In an editorial penned this February, the The New York Times inaugurated the beginning of a “wiser generation of prosecutors,” ones who would “change the national conversation” about criminal justice. In recent years a swarm of reform-ticket prosecutors have sailed into office buoyed waves of outrage over racism and police brutality, from Kim Foxx in Chicago to Kim Ogg in Houston to activist lawyer Larry Krasner’s recent victory in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary.
The latest opportunity to seat a progressive prosecutor is the primary for district attorney of Brooklyn, which with a population of nearly 2.7 million would be the fourth-largest city in the country if taken by itself. The chief prosecutor for the borough is not just a subordinate official in New York City politics but an independent executive with broad power to change policies that affect millions of people.
Last year the future of the office was thrown into question last October when the much-lauded previous DA, Kenneth Thompson, died suddenly of cancer. Thompson was an outsider elected on a message of reform. He said he would “refuse to shrug his shoulders in the face of injustice,” and promised to change the culture of the corrupt, inefficient office. By the time he died he had overturned almost two dozen wrongful convictions.
Thompson’s longtime second in command, Eric Gonzalez, became the acting DA after his passing and is the de facto incumbent in this year’s election. Gonzalez claims that the late Thompson anointed him as his successor, telling him to consider running for DA once Thompson passed. But despite his claims to Thompson’s mantle, Gonzalez faces a crowded field of five challengers, all of whom seek to prove that they are the real progressives, the most faithful to Thompson’s spirit as a reformer.
In the early months of the campaign, Gonzalez gobbled up much of the political playing field. He secured endorsements from community organizations and advocacy groups including Vocal New York and the Working Families Party, and more recently a coveted endorsement from The New York Times. The Times cited Gonzalez’s long career as a prosecutor, a trait he shares with all his challengers, in addition to the “intimate perspective” he got on the criminal-justice system from growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. Other endorsements have alluded to Gonzalez’s support for policies—cash-bail reform, diversionary programs for drug offenders—also supported by all of Gonzalez’s opponents.
Gonzalez has also raised what his opponents and outside observers say is an alarming amount of money—over $1.5 million dollars, more than five times the next-highest candidate. His opponents see this as a chance to cement his hold on power without giving voters a chance to judge him in comparison to his challengers. A chunk of that money has come from for-profit bail-bond companies, which throws Gonzalez’s promises to pursue bail reform in a new light; furthermore, he’s the only candidate endorsed by a police union, which doesn’t look good on a prosecutor who’s trying to take up Thompson’s legacy of reform.