On the day Democrats in New York City will choose the candidate who will probably become the next mayor, Manhattanites will be effectively electing their next district attorney. It’s the sort of race that will have far more of a seismic impact on the city and nation than the attention it’s been paid would indicate; the winner will be setting a criminal justice agenda that will inevitably ripple outward to DAs across the country.
Part of this has to do with the office’s sheer size: The outgoing DA, Cyrus Vance Jr., presides over 500 prosecutors and a budget that nears $170 million. Manhattan is the beating heart of the real estate industry, Wall Street, and the white-collar crimes that seize headlines. Vance has crossed paths with the likes of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Regular watchers of Law and Order and other police procedurals are acquainted with another version of the office: a tough but fair institution wrangling with a procession of criminals that hard-bitten, if well-meaning, prosecutors and cops must lock up.
But a darker reality pulses below—the office, under Vance and his predecessors, has been overly punitive and even predatory, according to legal observers and public defenders who have battled it on a daily basis. It is a place, they say, where the progressive reforms that have swept up offices around the nation have been, at best, begrudgingly or belatedly acknowledged.
“Where do we start with how repressive, how predatory, that prosecutor’s office has been for communities of color in Manhattan?” asked Rigodis Appling, a member of Black Attorneys of Legal Aid and a longtime public defender. “I really think they think it’s their job to simply protect property and they charge things as such. When you value property more than human life, that’s where it becomes disturbing and you’re not doing justice.”
There are eight Democrats running to replace Vance, who faced mounting pressure not to seek reelection. With scant polling available and a number of contenders who have raised north of $1 million, no single front-runner appears to be dominating the field. Unlike the mayoral race, this is technically not a municipal contest, which means no ranked-choice voting: Progressives do run the real risk here of splitting votes and allowing a more moderate candidate to triumph.
The winner would only be the fourth Manhattan DA since 1942. Before Vance won election in 2009, Robert Morgenthau and Frank Hogan each held the post for decades.
Danny Frost, a spokesman for Vance, argued that the DA had made great strides beyond his predecessor, Morgenthau, cutting prosecutions in half and investing forfeiture funds into various reform initiatives, including the Manhattan Family Justice Center.
Many of the candidates running espouse the principles of reform that have come into vogue in the last four years, as progressive prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, and Kim Foxx in Chicago have taken power. The contenders fall into various camps: the former prosecutors, a civil rights attorney, a public defender, and an elected official. Some are traditionalists, wary of the left flank; others race headfirst into reform.
All are reckoning with two competing currents: the demands to radically overhaul a system that has imprisoned too many people of color and growing calls, from conservatives and law enforcement, to hunt for a solution to New York’s spike in shootings and murders.
“I’m running against a bunch of former prosecutors who have been complicit in and propped up and perpetuated this system,” said Eliza Orlins, a longtime Manhattan public defender who has also been a television personality. “I’ve been in the trenches fighting this office.”
Under Vance, certain reforms popular with progressives have been implemented, including a decision to no longer prosecute those who jump subway turnstiles—but public defenders’ view of the office is particularly dim. Orlins, who served as a public defender with Legal Aid, and other progressives describe Vance as a prosecutor relentlessly committed to going to trial to win cases against poorer, nonwhite defendants. In Manhattan, juries tend to be whiter and wealthier and more favorable to law enforcement than the more working-class, diverse juries in the outer boroughs.
Appling described troubling trends: Vance’s prosecutors charging people who steal packages from building lobbies with burglary, a violent felony, which can carry years in prison, as opposed to petit larceny, a lesser charge. The office is willing to charge defendants who are caught up in predatory NYPD practices like “Operation Lucky Bag,” in which police planted a bag, usually with money or other valuables inside, in a public place and waited for someone to take it, arresting them on the spot.
Before New York state reformed its outdated discovery laws, public defenders said Vance’s office was notorious for withholding information from the defense until right before trial, creating undue pressure on terrified defendants to plead guilty to inflated charges.
“The discovery practices of the Manhattan DA were the impetus behind changing the discovery laws,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, a reform group. “There are a certain set of candidates who are interested in shrinking that system.”
Orlins is one of two candidates, along with civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, who have said they’d slash the DA’s budget by 50 percent if elected. Both are heartened that Krasner, a former public defender, beat back a law-and-order challenger on Tuesday.
“We can restructure the office where we are trimming the fat,” said Aboushi, who is endorsed by the Working Families Party and successfully sued the Fire Department for discrimination against Black firefighters. “We should be focusing on serious crimes.”
In their voting guide, Five Boro Defenders, a collective of public defenders and civil rights attorneys in New York, graded all the contenders on their ability to do the least amount of harm with an office that has traditionally had a carceral mission.
Orlins was one candidate rated the highest. The other was not Aboushi but Dan Quart, a State Assembly member who has a long legislative record of pushing criminal justice reforms in Albany, including ending the ban on gravity knives, which are often carried by blue-collar workers but used to be illegal, allowing Vance and other DAs to rack up more prosecutions.
“I’m the only one with a real record of achieving results on decarceration,” says Quart.
Another top contender in the progressive lane, Alvin Bragg, has won the backing of Preet Bharara, Charlie Rangel, Jerry Nadler, and several large labor unions. Bragg, who grew up in Harlem and served as the chief deputy attorney general in New York, made a name for himself seeking full transparency into how the NYPD handled Eric Garner’s death. He speaks often about his experience as a Black man being repeatedly stopped by police.
“All of my policies have emerged from my really having experienced almost every part of the criminal justice system,” Bragg said. “My brother in-law living with me after getting out of incarceration. Me having been stopped three times at gunpoint growing up.”
Among the four candidates competing for the left lane in the primary, there are some clear differences. In a voter guide assembled by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Bragg said he would not reduce the budget of the DA’s office at all. Only Aboushi and Orlins would eliminate pretrial detention altogether. Quart was the only candidate to say he would request only supervision on a defendant, not electronic monitoring. All but Bragg said they’d try to reduce the number of people in jail pretrial by at least 80 percent.
In addition to two former prosecutors with lower levels of name recognition and endorsements, Liz Crotty and Diana Florence, Lucy Lang, a Vance ally, is campaigning on the premise that someone who has worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office can also fix it. The former head of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, Lang has won the backing of several reform-oriented prosecutors across America, including Kim Gardner in St. Louis.
“My candidacy is informed by and supported by people most directly impacted by the system,” said Lang, who has said she’d beef up the sex crimes unit in the DA’s office. “People who have been incarcerated, people who have been impacted by violent crime.”
However, if there is a single candidate looming over the rest, it’s the primary’s most prolific fundraiser: Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor. Married to Boaz Weinstein, a multimillionaire hedge fund manager, Farhadian Weinstein has raised more than $2 million by aggressively targeting Wall Street megadonors. She veers to the right of several Democrats in the race, speaking more on the campaign stump about rising crime rates and gun violence, and is viewed as a candidate who would not greatly depart from Vance’s traditionalist approach. She is also one of the only candidates who will not rule out entering into information sharing agreements with federal agencies like ICE and Homeland Security Investigation. Expected to advertise far more heavily than most of the Democrats, Farhadian Weinstein took a measured view of Vance as her rivals pounced on her fundraising. “The office has done some things well, some things less well,” she said.
For Farhadian Weinstein, a key focus would be gender-based violence. “We will be taking on violence against women,” she said.
Her prominent progressive rivals, with time ticking down in the primary, are not holding back against her. “Her ties to Wall Street are very problematic,” Aboushi said, pointing to donations as large as $35,000 sent to Farhadian Weinstein’s coffers. “For some people, that’s an annual salary.”
Farhadian Weinstein, dismissing these criticisms, pointed to the large amounts of money her rivals have raised, including those who’ve taken cash from law firms that might have business in front of the DA.
“I really caution others to not put out purity tests they can’t pass,” she said.