Acting Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez (photo: @EricGonzalez4DA)
Seven Democratic candidates seeking to be Brooklyn’s District Attorney participated in a forum Monday night at the First Unitarian Church, hosted by the The Reform Coalition, made up of 14 groups. It marks an unofficial start to a sprint toward September’s primary vote. Because Brooklyn voters are so heavily Democratic, the winner of the primary is all but assured general election victory as the borough’s leading prosecutor and law enforcement official.
Monday’s forum offered an opportunity for the candidates to build name recognition, define themselves to voters, and set themselves apart from the competition. Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who took over upon the death of DA Ken Thompson, has a leg up in the early going, because he currently holds the office, was close to Thompson, and given his accumulation of several significant endorsements.
The other candidates include some with ties to the Brooklyn DA office: City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Anne Swern, Patricia Gatling, Marc Fliedner, Ama Dwimoh, and John Gangemi. At the forum, they were asked questions from both the hosting coalition’s members and the general audience about topics such as enforcement of “low level” crimes, protections for the LGBTQ community, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Thompson, who died in October 2016, loomed large at the forum and casts a long shadow over the race. In his relatively short time as DA, Thompson built a reputation as a reformer. In 2013, Thompson defeated long-time Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes, whose office was mired in scandal.
"The Bay Ridge Democrats were the first club in Brooklyn to endorse Ken Thompson in 2013,” President of the Bay Ridge Democrats, Chris McCreight said in a press release for the event. “We feel very strongly that the next District Attorney should have his integrity and his passion to fight for justice. We look forward to hearing from all the candidates at this forum."
Low-profile candidates vying for a high-profile office
Gonzalez, a top deputy to Thompson who is running on maintaining the work they were doing, painted himself as the candidate who will keep things heading in the right direction. He asked voters to note all of the good things that have happened both during Thompson’s and then his time leading the DA office. He would be the first Hispanic DA elected in New York City, he pointed out.
Gatling, the only candidate not a long-time resident of Brooklyn, has been working in the borough since the 1990s, she said. She hopes to see the continued growth of the borough through increased transparency from the DA office, establishing an office of integrity, and creating an app citizens can “use to see court dates, learn about legal requirements and procedures, and get information about the various courts,” she said.
Gentile, a City Council member who is term-limited out at the end of the year, is also marketing himself as the perfect successor to Thompson, who was an outsider like himself, he said. He put special emphasis as he has throughout his campaign on his lack of ties to the “checkered past” of the DA office in Brooklyn. Several of the other candidates worked in the DA office under Hynes. Gentile, before his decades of time as an elected official, was a prosecutor at the Queens DA office.
Dwimoh previously worked in Hynes’ administration, and wants to make an impact on community relations with police, she said. She has also worked in the Crimes Against Children Bureau at the Brooklyn DA office, which she founded and ran for 13 years.
Fliedner hopes to right some of the wrongs he feels were done by the last two administrations, such as the lack of jail time for ex-cop Peter Liang, who Thompson charged with criminally negligent homicide in an apparently accidental stairwell shooting of an unarmed man in November, 2014. He has worked in criminal justice for 30 years, he said, including as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and in Freehold, NJ as an assistant prosecutor with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
Swern, who has “pursued justice for over 35 years” has worked on the Alternative-to-Prison program, among others aimed at helping non-violent offenders, under four Brooklyn district attorneys, according to her website. She said she would continue to focus on those issues as DA.
Gangemi, a 78-year-old Brooklynite who has been involved in politics since the 1960s, where he says he was the “only Republican in the office” serving under former Brooklyn DA Aaron E. Koota as an ADA. He has since become Democrat, and says he will uphold the law according to “the Constitution,” working within the system by reaching out to state representatives and senators to uphold justice.
One key question for the candidates Monday night was about continuing DA Thompson’s use of prosecutorial discretion to dismiss low-level marijuana charges and whether there are any other crimes, where the candidates would consider taking this approach.
“Prosecutorial discretion is an awesome, awesome thing,” said Gatling. “And I can remember in the DA’s office when...they came in as a felony and left as a misdemeanor. So let’s talk about prostitution, and let’s talk about jumping turnstiles.”
As the audience cheered, the microphone was passed to the next candidate. Due to time constraints and the number of candidates present, not every candidate was allowed to answer every question, though every candidate got a full two minutes to close and answer any questions they may not have been asked.
“Turnstiles, and loitering in certain places -- there is a whole body of these lower level crimes that I refer to as ‘survival crimes’ and when police put cuffs on folks and put them through the system because they committed these offenses, they are punishing people for poverty and it is not going to happen on my watch,” said Fliedner, who was also met with audience approval.
Not every candidate was met with as much applause. Gangemi, who recently became a Democrat because “If you want to get things done in New York City, you have to be,” showed less than progressive ideals.
“What I would do is go out and ask Senator [Charles] Schumer and other people in power to give us some sort of direction as to how we should handle these laws, and how we should process the law and not just arbitrarily say it's a low level law,” said Gangemi. “I’ve never heard of a low level law - I’ve heard of Class A, Class B, felonies and violations.”
The 78-year-old lawyer was met with boos, but remained unwavering.
A follow-up was asked: will you commit to end cash bail for non-violent crimes?
“I do commit to that,” said Swern. “When I worked at Brooklyn Defenders, we worked very closely with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.”
She went on to emphasise the importance of such a fund, which puts up money for individuals so that they don’t have to spend time in jail because they can’t afford bail, stating that “somebody else putting up bail money from the community bail fund would ensure” returns, also putting special emphasis on educating individuals on the importance of coming back to court.
“In Brooklyn, I’ve already committed and I’ve already established reform on our bail policies and our criminal court,” said Gonzalez. He continued, “I’ve already reformed the system -- there’s no other DA’s office in the city or the state that’s doing that. I really ask you, because sometimes when you hear people say ‘the entire system is broken,’ yes, we think about all the abuses, we think about all the things that are wrong with the system, but I’m going to ask you to pay attention to what’s happening in Brooklyn.”
There were questions about one candidate’s sudden relocation to Brooklyn and thus “opportunist” accusations.
Gatling has received the endorsement of former Mayor David N. Dinkins, despite having lived in Manhattan for nearly two decades and having only moved back to Brooklyn in December. Her husband, however, is still in Manhattan.
“We as Brooklynites, we do not care for opportunists,” said one audience member in a question specifically addressing the issue of Gatling’s relocation. “We are looking for people who genuinely care about Brooklyn. So I want to know: did you move here because Ken Thompson passed away and you saw this as an opportunity to run for District Attorney, or do you really care about Brooklyn? Because you haven’t lived here for about 20 years, and many of these candidates have been here.”
The question was met with much approval by the large crowd, and anger from Gatling who did not respond to a follow-up about her husband’s residency.
“I was in Brooklyn in 1983 and I’ve worked in Brooklyn 30-35 years,” said Gatling. “I was in Brooklyn for a long time. I was here when it was the fifth worst place to live, and I helped, along with law enforcement and with the community to make it better.” She later added, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know my history.”
Gentile was asked to address past decisions, specifically a City Council vote he took.
Elected to represent Council District 43 in 2003, Gentile will be forced to leave at the end of the year due to term limits. When questioned on why he voted against the Community Safety Act, which sought to deter racial profiling by the NYPD, especially in the use of stop-and-frisk, and also created the position of NYPD Inspector General, he expressed remorse and urged voters to focus on the other votes he made during his time in office.
“I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of votes over 20 years, thousands probably,” said Gentile. “There are votes that I’m not proud of, and that’s one of them, and certainly I’m not afraid to say that. At the time, I thought that the police commissioner’s argument was compelling -- in retrospect, it wasn’t, and I’ve learned from that, and that is a good thing.”
Cut off due to a time crunch, Gentile’s response earned mostly silence with a few meager claps.
Candidates were asked how they plan to have the DA office reach out to the LGBTQ community and ease fears.
“Cultural competence,” said Fliedner. “Two or three years ago I sat down with two other members of the LGBTQ community and we prepared a comprehensive cultural competency training and we gave it to the human resources department of the DA office at the time, with one specific request - It wasn’t supposed to just go to the DAs, it was to go to everyone that works in the office.”
Though his colleagues found out there was no follow through, he promised to make sure to run things differently should he be elected by making the office more welcoming to people of color and transgender citizens. He also stressed the importance of making sure that every employee is educated on such issues, because “it’s the administrative person that picks up the phone that can set a tone that makes a trans woman feel unsafe to enter the office.”
Candidates were asked how they would hold elected officials accountable.
“When I think about corruption, and I think about what it takes to prosecute an elected official, I’m also looking through the lense of the wrongful convictions that we’ve seen in Brooklyn,” said Dwimoh. “We have to create an independent panel...and they will be the ones who will investigate, prosecute, and refute what misconduct has occurred.”
As someone who worked under Hynes, Dwimoh was well acquainted with the wrongful convictions that have taken place in the Brooklyn DA’s office, a trend that Thompson worked to undo with a new conviction review unit that has overturned more than a handful of cases.
“To say that I would be any less determined when prosecuting a public official than I would [be] a drug dealer -- they have the same kind of impact,” said Gatling. “A drug dealer destroys the community, [and] a public official who is corrupt destroys the entire society.”
She went on, “As lawyers, all we have is our integrity.”
What comes next?
Candidates will continue campaigning ahead of the Democratic primary on September 12. There will be other forums in the coming weeks and months.