Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/243 Fri, 20 Oct 2017 10:50:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 10 Great NYC Debate Moments http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7139:10-great-moments-in-nyc-debates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7139:10-great-moments-in-nyc-debates quinn liu de blasio albanese

Quinn, Liu, de Blasio, Albanese (from 2013)


Debates have been an invaluable part of political discourse and elections for centuries. The face-to-face interactions between candidates reveal a lot about their character, policies, and ability to perform under pressure.

Debates for citywide races in New York -- for Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate -- have played no small part in helping New Yorkers decide which candidates best represent their interests. Ahead of the 2017 debates, which begin Wednesday with the first Democratic mayoral primary debate between Mayor Bill de Blasio and former City Council Member Sal Albanese, Gotham Gazette presents 10 great moments from New York City debates of the last few decades.

1. Giuliani declines debate, spurs matching funds/must debate law
1993 General Mayoral Debate; 10/17/93
Candidates: David Dinkins (D); Rudy Giuliani (R); George Marlin (Conservative)

A non-debate on a debate list belongs because of the importance of the decision, both during the contentious 1993 rematch between Dinkins and Giuliani, which Giuliani would win, and the long-term implications of the subsequent change in law.

Mayor Dinkins wanted to include the Conservative Party candidate in any debate between himself and Giuliani, but Giuliani would only agree to a one-on-one debate, and so the two major party candidates did not have a single debate before the election that year. In response, the City Council voted on legislation that forced any candidate taking public matching funds (as both Giuliani and Dinkins did) to participate in two debates before both the primary and general elections, given certain criteria.

At the debate that Dinkins and Marlin did have, they both attacked Giuliani for not participating, and on other grounds. In his closing statement, Dinkins, who had bested Giuliani in 1989, said, “It takes a certain kind of temperament and personality to deal with the various legislative bodies in order to achieve [my accomplishments], I suggest to you that Rudolph Giuliani does not have the temperament to get the kind of consensus necessary to achieve the things that we’ve done.”

For his part, Giuliani explained, “I have a letter from April of this year, where I had a firm commitment for a one-on-one debate with Mayor Dinkins, which NBC has now allowed him to sneak out of, because he rolled over for them. He shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong. And I know why David Dinkins won’t face me. On 12 occasions in 1989, he ducked out of one-on-one debates with me. On 7 occasions, he has ducked out of one-on-one debates with me in this election. They shouldn’t allow him to do it, because I’ll ask him the questions that some of you won’t ask him about how he’s cheating.”

Watch the October 17, 1993 debate between Dinkins and Marlin here.

2. Mayor Bloomberg tries to speak Spanish
2009 General Mayoral Debate; 10/13/2009
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (i); Bill Thompson (D)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to speak Spanish are well-known and much-skewered, most famously by the @ElBloombito Twitter account. Bloomberg used to end each news conference by summarizing his statements in Spanish, and he occasionally gave entire interviews in his second tongue. In a 2009 general election mayoral debate, Bloomberg tried responding to a question about diversity in his cabinet from Juan Manuel Benitez, host of Pura Política on NY1 Noticias, in Spanish. Although the mayor received applause, the moderator had to ask him to repeat his answer in English, as many in the room and at home had no idea what he had said.

Watch the moment here and watch the entire October 13, 2009 debate between Bloomberg and Democrat Bill Thompson here.

3. David Yassky sings Beyonce
2009 Comptroller Debate, Democratic Primary; 9/10/2009
Candidates: David Yassky (D); Melinda Katz (D); John Liu (D); David Weprin (D)

A crowded Democratic primary for Comptroller in 2009 included a lightning round of questions during the September 10 debate. When candidates were asked if they had listened to Beyoncé, all candidates said yes, and Melinda Katz even quietly said, “To the left.” But only David Yassky actually sang, to the amusement of the audience, especially the moderators. Yassky sang the chorus to Beyonce’s 2006 mega-hit, “Irreplaceable.”

Yassky’s singing prowess did not carry him to victory, however, as John Liu won the primary and became Comptroller.

Watch the moment here, and watch the entire September 10, 2009 Democratic Primary Comptroller debate here.

4. Giuliani calls out Henry Hewes for not even being his party’s official candidate
1989 General Mayoral Debate; 11/5/89
Candidates: David Dinkins (D); Rudy Giuliani (R); Henry Hewes (Right to Life)

Before he refused to debate with a third-party candidate present in 1993, Republican mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani showed his distaste for them in this surreal moment from the second of two general election debates that took place the week before the 1989 election, which Giuliani narrowly lost to Dinkins. Eight minutes into the hour-long debate, Giuliani claimed that Right to Life candidate Henry Hewes didn’t deserve to be there. He then explained Hewes was not even the officially registered candidate of the Right to Life Party, as he pulled out a letter from the Board of Elections confirming that, indeed, Henry Hewes was a registered Republican and had not filed any declaration of his candidacy on the Right to Life ticket.

Watch the November 5, 1989 debate here. The moment is at 7:50.

5. Donald Trump’s influence on New York City
2005 General Mayoral Debate; 10/6/05
Candidates: Fernando Ferrer (D); Thomas V. Ognibene (Conservative)

During the lightning round of this 2005 general mayoral debate, the moderator asked Democrat Fernando Ferrer and Conservative Thomas Ognibene (Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not attend as he was addressing a potential threat in the city), “Is Donald Trump a positive influence on the city?”

At the time, this was a throwaway question about an infamous New York celebrity. Before Twitter, before the presidential run, Trump was a local tabloid legend, real estate baron, and TV personality to most New Yorkers. The candidates agreed in their initial response: “I could care less.”

Listen to the lightning round that included the question here, or watch the entire October 6, 2005 debate here.

6. Scott Stringer goes for Spitzer's jugular
2013 Democratic Primary Comptroller Debate; 8/12/13
Candidates: Eliot Spitzer (D); Scott Stringer (D)

The 2013 Democratic primary for Comptroller was defined by consistent antagonism between the two candidates, then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and former Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Five years earlier, Spitzer had resigned while under federal investigation, and during a section of the debate in which the candidates could ask each other a question, Stringer seized. “So Eliot, if you were the chairman of a large company, and you hired a CEO, and they engaged in money laundering, illegal wiring of funds to shell corporations, and if the CEO was under federal investigation - criminal investigation - and that CEO was fired, would you hire that CEO again?”

Listen to highlights from the debate, including this moment, here, or watch the entire August 12, 2013 debate here.

7. Democrats try to tie each other to Mayor Bloomberg
2013 Public Advocate Democratic Primary Run-off Debate; 9/24/13
Candidates: Letitia James (D); Daniel Squadron (D)

The end of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was a time when many New Yorkers were seeking change in city leadership. Candidates capitalized on this desire, and in few places was this more apparent than the 2013 Public Advocate Democratic primary. Candidates Letitia James and Daniel Squadron -- locked in a run-off for the nomination -- traded the usual barbs about each other’s backgrounds, but they often simply used any kind of tie the other candidate had to Bloomberg as an attack.

James stated that Squadron had stayed silent when Bloomberg’s third term was being debated, while Squadron claimed that it was not right that James had “stood with the mayor over 98 percent of the time.”

Listen to highlights from the debate, including this moment, here, or watch the entire September 24, 2013 debate here.

8. Bloomberg pressed by moderator and opponent about book of jokes he allegedly made
2001 Republican Primary for Mayor; 9/9/01
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (R); Herman Badillo (R)

During his initial run for mayor, Michael Bloomberg was repeatedly questioned at a primary debate about an article in New York Magazine in which columnist Michael Wolff described a gift given to the future mayor at a company party in 1990. The gift was a booklet of quotations supposedly said by Bloomberg, some of which were blatantly misogynistic and homophobic.

During one of the 2001 Republican primary debates, both moderator Gabe Pressman and rival Herman Badillo pressed Bloomberg on whether or not he said what was written in the booklet. Bloomberg repeatedly claimed he did not remember saying any of those things, and in the end, he attempted to move the debate along, claiming, “It was in a book written by somebody else. Let's go on to the issues. Come on…”

Read a transcript of debate highlights, including this moment, here, or watch the entire September 9, 2001 debate here.

9. Candidates debate prevalence of racial profiling in NYPD
2001 Mayoral General Election Debate; 11/1/2001
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (R); Mark Green (D) 

Michael Bloomberg’s implementation of widespread “stop-and-frisk,” a police tactic criticized for disproportionately targeting African-American and Hispanic men, is perhaps the least popular aspect of his legacy. During a 2001 general election mayoral debate between first-time candidate Bloomberg and Democrat Mark Green, one exchange reveals Bloomberg’s early views on racial profiling in the NYPD. When asked, Bloomberg agreed that racial profiling must be combated because “the perception is widespread.”

Watch the moment here, or watch the entire November 1, 2001 debate here.

10. Bill de Blasio targeted as Democratic frontrunner
2013 Democratic Primary Debates; 8/14/13 & 8/21/2013
Candidates: 8/14/13: Christine Quinn (D); Bill de Blasio (D); John Liu (D); Anthony Weiner (D); Bill Thompson (D)
Candidates 8/21/13: Sal Albanese (D), Christine Quinn (D); Bill de Blasio (D); John Liu (D); Anthony Weiner (D); Bill Thompson (D), Erik Salgado (D)

As the fast-moving 2013 Democratic primary moved to within a month of a vote, Bill de Blasio made a surprise leap into the lead of the polls. Just after a new poll showed de Blasio in the lead for the first time, the leading Democratic candidates showed for a debate, and the other candidates clearly recognized the new order by attacking de Blasio more than they previously had, when it appeared that Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner and Bill Thompson were all likelier nominees.

Quinn said de Blasio “was in the Council for eight years, he didn’t pass one bill to create a good paying job, not one bill to help our schools, not one bill to keep our city safe. That’s not a record of results,” according to The Daily News.

“The only difference between Speaker Quinn and Bill de Blasio is Speaker Quinn has been more successful. They made the same promises to the same people. She got elected speaker and he’s never gotten over it,” Weiner said.

A week later, for the first of two official, Campaign Finance Board-sanctioned primary debates, those same leading Democrats, along with Sal Albanese and Erik Salgado, took the stage in prime-time. De Blasio was again the focus of many attacks. He would go on to win the primary less three weeks later, even securing the 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

***
by Thomas Duda
with reporting by Ben Weiss
@GothamGazette

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10 Great NYC Debate Moments Sun, 20 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Did Bill De Blasio's Tirade Help Andrew Cuomo Get His Groove Back? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5886:did-bill-de-blasios-tirade-help-andrew-cuomo-get-his-groove-back http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5886:did-bill-de-blasios-tirade-help-andrew-cuomo-get-his-groove-back Cuomo labor day parade

Gov. Cuomo at the Labor Day parade (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)


On Thursday Governor Andrew Cuomo, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, held a rally to announce a campaign to make New York the first state in the nation with a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

"So Mr. Vice President, today I announce that I will propose to the New York state legislature not just $15 for fast-food workers, because a fast-food worker deserves $15 an hour, construction workers deserve $15 an hour, and home healthcare aides deserve $15 an hour, and taxi-cab drivers deserve $15 an hour, and every working man and woman in the State of New York deserves $15 an hour as a minimum wage - and we are not going to stop until we get it done!" Cuomo said, his voice rising.

It was a triumphant moment for the governor, and for unions and progressive groups who have worked for the last year to get Cuomo on board with a $15 hourly minimum wage. It is being called a major about-face by many watchers, including some who note that Cuomo now supports a policy his rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been pushing for quite some time and that Cuomo had previously dismissed.

The move, along with other recent Cuomo plays, is in striking contrast to the Cuomo of last spring, who some confidants and legislators describe as aimless, distracted, and maybe a little bit bored.

Now, though, any such perception has dissipated, perhaps in large part thanks to de Blasio's exasperated June tirade against the governor, which came at the end of this year's legislative session. Harsh, damning words from the mayor may have been the challenge Cuomo needed in order to reinvigorate.

De Blasio pulled no punches, boldly saying Cuomo had made promises he didn't intend to keep, is vindictive, and backed policies that were harmful to New York City. "And what I believe here is the governor worked with the Senate in some cases to inhibit the work of the Assembly, to inhibit the agenda that New York City put forward," de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis in a June interview, before sitting down with City Hall reporters to reiterate his message.

Cuomo had used de Blasio as a punching bag for months before de Blasio's explosion, even apparently giving publications blind quotes attacking the mayor. But with the feud spilling out into the open, observers say Cuomo was freed in a way, even given a gift--a political opponent to war with in the open.

The mayor's declaration of war was something pundits and sources close to the Cuomo administration say the governor desperately needed. "The governor is at his best when he has someone to duel in the political arena," one Albany insider told Gotham Gazette. "It is also when he is apt to make mistakes, but he comes alive when he is going for the kill."

For some Democrats, de Blasio's tirade was a breath of fresh air - someone, they said, had finally called out the bully. Others, including members of the Cuomo administration saw it much differently. They heard it as the younger brother finally crying "Uncle!" because he had no other means of retaliation.

Sources within the Cuomo administration say they saw de Blasio's "tantrum" as an admission that he had failed at moving his agenda and was giving up any hope of future success in Albany. That appears to have left an opening for Cuomo to reassert himself on progressive issues - like minimum wage - that de Blasio has staked out.

Not very long ago, Cuomo was advocating a plan that would eventually raise the minimum wage to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state. He appeared to scoff at the Assembly's proposal that would have raised the minimum wage across the state to $15 by the end of 2018. "God bless them — shoot for the stars," Cuomo said, dismissively, in March at a stop in Rochester. The governor has repeatedly cited the Republican-controlled state Senate as a place where such progressive proposals go to die.

If Cuomo had made a major announcement on a $15 minimum wage a year ago, it would have appeared as though he had been dragged to the position kicking and screaming by The Working Families Party and de Blasio, who brokered a deal between the two to prevent a WFP-backed primary challenge to Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

At the time, Cuomo appeared to agree to back the mayor's proposal to allow the city to raise its minimum wage up to 30 percent higher than the state's (as well as other WFP-backed policies and a Democratic takeover of the state Senate). But this year Cuomo presented his own plan, which did not include giving the city a say over its wage, and was still short of what activists on the left were calling for.

But now, Cuomo has swooped in to champion the $15 wage, albeit on an extended phase-in timeline that would implement $15 per hour in New York City at the end of 2018 and state-wide in the middle of 2021.

Cuomo is notorious for refusing to move on proposals that he won't receive absolute credit for enacting into law. With de Blasio all but slain in Albany after a rough 2015 legislative session, Cuomo was freed to move on minimum wage and other progressive initiatives, knowing he could charge in and pick up the baton that he had knocked out of de Blasio's hands.

Meanwhile, Cuomo enjoys the benefits of being de Blasio's enemy, which boosts his standing with conservatives and moderates (and even some liberals) across the state. Cuomo's favorability ratings dropped to all-time lows this summer, but de Blasio's poll numbers are even lower.

"I'm not buying de Blasio gave him an overarching focus, because clearly the governor used the mayor for a punching bag from the very beginning of the administration, whether it be on the millionaire's tax or charter schools," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College. "It certainly did exacerbate the relationship and gave Cuomo the opportunity to strike out at a perceived tormentor."

Cuomo and de Blasio have appeared to go out of their way to avoid each other at public events, though they did speak in person at a September 11th commemoration on Friday. Cuomo has either not invited the mayor to several, like his recent solidarity mission to Puerto Rico, or de Blasio has not appeared interested in attending, like for the governor's announcement of a new LaGuardia Airport.

Cuomo has appeared to jab at de Blasio when reporters ask why the two are not meeting at events, which have included several parades. He's also made efforts to strengthen relationships with sometime de Blasio antagonists like Comptroller Scott Stringer and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and de Blasio ally City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Last Thursday, Cuomo was honored as "Man of the Year" by the city's largest police union, which is headed by de Blasio nemesis Patrick Lynch. "You deserve to be paid for the job you do," Cuomo told the officers, hinting at their dispute with the city over pay raises. Someone in the back of the room shouted back: "Tell de Blasio!"

Cuomo's feud with de Blasio appears to be helping insulate him from backlash he has faced from police unions for signing an executive order giving the Attorney General the ability to act as special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians.

"De Blasio has served as a foil for the governor with some groups," said Muzzio. "This conflict certainly enhances his influence with certain interests, especially with the Republican-controlled Senate."

Cuomo's moves on progressive issues may risk some of his goodwill with Republicans, but nevertheless, the governor has shown a renewed sense of urgency. It is energy that Cuomo has also been putting into efforts not easily labeled as progressive, such as Upstate economic development.

Pundits say they feel the Cuomo of the past few months is a stark contrast to the Cuomo of this legislative session, who shied away from public and media appearances for weeks at a time.

It's fairly easy to see why Cuomo may have been off his game.

His reelection bid was complicated by rebellious progressives and unions who felt Cuomo had delivered more on conservative causes than on Democratic ones. The governor was also reeling from the backlash he faced from shuttering the Moreland Commission. His campaign strategy to ignore his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, might have been more effective if Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout hadn't joined the Democratic primary. Her campaign quickly made Cuomo appear detached from voters, and at times exposed his tendencies as a bully.

Cuomo moved from a closer-than-expected election to face the death of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and the federal indictments of then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. He appeared ready to end the legislative session early after securing a number of education reforms that were fought tooth-and-nail by teachers unions (and opposed by de Blasio). But the pressure mounted on the governor to deliver deals on rent regulations, mayoral control of New York City schools, and other big-ticket items, all while the legislature remained in turmoil thanks to their leadership crises.

Virtually all of the deals reached were less than desired as far as de Blasio was concerned, with the one-year extension of mayoral control of schools an especially bitter pill - and perhaps the final nudge over the edge.

With session over and his legislative opponents out of town, Cuomo leaped into action, issuing an executive order to create a special prosecutor for police killings. This not only ingratiated Cuomo to many on his left, but also brought one of his main rivals - and a natural de Blasio ally - AG Eric Schneiderman, closer to Cuomo's hip.

A flurry of executive activity was capped off by the finding of his fast food wage board that workers in the industry should be paid a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Cuomo was lauded by union leaders and progressive elected officials; his achievements made for evidence in the effort to disprove de Blasio's accusations that the governor was hamstringing the progressive agenda.

And, they allowed the governor to demonstrate one of his favorite points: that he gets things done regardless of political ideology.

On Thursday, de Blasio's office quickly shot out a statement praising Cuomo's decision to advocate a $15 minimum wage but laced with language highlighting that Cuomo is late to the party the mayor's been leading.

"Nothing would do more to lift New Yorkers out of poverty and move our economy forward than raising the wage...We welcome the Governor's support for a $15 minimum wage – and New York City stands ready to help make it a reality," de Blasio's statement reads. "We have been doing all we can here in the city: affordable housing, Pre-K for All, increasing and expanding the living wage, and much more. But combating income inequality requires bold action on all levels of government. I urge Albany to act quickly."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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Did Bill De Blasio's Tirade Help Andrew Cuomo Get His Groove Back? Sun, 13 Sep 2015 05:00:00 +0000
Progress Elusive as Bronx DA Cruises Toward Reelection http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5845:progress-elusive-as-bronx-da-cruises-toward-reelection http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5845:progress-elusive-as-bronx-da-cruises-toward-reelection BX DA Johnson (AP)

Bronx DA Robert Johnson, foreground (photo: Associated Press) 


There’s a rooftop rock garden at the Bronx County Hall of Justice, the sprawling ten-story glass building that houses the county’s criminal and supreme courts. In theory, the space was designed to be a contemplative, community place, but in practice, it is not open to the public. Lawyers quip it has something to do with a potentially precarious confluence of angry people, the courthouse’s glass facade, and rocks.

The suggestion that people would throw rocks from a zen garden is both an ironic joke and emblematic of the frustration acutely felt in the Bronx court system. A central figure at the heart of this discontent is District Attorney Robert Johnson, up for re-election this year and seeking - so far unopposed - his eighth straight four-year term.

Elected to represent “the People,” Johnson is a virtual lock to secure a mechanical mandate returning him to the office, whether he faces a token opponent or not. It is likely that he will, yet again, be uncontested in a race that will culminate with little voter turnout.

Though just one cog in an overburdened system seen as dysfunctional in many ways, and operating in the city’s poorest borough, Johnson’s office has faced particular scrutiny, with many, including those who once worked in the office, questioning its efficiency and competence. Notably, it also appears to be an office home to little innovation, even as other district attorneys try new things.

To what extent criticism of Johnson is deserved is not immediately clear— the aggregate failings of the figurehead, the 400 attorneys who work for him, and “the system” are nearly impossible to parse and distinguish. But that does not diminish the pervasive dysfunction, manifested in astonishing backlogs, delays, low conviction rates, and concerns about how the office evaluates cases and handles the most high-profile among them.

The extreme likelihood that Johnson, a Democrat, will be re-elected with little to no pause serves to retain that status quo, and ensures that the Bronx District Attorney will be held to minimal public accountability leading to Election Day, but for by the press.

Culture of Delay
The overburdened Bronx criminal justice system, with an unprecedented backlog and slew of delayed cases, is notorious for being mired in a culture of delay.

In 2013, a New York Times series chronicled the dysfunctional system, finding that 73 percent of felony cases in the Bronx had exceeded the state court’s guidelines for excessive delay— 180 days.

Day to day, the signs of backlog are everywhere. On a recent visit to a courtroom processing arraignments at Bronx central booking, Gotham Gazette saw that nearly 20 of the thirty-plus people on the list waiting to be arraigned had been arrested and detained for over 24 hours, spending most of that time in the basement of the courthouse; the rest were approaching the 24-hour mark.

Next door at the Hall of Justice, defendants missing work or school can sit through hours of hearings as they anticipate their turn to stand before the judge. When Gotham Gazette visited one courtroom, an observer yawned, provoking a sharp rebuke.

“I heard someone yawn with a loud mouth. If you find out who it is, remove them,” the judge instructed a court officer. “There is no yawning with a loud mouth in my courtroom.”

The district attorney’s office was criticized for its role in maintaining the culture of delay— often attributed to a lack of judicial resources and defense attorneys— after 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide in June. Before his release and struggle to regain his footing, Browder spent three years at Rikers Island waiting for his day in court after allegedly stealing a backpack. Behind bars, Browder was beaten by guards and inmates, and spent months upon months in solitary confinement. News that the Bronx district attorney’s office finally admitted it had no witnesses, evidence, or a victim infuriated the public, spurring activists and politicians alike to call for criminal justice reform.

In a Daily News column, NY1 anchor Errol Louis wrote the responsibility for Browder’s death could not be placed on an abstract criminal justice system, but on its leaders, singling out Johnson.

“It must be noted that a heavy measure of responsibility lies with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose bungling subordinates contributed to the long delays in Kalief’s case. Johnson, who is up for re-election this year, is named in the lawsuit Kalief filed against the city before his death,” Louis wrote.

For Bronx City Council Member Andy King, the three years Browder spent in prison are the result of prosecutors’ preoccupation with getting convictions.

“What happened here with Kalief Browder, is that the district attorneys are more interested in convictions rather than the truth,” King said at a June press conference in front of Johnson’s office.

King introduced a bill to amend state criminal procedure law to compel open and early discovery— a policy King says Johnson does practice. In a separate interview, King told Gotham Gazette he likes Johnson and approves of the job he has done, but thinks that, as is the case with anything, there is room for improvement.

At the same press conference, Browder’s attorney Paul Prestia rebuked the district attorney, criticizing the delays he says Johnson’s office introduced that kept his client in prison.

“Kalief Browder languished in jail for three years while prosecutors delayed his case without any accountability,” Prestia said. “But I won’t digress into that and all of those details. You can speak to the so-called DA of this borough, and perhaps he’ll have the answers for you or something to say about it.”

District Attorney Johnson was not made available for an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Prestia told Gotham Gazette he hoped district attorneys would be held accountable for creating unreasonable delays.

“You’d think that with such a bureaucracy there’d be enough oversight that this wouldn’t happen,” he said of the backlogs in the Bronx court system. “Basically there’s no real sense of urgency on their part to go forward on cases.”

But a lack of urgency on the part of the district attorney’s office, real or perceived, likely does not tell the full story behind the pervasive culture of delay. Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Johnson’s office, attributed the delays to logistical issues and a lack of judicial resources.

“The law does not permit a “Law & Order” style of case management,” Raskyn said, referring to the TV series. “Every defendant and ‘the People’ have requirements that have to be met with regard to the opportunity to appear, plead, have motions made and decided upon, pretrial hearings, etc. Add to that the scheduling issues and you have delays,” Raskyn wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

“And then there is often delay in getting defendants produced, either from Rikers Island or other facilities – prisoner movement often delays scheduled appearances by hours, and those hours compound the problem.”

Also citing a lack of resources, Robert Dreher, an executive assistant district attorney in the office, dismissed the notion that prosecutors purposefully introduced delays.

“One of the primary problems we deal with is resources: judges, court rooms, stenographers, court officers that are needed...the more of that we have, the more efficient the system would be,” Dreher said. “We’re in favor of speedy trials...people sometimes think prosecutors like delays, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We want cases to go to trial quickly. Delays are for defendants’ benefit. Obviously no one wants someone sitting in jail waiting for trial for a long time, that’s not acceptable.”

The Bronx district attorney’s office is set to receive just over $58 million in funding through the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget, putting it behind New York County (Manhattan) and Queens County. The new fiscal year began July 1.

Though the office has seen slight increases to its budget in the last few years, in 2010 it was slashed and the office laid off 12 assistant district attorneys, Above the Law reported. In 2014, NBC news reported that Johnson led efforts on behalf of the city’s five district attorneys to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss their budgets. A meeting was finally arranged after NBC’s report.

While the office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s request for an interview, Johnson has discussed the function of his office in the recent past. “The major changes that need to be done are not in the way the system operates but in how the system handles the capacity of all the cases that come in. This is a statewide problem...I believe that we have really trailed behind in this issue for the past couple of decades,” Johnson told the Bronx Chronicle in 2014. “We need to take a long-term look concerning additional judges, additional courtrooms, and additional staff to better handle the caseloads we are getting in.”

A former assistant district attorney under Johnson, attorney Paul Martin, agrees.

“There were never enough courtrooms to meet the needs of having a defendant tried in a timely fashion, there is no doubt about that. So with more judges and more courtrooms, we’d be able to address the backlog of cases,” Martin said.

At the Hall of Justice, many of the trial parts — the term used to label a specific courtroom — were simply not open when Gotham Gazette visited on July 13. But it is also unclear how it is determined when a trial part is in use: a judge told attorneys all trial parts were in use when a visit to one nearby found another judge sitting in an empty room.

Efficiency
Even as it demands more trial parts, data shows that the Bronx district attorney’s office actually declines to prosecute cases more often than any of its counterparts across the city.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2014, the Bronx district attorney's office declined to press charges in 24 percent of violent felony arrests and roughly 16 percent of both felony and misdemeanor arrests. In contrast, in the same year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to press charges in 4.1 percent of violent felony arrests, almost 3 percent of felony arrests, and just over 2 percent of misdemeanor arrests.

Those numbers— along with (and perhaps caused by) plummeting jury trial success rates— have led many to question whether the office is letting dangerous people walk free.

But Executive Assistant District Attorney Dreher says that the rates at which the office declines to press charges are indicative of the office’s practice of immediately rooting out weak cases.

“It’s not quite what it appears. Each office has a different way of approaching [evaluating a case]. Some offices, when the police officers make the arrest, they’ll bring the case in, they’ll process it, and then they go through and determine is it going be sufficient for trial, is it going to be sufficient to charge,” Dreher said. “We do triage much earlier in the case, we do it in the very beginning.”

But the office’s self-described careful triage has not prevented it from either accumulating a low conviction rate or from making a series of high profile blunders.

In April, the office came under fire after Bronx Criminal Court Judge John Wilson publicly condemned Assistant District Attorney Megan Teesdale for failing to reveal evidence that would have freed a man held on Rikers Island who was falsely accused of rape, the New York Daily News reported.

Later that month, the office was criticized for its “inexplicable” lack of follow-up in its role handling crimes committed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s mother. Prosecutors from the office failed to file routine papers to help recover stolen funds. As a result, Heastie was allowed keep a house his mother purchased with embezzled money; he later sold it and pocketed the profits, reported the New York Times.

In 2013, Johnson’s office declined to prosecute a group of corrections officers at Rikers who ignored a dying inmate’s pleas for medical assistance, citing a lack of evidence. The inmate’s death was ruled a homicide due to “neglect and denial of medical care.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged one of the officers, Captain Terrence Pendergrass, and was successful in seeking a conviction.

Community Context
In interviews, attorneys and politicians stressed the importance of understanding the problems specific to the Bronx when evaluating the district attorney. For attorney Jason Foy, a former ADA in the office, that understanding is particularly important when scrutinizing the Bronx DA’s conviction rate.

“I see articles about the conviction rate in the Bronx being lower than in other places. Well, that’s not necessarily the DA’s problem because that comes from a historical problem between the police and the community,” Foy said.

Bronx jurors are notoriously distrustful of the police— a dynamic rooted in policing practices like “stop-and-frisk,” broken windows enforcement, and Operation Clean Halls, in which police patrolled and searched apartment buildings and questioned residents. Johnson was lauded by Bronx residents in 2012 when he announced that his office would no longer prosecute people accused of trespassing in public housing who were searched and frisked unless the arresting officer explained the arrest to the office.

“When you’re an innocent person walking home, you don’t want to be searched and asked where you’re going. That experience, when you become a juror, impacts how you see the case. It’s hard for innocent people on those juries to just believe a cop automatically,” Foy said. “You may not have that same experience in Westchester County. In the Bronx it’s not that same type of deal...Now is that the DA’s fault?”

There will be little opportunity for voters to express their opinions of Distrcit Attorney Johnson at the polls this fall, given the lack of competition.

For former ADA Paul Martin, more troubling than the low conviction rate is what he described as “the lack of understanding or consistency” in the office’s recommendations for punishment.

“I thought there was a lack of understanding for the nature of the situation of the individuals and the community and situation in which they came from,” Martin said. “It was that lack of understanding that led individuals who never had any of that experience to be somewhat heavy-handed in the manner in which they would pick their cases.”

Foy noted that most lawyers in the office didn’t grow up in the Bronx.

“Most of them are not from there, they’re from other parts of the country, other less dysfunctional environments,” Foy said. “So that’s going to give you a different perspective.”

“Now, if you’re saying that the way the prosecutor's office doesn’t take into account some of these social issues that have historically plagued the area— that might be true, but,” Foy continued, “the prosecutor is there to do a job, they’re not there to address the social ills.”

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by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

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Progress Elusive as Bronx DA Cruises Toward Reelection Mon, 10 Aug 2015 21:58:22 +0000