(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
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.