Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Apr 2021 22:17:09 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Pitch Plans and Pasts to West Side Democratic Clubs Gotham Gazette:

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Janos Marton, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

Tuesday night, the Chelsea Reform Democrats and Hell’s Kitchen Democrats co-hosted a candidate forum for the nine candidates running in the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney. Incumbent Cy Vance has not declared whether or not he plans to run for reelection, but he has not been actively fundraising for another run and has not appeared at any of the early forums, where candidates have at times criticized his record harshly as too punitive on some, particularly low-income people of color, and too lenient on others, particularly wealthy white people, including some men accused or convicted of sexual assault.

Much of the early discussion in the race has been about the many candidates trying to present their resumes and lay out their credentials to become the borough’s top prosecutor, with many of the candidates taking progressive stances and promising efforts to decarcerate. A number of differences among the candidates have emerged, and others are still becoming apparent as they appear at more events together, release policy plans, and further explain how they would run the office that has domain including much of the city’s sprawling subway system, Wall Street, major tourist destinations, some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, many public housing developments, and other facets of Manhattan.

The moderator Tuesday was Sylvia Di Pietro, a district leader in the 75th Assembly District. The candidates were asked mostly different questions throughout the forum.

The nine participants included civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Liz Crotty; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang; decarceration activist and civil rights attorney Janos Marton; public defender Eliza Orlins; Assemblymember Dan Quart; and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

Dan Quart
Assemblymember Dan Quart, the only current elected official in the race and a criminal defense attorney, promised “a complete break from the last 11 years” of Vance’s tenure and sought to emphasize his anti-establishment bona fides from the beginning of the forum, highlighting his unsuccessful 2005 run for City Council against a party-backed candidate, along with his legislative accomplishments and pro bono work. He said “we can have public safety but also policies of decarceration that don’t punish poor people.”

He listed decarceration as his top priority if elected, saying it “requires deconstructing this office and rebuilding it.” As part of his “reimagining a new vision for public safety,” Quart promised a “complete revamp” of the sex crimes unit, scaling back the use of surveilance in prosecutions, and ending the “criminalization of poverty.”

Quart said he was a supporter of ending cash bail and sentencing reform “before it was easy or a talking point,” citing his legislative work on those issues. When asked how he would reduce jail overcrowding, Quart said as DA he would institute a “rebuttable presumption that no one will be offered a sentence of greater than 20 years.”

Later in the forum, he sought to make a distinction between himself and several of those in the race with prosecutorial backgrounds, saying he would decline to prosecute more cases, rather than mandate diversion programs, as advocated by some other candidates, “who believe they can use the tools of the office in a kinder, gentler way.”

As has been the case in prior forums, there was limited discussion by Quart or others about prosecuting crime, with some exceptions.

One being a major issue brought up at the forum of how each candidate would deal with vehicular violence as DA. Quart called the issue a “serious problem” and said he would be aggressive in prosecuting such cases, like reckless driving and when drivers hit pedestrians, but “not for purposes of incarceration.”

Diana Florence
Diana Florence, who formerly ran the Manhattan DA’s construction fraud task force, said she was running “for people who never thought they’d win” and repeatedly mentioned her intention to focus on “crimes of power not crimes of poverty” if elected. She cited her own work taking on real estate developers and landlords as an example of this. Florence has been endorsed by more than a dozen labor unions, she said, most of which are associated with the construction industry.

“We can’t be operating in the 20th century,” said Florence, who claimed “the district attorney’s office hasn’t changed in 45 years.” She promised to “reallocate resources” from targeting crimes of poverty to crimes of power.

Florence also criticized Vance, whom she worked for until earlier this year, saying, “I was very much an outsider in that office,” and criticizing what she described as a toxic work environment. She also criticized the current handling of gun violence more broadly, telling attendees that “we’re not attacking the problem at its source. She advocated an “interstate approach” to stop gun trafficking before it reaches the city and said “we have great laws but if we’re not enforcing them and stopping the source, we’re not doing anything.”

When asked about vehicular violence, Florence said she would “proactively investigate every single traffic injury or fatality,” comparable to how she investigated any construction fatalities while at the DA’s office.

Lucy Lang
Lucy Lang pitched herself by saying “I know how to reform the system because I’ve worked from the inside and outside.” Lang served for over a decade as an Assistant DA under Vance and has been the director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College since 2017.

Lang said the most significant change she would make to the office would be “building an inclusive workforce,” prioritizing diversity. When asked about the incumbent’s handling of the Harvey Weinstein case, Lang decried a “sense of backdoor dealing” and said she would institute “a policy of equal access,” preventing “backdoor meetings for well-heeled defense attorneys.”

When asked if she thought traffic violence should be treated similarly to drunk driving, Lang said she could not commit without seeing the legislation, but that she “aspires to ensure” that offenders are held “appropriately responsible.”

Tahanie Aboushi
Tahanie Aboushi offered a much more aggressive pitch, saying she was “running to transform this office.” She said ending discriminatory practices is “not just doing damage control but making sure they won’t happen again.”

“This problem is not with Vance,” Aboushi said. “He’s just another cut-and-paste prosecutor.” She said she would refocus the office away from “crime and punishment” and towards public health. When asked how she would address the school-to-prison pipeline, Aboushi said, “we rely on police instead of using our social service programs” and that we need to “stop criminalizing children for being children.”

She criticized the office’s conviction integrity unit as “a lame duck” and committed if elected to “making sure this office is represented by impacted people.” When challenged over whether 20 years would be too lenient of a sentence for murder, Aboushi said that being against the death penalty means “being against death by incarceration.”

Liz Crotty
“I’ve represented everyone,” said Liz Crotty, noting her work as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, which she says gives her “an informed perspective to lead this office.” She said she would bring “realistic, common-sense reforms” to the office, while also declaring “the job of the District Attorney is to enforce the laws of the State of New York and that’s what I’m planning to do.” She cited the use of “certificates of readiness” to prolong cases as a “practice the DA’s office has gotten entirely wrong.”

Crotty often eschewed the more sweeping and systematic promises of her opponents, saying she would look at cases on an individual basis. Asked about how she would handle immigration concerns as DA, Crotty said she would “look at the collateral consequences in nonviolent cases,” but “when it comes to violent crime, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

She had been the only candidate in the race not to sign a letter calling for Governor Cuomo to institute elder parole. “[W]hile I agreed with the spirit and tenor of that letter,” she said, she did not sign it because “each case has to be held on an individual, case-by-case basis.” She specifically said, “I don’t think Harvey Weinstein should get compassionate release.” She took that instance as an example of her “courage to stand out and above,” saying “that’s leadership.”

While generally supportive of restorative justice, she noted that the decision should be left up to the victims, saying, “I have enough experience with defendants to know that not everyone wants that opportunity.”

When asked about her criteria for prosecuting hit-and-runs, Crotty said she would “have to look at the surrounding circumstances.”

Eliza Orlins
Eliza Orlins emphasized that she’s the “only public defender running.” She said that she “absolutely” believes there is systemic racism in the New York criminal justice system, adding that it “forms the basis of our penal system.”

When asked about bail reform, Orlins said right now the presumption of innocence “only applies when you’re rich enough to buy your freedom,” recalling her experiences representing low-income defendants. She said “money bail does not keep us safe” and instead “is used to detain people who are poor.” She decried the “false choice” between ending cash bail and public safety.

Again citing her own work as a public defender, Orlins said, “I’ve seen rampant misconduct” from prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She said there is a “need to restore trust in the office.”

When asked if she would use vehicular data recorders in vehicular violence prosecutions, she said, “I don’t think that makes our city safer in any way” because in her experience those devices have been used to “up the charges” on defendants.

Alvin Bragg
Alvin Bragg, the lone Black candidate in the race, told the attendees that “all of this work is personal for me,” recounting his personal history witnessing and experiencing police misconduct and violence in his community in Harlem. According to Bragg, his lived experiences led him to make criminal justice his “life’s work” and he said he’s “ready to fundamentally reform the Manhattan DA’s office.”

“The way [violent crime] is prosecuted now doesn’t work,” Bragg said, calling current practices “overly punitive” while also saying that it “doesn’t do enough for victims.” He promised that the decisions of his office would be “survivor-focused and trauma-informed,” including an “opportunity for survivors to confront” perpetrators. He said “we have to deal with this as a systemic issue,” because “trauma affects us all.”

Bragg also promised to hire formerly-incarcerated individuals to work in the office to help others with reentry post-incarceration, saying “those closest to these issues know them best.” He also said he was “proud to stand with those calling for a $1 billion reducation” in the NYPD’s budget, saying that the NYPD “dealing with homelessness and mental health does not make us safer.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Tali Farhadian Weinstein recounted her own personal experiences as an immigrant and said “that remains my framework for how I view the work.” She says that experience has led to her “to want to tear down barriers because I know what it’s like to stand on the other side.” She said she would bring the practices of the Brooklyn DA’s office, which she calls a “national model of progressive prosecution” across the East River to Manhattan.

She said “crimes against women and gender-based violence has not gotten the attention it deserves” from the Manhattan DA’s office, and that change would “require extensive retraining” in addition to “moral courage and commitment.”

When asked about alternatives to incarceration, Farhadian Weinstein said she would import practices from the Brooklyn DA’s office, where she worked until recently, such as a diversion program for first-time gun offenses. Under such a program, participating in mental health counseling or job training could result in charges being dismissed.

On gun violence, she said, “we have excellent gun safety laws yet gun violence is still going up.” She would work with state and federal partners to “stem the flow of gun trafficking” into the city, she said, as well as removing guns from domestic abusers and enforcing red flag laws.

When asked about a dangerousness standard being used to determine bail, Farhadian Weinstein said it’s “a system that better achieves public safety” than cash bail, specifically the need to keep domestic abusers away from their victims.

Janos Marton
Janos Marton takes pride in having the most aggressive decarceration policy in the field. He has a campaign pledge to decrease the pretrial incarceration rate by 80%, which he calls a “real commitment.” He said “that’s something that we can be held accountable by the community for” because of his plan’s specificity.

Aside from the decarceration pledge, Marton said his campaign has published more policies “than any other candidate.” He highlighted his latest plan to “use resources from the financial forfeiture fund for community-based mental health-care,” which he described as a “change approach.” He said “We can do much better in this city than letting people struggle in the streets.”

A longtime leader of the push to close the Rikers Island jails as director of policy and campaigns at JustLeadershipUSA, Marton has also spoken out against the new local jails proposal. “No issue is more important to me," he said, adding, “I believe we can close Rikers without building new jails if we’ve implemented the reforms I’ve proposed.”

Marton is also an advocate for defunding the police, saying resources could instead be used to “invest in programs that truly keep people safe.” He highlighted that he organized a letter among candidates earlier this year calling for $1 billion defunding of the NYPD budget.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Pitch Plans and Pasts to West Side Democratic Clubs Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum 5x4

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Janos Marton, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

The nine Democratic candidates currently running for Manhattan District Attorney in next year’s June primary shared the Zoom debate stage for the first time Tuesday night at a three-hour forum hosted by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBTQ-focused political organization. Each candidate was asked questions individually on a wide range of issues relating to LGBTQ rights, police accountability, and more, but there were some instances in which candidates challenged each other.

The forum came a month after the NYC Program Council hosted the first five declared candidates for the inaugural forum of the 2021 Manhattan District Attorney race, which is unfolding amid uncertainty about whether incumbent Democratic District Attorney Cy Vance will seek another term.

The nine candidates participating Tuesday night were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; former Assistant District Attorney and criminal defense lawyer Liz Crotty; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel in Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office; former Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; public defender Eliza Orlins; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and, Lucy Lang, a former Assistant District Attorney and the director of John Jay College’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution.

Quart has made his name in the Assembly sponsoring criminal justice reform laws like reducing the use of cash bail. Bragg touts his work in the State Attorney General’s office, investigating Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and others. Marton helped lead the Close Rikers campaign and organized decarceral efforts nationally with the ACLU. As an ADA, Crotty prosecuted street crime, among other offenses, and represented families of 9/11 victims in private practice.

In the Brooklyn DA’s office, Weinstein created the Post-Conviction Justice Bureau to review previous convictions for possible exonerations. Florence, who left the Manhattan DA’s office earlier this year over allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, touts her leadership of that office’s Construction Fraud Task Force. Orlins says her decade defending low-income New Yorkers makes her the best candidate to lead the office in a new, more progressive direction. Aboushi has sued the NYPD over misconduct allegations. Lang touts her leadership in developing data-driven criminal justice reform.

District Attorney Vance did not participate in the forum and has not stated whether he will run for reelection. The entry of Lang, a Vance ally, into the race last week and Vance’s paltry fundraising numbers in the first six months of the year are believed to signal that Vance is unlikely to run, especially given the all-important Democratc primary is now less than 10 months away. Lang’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution is funded in part by grants from Vance’s office, which funds many causes, mostly through massive settlements it has reached with financial institutions.

The Jim Owles Club, the forum host, advocates for the decriminalization of sex work and repeal of the “walking while trans” law, among other criminal justice reforms, as well as LGBTQ rights, universal healthcare, and reproductive rights, among other progressive causes. The club is one of New York’s two major citywide progressive LGBTQ political clubs affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with the Stonewall Democrats.

The club’s president, Allen Roskoff, said in a statement that the forum was “a historic opportunity to get an early look at the candidates for one of the most important offices in the country.” The forum had about 100 digital attendees throughout the three-hour event.

“We consider this one of the most important races of 2021,” Roskoff told attendees at the start of the forum. He noted that the club distributed over 50,000 pieces of literature in support of candidates during the 2020 state primaries and would be making its endorsement in the Manhattan District Attorney primary coming months.

“We don’t want a district attorney who is just qualified…and continues to do the status quo. We want a district attorney that people across the country will take note of,” Roskoff said, pointing to San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as models. “We want a district attorney who’s going to get people out of prison and not spend all their time locking people up.”

There was widespread agreement on many of the issues brought up during the forum. All nine candidates voiced support for Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman’s elder parole bill and for repeal of the “walking while trans” law, and promised to visit constituents serving prison terms and to at minimum continue the current sanctuary city policies in the borough.

All but one candidate, Weinstein, expressed support for sex work decriminalization and were against the Nordic model. Florence said that the state “needs to be mindful of the way we draft the bill,” voicing concerns about human trafficking, and said she would “tread lightly” on the issue. Weinstein said she “was not there yet” on sex work decriminalization but that she was “open to revisiting her position” and supports the Nordic model, which maintains the criminalization of buyers of sex while decriminilizing sex workers themselves.

On police funding, several candidates called for the city to reduce the NYPD budget. Florence said that the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget “makes no sense” when other agencies are underfunded. Aboushi said that “the city has come to rely on the NYPD to enforce social inequities and make them crimes.” Lang called for “community-coordinated responses to conduct that doesn’t need police involvement.” Bragg said he’d advocate to “undo Bill de Blasio’s bloating of the NYPD budget” and denounced the “funny budget math” on moving school safety officers to the Department of Education.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) was a contentious issue at the forum, with several candidates promising not to join the organization, which has come under scrutiny by criminal justice reformers. Orlins, Aboushi, and Quart said they would not join the association. Quart said “it’s a fallacy to believe anyone can join that organization and reform it.” Aboushi called it “the antithesis of what I stand for.”

Lang said she would join the DAASNY because a “diversity of voices makes a difference” and she would try to change others’ minds. Bragg said that he would have an “adversarial relationship” with the group while joining it. Florence said she would join, but said she had “brought other DAs to more progressive stances” and would do the same at the DAASNY.

When asked whether they would support the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, all the candidates in attendance at the time (Weinstein was not yet present) said they would, except Crotty, who said “jails exist for a reason” and that mandatory minimums “only exist for violent crimes.”

Lang called for more “judicial discretion” in the sentencing process, to which Aboushi pushed back, saying that “guardrails” were necessary to ensure that judges did not impose overly punitive sentences. Marton promised not to seek sentences longer than 20 years, except under extraordinary circumstances. Marton has also pledged to reduce Manhattan’s prison population by 80% during his tenure.

“I’m running for district attorney against some very good lawyers who would all make a better district attorney than Cy Vance,” Quart said at one point during the forum, an acknowledgement that many of the candidates running had similarly-progressive answers to most questions asked Tuesday night.

With his 80% decarceration goal and other proposals, Marton has tried to establish himself as the furthest left, most radical candidate in the race, while Quart repeatedly pointed to his legislative record as evidence of his own progressive bona fides, as well as his calls for Vance and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea to resign. Bragg, the lone Black candidate in the race, often cites his lived and prosecutorial experiences as reasons that he would make an effective DA. Similarly, Aboushi noted that she would be the first woman and person of color to hold the position. Other candidates, notably Crotty, dissented from the consensus progressive stances on issues like mandatory minimums and cautioned against defunding the NYPD budget.

Each candidate was asked to fill out a lengthier questionnaire and return it to the club before they make their endorsement in the race before petitioning starts for the primary.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum Wed, 19 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate 5 candidates

(l-r) Dan Quart, Alvin Bragg, Tahanie Aboushi, Janos Marton, Eliza Orlins

With the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney now under a year away, five candidates for the office participated in a forum hosted by the New York City Program Council and Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association. Manhattan’s current District Attorney, Cy Vance, has not yet said if he will seek reelection next year as the borough’s top prosecutor and law enforcement officer, but he was a frequent target of his potential opponents during the event.

The kickoff of the primary comes amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and national reckoning around racism in policing and criminal justice, as well as several successful elections of progressive district attorney candidates across the country, plus public defender Tiffany Cabán’s near-win in the Queens District Attorney primary last year.

Vance has faced heavy criticism in recent years over his handling of sex crime cases, including Harvey Weinstein’s, and his decision not to prosecute members of the Turmp family over potentially fraudulent real estate deals, among other controversies. There are currently six Democrats who have declared campaigns, with five of them participating in Tuesday’s virtual forum.

The five participating candidates were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy New York Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and public defender Eliza Orlins. (Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, announced her candidacy this week and did not participate in the forum.)

As many as 400 people watched as the five candidates discussed their backgrounds and stances on issues ranging from cash bail to police brutality to alternatives to incarceration. The candidates often agreed on the issues, but tried to cast themselves as the person best-positioned to actually deliver change.

The question of how to hold police accountable for potential misconduct was the top issue of the forum. Each candidate proposed how they would ensure independence, an important theme given that police and prosecutors largely work on the same team. Bragg called it “the essential issue” and that it’s been his “life’s work,” noting that he has previously prosecuted police for misconduct. He would have prosecutors in his office who specialize in police misconduct and would not be beholden to police for other cases.

Marton said he was “the only candidate to hold Andrew Cuomo accountable” through his work for Cuomo’s prematurely shuttered Moreland Commission to address public corruption, though he didn’t go into specifics, and he would take the same independence to handle cases of police misconduct. He said he would use a “full court press” that would hold as many officers accountable for breaking the law as possible.

Orlins called for independent investigators with civilian oversight to handle allegations of police misconduct. “These prosecutions must be done by someone with no connection to law enforcement,” she said. She also said untrustworthy police officers should not be allowed to testify in court.

Aboushi said that the district attorney’s office is currently the “personal law firm for those with a badge” and said she would “listen to victims of police violence,” promising transparency and accountability in prosecutions of police officers.

Quart pledged to reform the early case assessment bureau and to publicly disclose untruthful police officers.

The candidates rarely took shots at each other and instead directed much of their ire at Vance, bringing up several scandals that have dogged the incumbent in recent years.

Quart said that Vance had “failed to use the incredible powers of the district attorney’s office to reform the system” during his tenure.

“I wish [Vance] could get his 30 seconds, but I know he’s not here tonight,” Orlins said at one point, referring to the rebuttal time candidates were allowed if another candidate mentioned their name during the debate.

“We need fundamental change in Manhattan and I’m the one to bring it,” said Bragg, who said he believes that “incarceration should be a matter of last resort.” He would make pretrial alternatives for mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment more widely available, especially to communities of color, he said.

The candidates agreed on much, such as all five supporting an end to cash bail and more aggressively prosecuting the financial services industry, and arguing that DA Vance should be doing more to reduce the jail population during the coronavirus pandemic. All five candidates also expressed support for ending the so-called trial penalty, whereby defendants know that they will face tougher potential sentencing if they take a case to trial over accepting a plea bargain. Quart and Marton committed to rarely seek sentences of longer than 20 years.

Throughout the forum, Quart pointed to his “actual history of achieving results” as a legislator implementing changes to the criminal justice system, including cosponsoring cash bail reform and voting against recent rollbacks of the bail changes passed by the Legislature last year.

Marton, a decarceration activist who helped lead the campaign to closer the Rikers Island jails, argued that he has “the boldest positions in this race,” including a plan to reduce the number of people in jail from Manhattan by 80%. He also opposes the city’s plan to build new community jails to replace Rikers Island, saying, “I believe in a world without prisons.”

Bragg frequently pointed to his experience as a prosecutor in both the State Attorney General’s office and at the Southern District of New York as a federal prosecutor. He boasted about successful investigations of President Donald Trump for Trump University and major corporations like UPS for shipping untaxed cigarettes. He pitched himself as an “experienced manager” who oversaw an office of 1,200 while Chief Deputy Attorney General for New York State.

Orlins argued she is unique among candidates, saying, “I’m the only candidate here who has been on the frontlines as a public defender for over a decade.” As proof of her managerial expertise, she said she has managed up to 200 cases at a time.

Aboushi cited her experience working directly in communities as a civil rights attorney who “has spent the last ten years in people’s living rooms protecting their rights.” She said she is “the only candidate who has forced the NYPD to change discriminatory practices,” likely referring to a lawsuit she led against the NYPD’s policy regarding religious head coverings during arrests.

All five candidates said they would not take campaign donations from law enforcement unions. Quart, Bragg, and Marton each said that they would not take campaign donations from defense attorneys. Marton said he also would not take funds from the real estate industry and Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists.

The Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney will be held in June of 2021.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been corrected to reflect Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists -- the word "not" had been previously left out accidentally.

Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The 2021 Manhattan District Attorney Race is Officially Underway Cy Vance Manhattan DA speaking

Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)

Five candidates vying to become the next Manhattan District Attorney will participate in a forum on Tuesday, just under a year before the primary election and over a year after the first candidate in the race announced his campaign. The event, featuring all Democrats, is being hosted by the NYC Programming Council and Columbia Law School. Current District Attorney Cy Vance hasn’t said whether or not he will seek reelection in 2021 and is not participating in the first debate of the race.

The event comes a week after Vance notched a significant win in the nation’s highest court in Trump v. Vance, a landmark case over a grand jury subpoena of the president’s tax returns. In doing so, Vance earned a precedent-setting victory over the President of the United States. While it’s not immediately clear that Donald Trump’s tax returns will be made available to Vance’s investigation, it is a win of some magnitude, especially against a figure as reviled in Manhattan as Trump, that would typically be something most politicians could only dream about heading into an election year. But this is no ordinary situation.

Embattled DA Noncommittal About Reelection Bid
Appearing last week on NY1, Vance again wouldn’t say whether he will be seeking a fourth term as Manhattan’s top law enforcement official. Despite several recent Vance victories, including the successful conviction of Harvey Weinstein earlier this year, he’s come under intense criticism in the past few years for his handling of the Weinstein and other sexual assault cases, as well as cases relating to the Trump family, and more.

And while at times Vance, who has been Manhattan DA since 2010, has led his New York City district attorney colleagues on progressive reform, which will be a focus of the 2021 Manhattan primary race, he has also been criticized for not going far enough.

Vance’s third term has been under a cloud of suspicion, since details re-emerged in late 2017 about his decision not to prosecute Weistein, a famous film producer (and now convicted sex offender) over a 2015 allegation of sexual assault that NYPD investigators believed met the evidentiary standards for prosecution. Vance received a five-figure campaign donation from Weinstein’s attorney that same year, leading many critics to argue this influenced Vance’s prosecutorial judgement. By that point in 2017, Vance had already secured renomination as the Democratic candidate and was unopposed in the general election, but one in ten voters wrote in somebody else on their ballot.

Weinstein’s misconduct wasn’t the only sexual assault-related case that has come under scruitny during Vance’s decade-long tenure as Manhattan’s top prosecutor. In 2011, a prosecutor in Vance’s office argued in court for Jefferey Epstein’s sex offender status to be reduced. That year, DA Vance also faced criticism for declining to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, for sexual assault relating to an incident in a New York hotel. In 2016, his office negotiated a plea deal with an OB-GYN who abused dozens of patients in which the doctor received no jail time.

Another frequent criticism of Vance has been his handling of cases related to former Manhattanite Donald J. Trump and his family’s business dealings. Similar to the Weinstein case, Vance decided against prosecuting two of the now-president’s children, Ivanka and Don Jr., over a potentially fraudulent SoHo real estate deal in 2012 after Trump’s attorney donated and fundraised for the district attorney.

Vance has denied all wrong-doing or any undue influence.

Aside from these headline-grabbing cases, opponents contend that Vance’s office too aggressively prosecutes low-level offenses, such as nonviolent misdemeanors, against poor defendants and people of color. These critiques are in line with national and local decarceral movements that seek to reduce the prison population through the non-prosecution of nonviolent offenses such as fare evasion, sex work, and drug possession.

In January of this year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called for Vance to resign and tweeted “if you are black, brown, or a woman in NY county, you have a right to believe that you will not get justice when the other party is someone who has money or is connected.” The City Council’s entire Women’s Caucus has also called for Vance’s resignation, as have victims of the doctor, Robert Hadden, and other advocates, elected officials, and others.

In recent years, Vance has taken steps to attempt to remedy past mistakes, taking on Trump over his tax returns and securing the conviction of Weinstein earlier this year. However, for many critics, these moves are too little too late.

Vance touts a long list of what he calls accomplishments and reforms, including his work to clear old summons warrants; fund the review of old rape kits; increase cyber security; and limit the prosecution of low-level offenses like fare evasion.

While Vance has not formally made a decision yet, his fundraising (or lack thereof) would seem to indicate he won’t be running in 2021. Vance has only raised $25,600 over the last six months of 2019 and had just $105,000 in cash on hand in January, per his state campaign finance filings.

"Well the status of my decision-making is, number one, it’s an amazing office and it’s a privilege to hold it," Vance said on NY1. "I think it’s a good thing that, not just this office but other DA’s offices around the country are attracting a lot of attention, and I hope a lot of good candidates. And so I think the attention and the focus on the District Attorney’s race is important, but for me right now we are in the midst of a crisis that we have not seen in — I’m not sure ever. We have the court system functioning at 10 percent operation. We have a huge backlog of significant cases that we need to manage. We have an office and a community that has undergone enormous pain and self-questioning as a result of the incident that happened with George Floyd in Minneapolis and other fatal police encounters with civilians, and these are very tricky times. My focus is on making sure the office is running properly, making sure that I am addressing some of the issues that are raised by the George Floyd killing with regard to race in our criminal justice system, our policies, our practices, and our personnel, and that’s where my attention is. But I’m glad to see that there are individuals that are interested in running for the Manhattan DA’s race. That is a healthy thing to happen."

Candidates Emerge
As Vance faced growing criticism and calls to resign, candidates emerged -- either to take Vance on in the Democratic primary or to pursue the “open” seat if the incumbent declines to run again.

They include the five candidates who will debate Tuesday night: Assemblymember Dan Quart; Alvin Bragg, the state’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General; Janos Marton, a decarceration activist and former ACLU lawyer; public defender Eliza Orlins; and Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney.

A sixth candidate, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel in Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office, just announced her candidacy this week, but will not be participating in the debate.

Tuesday's debate comes just before candidates will make new fundraising filings public, which will give new insights into the state of the race in its early phases. Fundraising numbers for January through early July will soon be filed by the campaigns, then made available by the state Board of Elections (District Attorney positions are technically part of state government, not city government, so the elections are not part of the city's public campaign finance system).

According to the hosts, Tuesday's "forum comes at a crucial moment as New York City citizens and people across the United States pay close attention to the policing, mass incarceration, and the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice infrastructure.The candidates will answer questions related to he Black Lives Matter movement, alternatives to incarceration, mental health diversion, police accountability, and the role of prosecutors in mass incarceration."

The New York City Program Council is "a trade association of organizations that provide programming in [Department of Correction] facilities around New York City," including the Rikers Debate Project, which has led the organizing for Tuesday's debate among the five Democratic district attorney candidates.

Dan Quart
Quart has represented the Upper East Side and Midtown East in the State Assembly since 2011. He cosponsored legislation to end cash bail in 2019 and chairs the Legislative Commission on Administrative Regulations Review. He has continued to work as a criminal defense attorney throughout his tenure in the State Legislature.

Quart faced some criticism as a “double-officeseeker” for running for reelection to the Assembly this year while also campaigning for District Attorney. He is ahead of his well-funded opponent Cameron Koffman in the Assembly primary that is still playing out with the counting of absentee ballots.

It has been evident for several years that Quart was eyeing a campaign for Manhattan District Attorney. He promises a host of progressive reforms if he were to be elected to the position, including the abolition of cash bail, the decriminilization of sex work, and an end to surveillance-based gang indictments. He has promised to treat substance abuse disorder as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, and would also decline to prosecute low-level offenses such as fare evasion and marijuana possession. Quart has focused on criminal justice issues during his decade in the Assembly, passing a law to compensate exonerated inmates, among a number of other issues he’s either advocated or passed legislation on.

Alvin Bragg
Bragg, who hails from Central Harlem, has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York (headquartered in Manhattan) and the Chief Deputy Attorney General for New York State. In the latter office, he oversaw a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein for a hostile work environment at his production company, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Trump Administration’s citizenship question in the 2020 Census, and major criminal cases involving bribery, securities fraud, and Medicaid fraud.

Bragg vows to make the Manhattan DA’s office “progressive and accountable.” He says his default position would be to decline to prosecute low-level crimes and treating them as a civil matter where appropriate. He promises to dedicate independent prosecutors to exclusively investigate allegations of police misconduct. He would prioritize harm-reduction strategies and seek the low-end of sentencing guidelines in most cases, he says.

Janos Marton
Marton, who was born and raised on the Upper West Side, has held several prominent legal positions throughout his career. He was special counsel to the Moreland Commission, convened and prematurely disbanded by Governor Andrew Cuomo, that investigated political corruption in New York State. He was a leader in the campaign to close Rikers Island jails and later worked as states campaign manager for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

Marton says he would be a “progressive prosecutor” and takes inspiration from Tiffany Cabán’s unsuccessful campaign for Queens DA last year. He wants to reduce the number of Manhattan residents in jails by 80% through declining prosecution on low-level offenses, expanding diversion and restorative justice programs, and reforming bail. He also promises to end charge-stacking and other “coercive plea bargaining practices.” He would decriminalize sex work and “end the War on Drugs,” through changing laws and enforcement practices, he says. 

Eliza Orlins
Orlins is a Manhattan public defender who says she has represented over 3,000 low-income New Yorkers over the past decade and an advocate for criminal justice reform. Some may recognize her from her participation on CBS’s reality competition shows “Survivor” and “Amazing Race,” which has helped her amass a large social media following.

As Manhattan DA, Orlins says she would decriminalize sex work and simple drug possession. She also believes the criminal justice system criminalizes poverty, which she would work to undo, through declining to prosecute low-level offenses. She points to her work as a public defender (the only one currently in the race), an experience she shares with Cabán, as well as progressive DAs across the country, such as Larry Krasner (Philadelphia) and Chesa Boudin (San Francisco).

Tahanie Aboushi
Aboushi is a progressive attorney, as well as a member of Manhattan Community Board 10 and board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union. As an attorney, Aboushi touts legal fights against racism, discrimination, and abuse of power, as well as lawsuits on behalf of bullied school children, people of color harassed and falsely imprisoned in the criminal justice system, and rape victims.

Aboushi would “transform our justice system from one that targets historically marginalized communities into one that uplifts and builds up our neighbors and neighborhoods.” She promises to establish a Police Accountability Unit to investigate police misconduct and focus on alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses. She will also decline to prosecute charges stemming from “crimes of poverty, mental illness, sex work, and substance use disorder.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein
While not participating in Tuesday’s candidate forum, Tali Farhadian Weinstein is the latest addition to a growing field of potential replacements for Vance. Farhadian Weinstein just stepped down as general counsel for Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. She has also served as a federal prosecutor and counsel to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the Obama administration. Holder endorsed her upon her entrance into the race.

Farhadian Weinstein says she supports abolishing cash bail, but is in favor of allowing judges to hold defendants if deemed dangerous, a standard opposed by many criminal justice reformers. When announcing her candidacy, she told Politico that “I agree with some things [Vance]’s done and disagree with others. I think it’s really important to focus on what the office ought to look like in its next chapter.”

Another candidate, criminal defense attorney Liz Crotty, is also not participating in the candidate forum.

The candidate forum is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday night. The event is virtual and anyone interested can sign up here.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to clarify portions of the section on DA Vance's decision-making and tenure.

The 2021 Manhattan District Attorney Race is Officially Underway Mon, 13 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000