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Courting The Left in Manhattan DA’s Race

Issue 263

Three decarceral candidates are vying to replace Cy Vance. But will Wall Street’s favorite prevail over a fractured field?

Theodore Hamm Apr 23

For more about each of the contenders in the Manhattan DA’s race, see our candidate bios below. 

Although the Manhattan district attorney’s office is the second largest in the United States (after Los Angeles), it is far and away the most prominent. During his three terms, outgoing DA Cy Vance made international headlines because of his controversial handling of cases involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

On a much lower-profile level, Vance’s office routinely outpaced its city counterparts in terms of prosecuting misdemeanors, a practice that ensnared the city’s Black and Latinx residents. But anytime Vance announced a new policy regarding prosecutions, it got plenty of media attention.

Over the past few years, a wave of progressive prosecutors has taken over district attorneys’ offices across the country, including recently in L.A. and New Orleans. But no office can match Manhattan’s media influence. If he were shaking things up here, Philadelphia’s radical DA Larry Krasner would be a household name outside of the criminal justice world right now.

As the June 22 primary race takes off, many criminal justice activists nonetheless fear that Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the candidate most similar to Cy Vance, may emerge victorious in the crowded field.

“Progressives need to coalesce against a billionaire [Farhadian Weinstein] so there’s no continuation of Vance’s legacy of discriminatory prosecution against people of color and in favor of the wealthy,” says Tahanie Aboushi’s campaign manager Jamarah Hayner, who recently handled George Gascón’s successful left-wing run to become L.A. district attorney.

In recent weeks, Aboushi, one of three decarceral candidates (along with Eliza Orlins and Dan Quart), has picked up high-profile endorsements, including from the Working Families Party, Jumaane Williams, Jamaal Bowman, Cynthia Nixon, and Yuh-Line Niou. How many votes such support will yield remains to be seen.

Several campaigns tell The Indypendent that the winner in the June 22 Democratic primary will need approximately 70,000 votes. Because the district attorney is a state office, the ranked-choice voting process currently being rolled out in NYC elections does not apply in the race.

Farhadian Weinstein, the leading fundraiser (with over $2.25 million), has a base of support among the city elite. Her campaign’s media team answers to Stu Loeser, former press secretary for Michael Bloomberg, the figure most responsible for Vance’s ascent in 2009.

Alvin Bragg, running as a reformer, has the clearest traction thus far among the left-of-center candidates. As of the January campaign finance filing, Bragg has the most individual donors (nearly 2,000) from Manhattan of the eight candidates (Orlins is second, with roughly 1,300). In addition to his support from Black leadership in Harlem, where he grew up and still lives, Bragg has been endorsed by more than a dozen Democratic clubs, a reliable source of Manhattan votes.

Quart, meanwhile, is backed by seven clubs, and he has the support of several Latinx elected officials representing Upper Manhattan, including Jose Serrano, Carmen de la Rosa, Robert Rodriguez and Diana Ayala. Votes from Washington Heights (where Quart was raised) through Inwood could play a pivotal role in the race.

In the 2018 primary for attorney general, Zephyr Teachout defeated Tish James in Manhattan by 20,000 votes (105,000–85,000). Both candidates carried stretches of Washington Heights and Inwood, trouncing centrist Sean P. Maloney. Running as the “anti-Teachout,” Maloney collected 42,000 votes, largely in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.

Orlins, a longtime Chelsea resident, views her campaign as playing well with LGBT voters in the area. Her pre-public defender career in the entertainment industry likely will appeal to many West Village and Tribeca residents. While Orlins has the backing of the Downtown Independent Democrats, the Chelsea Reform Dems are backing Quart and the Village Independent Dems are supporting Bragg.

Aboushi’s strategy is to pick up swaths of votes across Manhattan, starting with younger Black as well as Muslim residents of Harlem, where she lives. Yuh-Line Niou will help rally support in Chinatown and Jumaane Williams will bring out NYCHA residents downtown and elsewhere. Like all the contenders, Aboushi hopes to grab a solid chunk of support on the Upper West Side through Morningside Heights.

Aboushi’s edge in institutional endorsements appears to be the handiwork of her consultant Camille Rivera, co-founder of New Deal Strategies. As Jeff Coltin of City & State reported, the Manhattan chapter of the Working Families Party voted to endorse Orlins, only to be overruled by higher-ups. Sources tell The Indypendent that Rivera’s husband Jonathan Westin of NY Communities for Change, a leading organization within the WFP, was pivotal.

Rivera’s close ties to city labor leaders likely helped influence the decision of the executive committee of DC 37, the large union representing city government workers, to back Aboushi. At the same time, the union’s leadership endorsed Eric Adams for mayor — an odd combination of left and center-right picks.

In the DC 37 selection process, Orlins was again slighted. Despite being the only active union member in the race (Legal Aid Society public defenders are represented by UAW 2325, which endorsed Orlins), the candidate was never sent a questionnaire or interviewed. At least three other campaigns say they were given such opportunities. DC 37 delegates ratified the Aboushi endorsement in late March.

In mid-April Bragg snagged the high-profile backing of Zephyr Teachout and Janos Marton, leaders in both the fight for decarceration and against public corruption. Earlier in the month Bragg scooped up the support of 32BJ, which represents building service workers throughout the city. That should help Bragg pick up votes in Upper Manhattan, although there are many members who live throughout the borough.

Aboushi recently gained the backing of UNITE HERE Local 100, which represents food service workers at Madison Square Garden and several larger Midtown restaurants, among other venues. As Politico noted, it is the first time the union has endorsed a Manhattan DA candidate. Quart, meanwhile, has the support of CWA Local 101, which bargains for telecommunications and broadcast media workers, as well as IATSE, the union for Broadway stagehands.

The UFT also revealed in early April that the four finalists for its support are Bragg, Lucy Lang, Orlins and Quart, causing Aboushi’s supporters to object to her exclusion. This will be a good one for the candidate who scores it, because the UFT has many members (particularly retirees) living in places like Stuy Town and the Upper West Side.

Union support can be pivotal in competitive races, and backroom maneuvering is how the game is played in city politics. While it’s hard to forecast how it will play out, the fact that the splintering left factions could allow Farhadian Weinstein to emerge victorious remains an alarming prospect.

— April 23, 2021

MEET THE CANDIDATES

Eliza Orlins
Profile: Legal Aid Society public defender in Manhattan throughout Vance era.
Distinctiveness: Most highly-rated candidate by Five Boro Defenders, a network of fellow progressive public defenders; most outspoken regarding the need to end “trial tax,” which coerces guilty pleas (via threat of a much longer sentence upon trial); committed to fully decriminalizing sex work.
Drawback: Not getting much institutional support (see article).

Dan Quart
Profile: Assemblyman representing Upper East Side for past decade.
Distinctiveness: Leader in Assembly fights for bail reform, repeal of 50-A (shielding NYPD disciplinary records), and weed legalization; highest marks from Five Boro Defenders in terms of accountability for both police and prosecutorial miscoduct.
Drawback: Only candidate who would not be a historic first at Manhattan DA (all of whom have been white men).

Tahanie Aboushi
Profile: Civil Rights lawyer in private practice since 2010.
Distinctiveness: Successfully sued NYFD for discrimination against Muslim officers and currently represents Dounya Zayer, who was assaulted by police at last year’s BLM protest outside Barclays Center; committed to never charging juveniles as adults; won’t seek sentences that exceed 20 years (and will review past sentences exceeding that length).
Drawback: Path to victory remains unclear (see article).

Alvin Bragg
Profile: Fifteen-year career as a prosecutor, including as chief deputy attorney general of New York State.
Distinctiveness: Co-counsel in current case that seeks full transparency regarding the NYPD’s handling of the Eric Garner case; wide range of experience regarding white-collar prosecutions; pledges to review all cases handled by Central Par Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein.
Drawback: Often stakes out middle ground, which may not excite voters.

Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Profile: Former federal prosecutor who served as counsel to AG Eric Holder an then as general to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzales.
Distinctiveness: Ranked as the least progressive candidate by Five Boro Defenders; frequently touts her role in overseeing report by Gonzalez’s office that analyzed prosecutorial misconduct in exoneration cases (although the report did not identify specific prosecutors); clear ability to raise funds among city elite.
Drawback: Benefits from split among left candidates.

Rest of the Field
Note: All are former prosecutors in the Manhattan DA’s office. Lucy Lang is widely considered to be Vance’s preferred successor, but she has struggled to gain traction. After a dispute over her misconduct in a large construction fraud case, Diana Florence is most certainly not Vance’s pick; and, as with Lang, it’s hard to see a lane for Florence. Liz Crotty has a lane open on the right, but she may lack the resources to pursue it.

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