Gotham Gazette

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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.

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