Winner takes all in Commonwealth's Attorney primary race (2024)

GREENUP Three local attorneys currently vying for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Greenup and Lewis Counties will see an early end to their campaign season, as the winner takes all on May 21.

The primary election typically narrows the field to two candidates ahead of the general election in November, but with no Democratic candidates and current Commonwealth’s Attorney Mel Leonhart absent from the ballot, Republican candidates Joe Merkel, Rhese McKenzie or Troy Breeze will take the lead prosecutor position in the 20th Judicial Circuit.

Rhese McKenzie

A Russell High School alumnus and native of Greenup County his entire life, Rhese McKenzie had no doubts about where he wanted to settle down and raise a family after completing law school.

McKenzie said as graduation neared, many of his classmates from eastern Kentucky talked about heading to Lexington, Louisville or the Cincinnati area to launch their careers and families.

“I used to laugh because I couldn’t wait to graduate to get back home,” McKenzie said.

That’s exactly what he did.

Early in his career, McKenzie began working as an assistant to the Greenup County attorney before finding his niche with the Department of Public Advocacy where he would garner the majority of his law experience and trial training.

“I handled everything from minor offenses all the way up to murder cases in circuit court,” McKenzie said.

“I feel like I have plenty of experience in my background and I know how to deal with people going through difficult and stressful circ*mstances,” McKenzie said, further describing himself as “uniquely qualified.”

Although McKenzie may not have as many years in prosecuting crimes as he does in defense, he believes that’s exactly what separates him from the others in the race.

“It goes beyond just having stepped in a courtroom before or opening a case file before. These are people that have a unique background, too,” McKenzie said, referencing his home region and its people that an outsider can’t quite grasp.

“All of us from this area, we understand each other,” McKenzie said. “We have a unique understanding of the way things should be and how they should work. I’m the best person in the race to represent that.”

“I am these people and these people are me. ... We’ve been through the same struggles. We cheer for the same teams. We may venture off from time to time but we come back because this is home,” McKenzie said, adding his aspirations have always been to advocate for this community.

Recalling his time as a public defender, McKenzie said his role with defendants required a certain compassion not often attributed with those in the role of lead prosecutor.

“I don’t think you turn that switch off,” McKenzie said when asked if there was space for compassion when prosecuting serious offenses.

“You turn it a different way,” McKenzie said. “A lot of these people are still our people.”

McKenzie said in his experience with working with criminal defendants, there’s a commonality to be found with the victims of serious crimes, as both sides can struggle with mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, etc.

“Those types of issues touch everybody and I can relate to it. I can turn that into a positive on the prosecution side to relate to victims and their families,” McKenzie said.

Throughout his decade in public defense, McKenzie said he stuck around longer than he originally planned which opened doors for connections with local law enforcement and the opportunity to practice under and alongside notable trial attorneys.

That connection with local law enforcement is something McKenzie said is first on his task list, if elected.

McKenzie said he always knew he wanted to give back to the area that raised him by getting involved.

“We have that affinity and that natural attraction, not just to here, but to each other,” McKenzie said, referencing his strong ties to the area.

As far as prosecution goes, McKenzie said to not let his past in criminal defense fool the voters, as he is determined to prosecute all felony crimes firmly, fairly and consistently.

“I love my community and there’s nobody that wants to take care of and protect their neighbors, friends and family more than me,” McKenzie said.

Joe Merkel

Current Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Merkel is running his campaign with a simple approach: “The proof is in the pudding.”

The Russell resident and graduate of Ironton St. Joseph High School joined the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office as a full-time assistant in 2017 and has notched multiple convictions under his belt ever since.

Before earning his law degree, Merkel studied psychology, which he said gave him the chance to study human nature and people which in turn “serves him well” when building rapport with crime victims or picking apart testimony during high-stake trials.

“If I have a case that’s try-able, I’ll take it to trial every time and advocate for the harshest penalty,” Merkel said, claiming his fearlessness of criminal trials stem from his time under award-winning attorneys, including former public defender Brian Hewlett, a recipient of Outstanding Attorney of the Year Award, and Boyd County’s Commonwealth Attorney Rhonda Copley, who previously won Prosecutor of the Year.

“One word: experience,” said Merkel when asked why he was the man for the job.

“I’ve been practicing law for 13 years, nine of which as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney,” Merkel added. “I’ve tried more felony cases in Lewis and Greenup Counties than any other. Voters can look at my record and number of cases.”

Merkel said Leonhart, the current lead prosecutor who typically handles all murder cases, put a special trust in Merkel and starting assigning him to present opening statements, question witnesses and argue cases before jurors.

Merkel, who claims a “100% murder conviction rate,” said in comparison, the two other candidates don’t have a single conviction combined while Merkel said he tallied 40 felony convictions in a time frame of just 30 months.

“I’m the most experienced, but that’s not why I’m running,” Merkel added. “I’m running because there’s a responsibility that comes with being the most experienced.”

Emphasizing the name of the office, Merkel said he’s aware the position belongs to the people, making him the community’s voice for justice, especially for crime victims too young to advocate for themselves.

Merkel said it’s not just the conviction rates on which he hangs his hat. Instead, it’s the moments in his office getting a child ready to testify and a resulting conviction that makes the job worthwhile.

Thank-you cards received from victims long after a case is closed are “treasured possessions,” Merkel said.

Although Merkel hasn’t grown up in Greenup or Lewis County, he said he’s here now.

“We live right here, not on some ivory house on the hill,” Merkel said, emphasizing his two young sons and wife have worked to become ingrained in the community.

“We’re here by choice, not by chance,” Merkel said.

Merkel said he has a list of goals which include better communication with law enforcement through regular briefings with agencies and the prosecutor’s office.

Merkel said he also wants to continue utilizing specialty courts like drug and veterans courts for qualifying defendants.

Troy Breeze

The third candidate and the second Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in the race wasn’t always an attorney.

The retired FBI agent and border patrol agent brings a unique perspective to the prosecution as his candidacy includes hot-button topics usually seen on the national level, including the perceived threat of an open border.

Breeze said while it is a national talking point, the community is seeing its impact in towns throughout Greenup and Lewis Counties.

With a specific hunger to prosecute those who bring dangerous drugs is an obvious platform, Breeze said.

“Narcotics are the foundational stone to criminal activity,” Breeze said, adding most violent and property crimes are fueled or induced by the illegal drug trade.

Through his prior federal experience, which included investigating terrorist attacks, child exploitation cases, white-collar crime and busting up intricate drug trafficking operations, Breeze has seen some things.

Breeze said his shift from active law enforcement roles to studying law was an outcome of the things he witnessed first-hand.

“I started because I want to put violent people in prison,” Breeze said, again emphasizing his goal to collaborate with local and federal agencies to crack down on illegal drug trafficking and violent crime, specifically.

“You can differentiate between a user and a distributor,” Breeze said when asked if one could simply prosecute away the drug epidemic that has impacted the region for decades now.

According to Breeze, he’s not talking about addicts.

“Distributors prey without morality and it has to be addressed,” Breeze said, making a promise that, if elected, “I will punish you (traffickers) within the confines of the law.”

Breeze said once he reached retirement from the FBI and his work as Task Force Commander for the Southern Ohio Drug Task Force was complete, it was time to come home.

Home for Breeze is Tollesboro, where his immediate family planted roots in the mid-1960s.

As part of a military family growing up, Breeze said he was mostly raised throughout the south and found commonality with the way of life in places like Greenup and Lewis Counties where his family goes back generations in the area.

“This is where I’m from when you cut me open,” Breeze said.

“I’m looking for the opportunity to supply experience,” Breeze said of his decision to run. “This is a great role to do that in.”

With yet another unique perspective, prior to Quantico, Breeze was a chemical engineer where he managed capital projects with 24/7 production.

In that capacity and while heading FBI teams as a Supervisory Special Agent in Detroit and FBI headquarters, Breeze said it’s vital to put things in the hands of those most able to produce results.

“I don’t look at Commonwealth’s Attorney as just a prosecutor; it’s an administrative role,” Breeze said, adding not only does he have the experience to investigate but the ability to efficiently run an office and a team of employees for the best outcomes.

While Breeze said he needs to have the main seat at the desk to truly dissect needed changes from the administrative role as Commonwealth’s Attorney, he does have the goal to advocate for more resources to “make things go.”

“You can’t have friction,” Breeze said regarding what a successful office would look like under his leadership. “Identify what you have. What can you implement? Put people in the right roles and grow their skills.”

Of upmost importance to Breeze aside from locking up dangerous criminals, “you can’t let the personal impede the professional. ... The outcome of a case is drive.”

Like his two opponents, Breeze, too, wants to improve communication between the prosecution’s office and local or federal agencies in the area, believing some of the rift is due to individuals not having walked in the other side’s shoes.

“I have walked in their shoes,” Breeze said.

Breeze, who said he’s a lifelong member of the Republican party, “For some it’s a party of convenience; it’s not a party of commitment. They’re not talking points for me. Law and order fed my family.”

With experience from multiple angles in the criminal justice system, Breeze said voters can rely on his background.

“Half of my career was spent pursuing violent offenders with the intent to prosecute,” he said.

The first-time politician said the seat that leads the prosecution against those that threaten the community is a “good transition of my skill set.”

Winner takes all in Commonwealth's Attorney primary race (2024)


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