Manhattan Democratic voters face a profoundly important choice when they go to vote next month. No individual has a greater direct day-to-day impact on policing and mass incarceration than a district attorney. The DA decides who gets prosecuted and who does not. They have broad discretion to either reinforce or reform racial disparities within our criminal justice system. And no DA has a more prominent role in shaping the national criminal justice conversation than the Manhattan district attorney.
In Manhattan, one of the largest DA offices in the country, we have allowed royalty to run the office. Manhattan has had only three district attorneys in the last 80 years, and the last two were sons of cabinet secretaries. One of the leading candidates today represents a different kind of royalty: Wall Street. Tali Farhadian Weinstein is the Big Money candidate, having raised over $4 million dollars, much of it from the wealthiest people in the world, fellow multimillionaires who run in her Park Avenue social circle, like Ken Griffin, and big money donors from Goldman Sachs, Pershing Square Capital, and the hedge fund managed by her husband, Boaz Weinstein. She’s committed to using the same techniques that drive mass incarceration and policing abuses (including a widely discredited gang database).
We have never had a district attorney from impacted communities, who understands what it feels like to be racially profiled, who has friends and family members who have been charged by the system, who understands on a visceral level the racial inequities baked into the system, and the immeasurable human cost of mass incarceration.
Alvin Bragg would be that DA. Born and raised in Harlem, Bragg has been stopped and frisked at gunpoint three times by the NYPD simply because of the color of his skin. He has witnessed up close the trauma the system imposes on those swept into it, helping his own brother-in-law rebuild his life after time in prison. And he has never left the community that raised him; he coaches Harlem Little League and teaches Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Every week he is in direct contact with the kids dismissed and disrespected by the criminal justice system. A year after George Floyd’s murder, he would be the first Black Manhattan District Attorney: a rarity in a field where 95 percent of prosecutors are white.
His legal skills are impressive. Educated at Harvard, at the New York attorney general’s office, he led some of the office’s biggest cases—from launching the probe of the Trump Foundation to cracking down on tenant harassment. As an assistant US attorney in New York’s Southern District, he prosecuted corrupt politicians and an FBI agent for lying. He was a major advocate for getting rid of a bad law in New York that covers up police misconduct (50a), and for ending stop and frisk. And where the rubber hits the road, where he had to stand up against his own colleagues to prosecute prosecutors and law enforcement, he did it, bringing a difficult anti-corruption case against an upstate prosecutor, not something that makes you popular with other DAs, but a demonstration of leadership that has led to profound respect of reformers.
Such skills are not enough, though; this is a management job. Reforming the DA’s office will be like taking a ship that has been sailing in one direction, and turning it into an airplane. When Larry Krasner became a prosecutor, after a lifetime as a public defender in Philadelphia, with intimate knowledge of every part of the decision-making process, he laid out a new vision for the office, and a quarter of his staff left. As the chief deputy attorney general in New York State, Alvin managed a 1,500-person staff; that matters, because what we’ve learned from other cities is that reformers lead to a massive turnover; some people leave because they want a lock-em-up boss, and others have to be fired because they don’t work within the new regime. The police unions are out for blood and will jump on every opportunity to destroy the respect of a reformer DA, and Bragg alone has shown that he knows how to manage really difficult moments of turnover.
He’s also the only progressive in the field with a real shot of winning, thanks to impressive credentials and major support from big unions, heavyweights like Preet Bharara, Color of Change—the largest online racial justice organization in the country—and grassroots community groups.
But he’s not alone: There are three other progressive candidates, none of whom have a realistic path to victory. One, Tahanie Aboushi, simply lacks the criminal court experience; to reform the system, you need a deep understanding of how it works, as experience around the country has shown. Another, Eliza Orlins, a public defender, lacks any significant institutional support, and, like Aboushi, is largely funded by people outside of Manhattan. A third, Dan Quart, has a small core of local supporters, but lacks the depth of experience, both legal and lived, of Bragg.
Because it’s a crowded race, some of our friends on the left have dismissed Alvin as “a career prosecutor.” That’s simplistic. Alvin has never been an assembly-line prosecutor going after petty drug cases—he’s spent his career holding powerful people and interests accountable. Isn’t that the exact kind of prosecutor this moment calls for? We have an opportunity to bring the change to our system that we so badly want, that we demand. We finally have an opportunity to end and reverse the damage done to Black and brown families in Manhattan by the DA’s office over the past decades.
The idea that everyone, whoever they are, is treated the same—is a radical and demanding notion. So is the recognition that public safety means transforming policing, not more policing. There are very few people with the skills to be national leaders at this critical moment, and Alvin Bragg is one of those few. As he always says, it is only when we believe that justice and safety are not opposed that we can actually build a criminal justice system with justice at its heart.