, including successful prosecutions in 19 homicide trials, according to the biography.

For a Jan. 18 Times story last year, O'Keefe and other Cape elected officials were asked whether they believed Joe Biden won the presidential election. O'Keefe dodged the question, but said he believed there was significant voter fraud and that courts had refused to hear lawsuits because they didn’t want to get involved in politics.

“They took this COVID-19 issue and made it an excuse to have these mass mail-in ballots,” O’Keefe said.

For Lou Cerrone, head of a search committee dedicated to finding Democratic candidates for the 2022 district attorney race, O’Keefe’s comments about voter fraud were “bothersome” and said the issue had been “litigated in over 60 courts, including the Supreme Court,” with no findings of election fraud.

“There were audits and there were recounts and everything, yet (O’Keefe) says there’s fraud,” Cerrone, a member of the Cape and Island's Democratic Council, said. “There’s no evidence of fraud and people like that, in my opinion, want to believe there was even though there wasn’t.”

Over the years, O’Keefe has also been criticized for his stance on race and groups like Black Lives Matter. After 20 years as the district attorney, state Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro) said O’Keefe “deserves gratitude for his service.” But, he said, his decision to end his career as district attorney, is an “opportunity to reshape the criminal justice system on the Cape and Islands.”

“An open DA's race and the open sheriff's race is a chance for us to really interrogate the application of criminal justice on the Cape and the Islands,” Cyr said. “If you look at data related to pre-trial detentions, there was a worrisome trend that Black Cape Codders are held in pre-trial detention at a much higher rate than their white peers. And so this is an opportunity for us to look at those issues, to have a public debate about them.”

For those who find some faults with O’Keefe’s job as district attorney, Judy Crocker, Republican State Committeewoman for the Cape & Islands District, said the “proof is in the pudding.”

“He’s had a tremendous impact on our community and I think you can just look at his election record and his office record and obviously people think he's doing a good job,” she said. “He's entitled to express that opinion. And if he wasn't doing a good job, he wouldn't have gotten continually reelected and his office wouldn't have the great records that they have.”

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: District Attorney Michael O'Keefe will not seek election to 6th term