Overlooked by most mainstream media outlets, the Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney will have great consequences not just for the more than 1 million people who live in New York’s most famous borough, but for the rest of the city and the nation writ large. The Manhattan DA’s office, with five hundred prosecutors and a budget nearing $170 million, is the second largest in America, and a trendsetter for DAs elsewhere.
The field for the June 22 primary is incredibly crowded. Though Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has not endorsed a candidate in the race — in contrast to their high-profile bid to elect Tiffany Cabán, who came within one hundred votes of becoming the Queens DA in 2019 — there are several candidates with worthwhile leftist platforms competing for the nomination. If the mayoral race at the top of the ticket has been a disappointment for rank-and-file socialists, with few viable options to choose from, the Manhattan DA campaign offers much more.
Part of the reason the race is so significant is that so few men — yes, they’ve all been men — have held the post at all. Cyrus Vance Jr, the outgoing DA, was elected in 2009. Before him, Robert Morgenthau, one of the most famous prosecutors in American history, first won in 1974. Vance’s tenure was plenty controversial; he drew international headlines for his uneven handling of cases involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump. Beyond the spotlight, Vance’s office was known for aggressively prosecuting misdemeanors, a practice that punished low-income black and Latino residents.
Vance did occasionally have a progressive streak: in 2018, he decided his office would no longer prosecute people who did not pay their subway fare, angering law-and-order reactionaries.
Amid a wave of progressive prosecutors riding into office nationwide, several of the Democrats competing in the primary hope to do a lot better. If you’re a leftist who cares about criminal justice reform, you have candidates to choose from. The Working Families Party (WFP) has endorsed Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights lawyer who successfully sued the Fire Department for discrimination against black firefighters. Aboushi currently represents Dounya Zayer, who was assaulted by police at last year’s Black Lives Matter protest outside Barclays Center.
Aboushi, like several candidates in the race, would be the first female and nonwhite DA of Manhattan. She has said she would never charge juveniles as adults and won’t seek sentences that exceed twenty years. Like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, she is a defense attorney who has not spent her legal career attempting to put people in prison.
Aboushi has real competition for the leftist reformer lane. Eliza Orlins, a Legal Aid Society public defender, apparently won the rank-and-file WFP vote — the Manhattan chapter voted in her favor — before the leadership overrode it. Orlins, along with Dan Quart, a state assemblyman, were the highest rated candidates by Five Boro Defenders, chosen because they would do the “least harm” with the powerful office. Orlins would end the “trial tax,” which coerces guilty pleas by threats of a much longer sentence, and would fully decriminalize sex work. Like Cabán, Orlins views the office through a “decarceral” lens and promises to never seek cash bail under any circumstances. (Before her legal career, Orlins enjoyed some renown as a cast member of Survivor and The Amazing Race.)
Quart, the only current elected official running, has also tried to occupy the left lane in the primary. In the Assembly, he was a leading voice on reforming the state’s outdated bail system and repealing a law that shielded police officers’ disciplinary records. Another contender, Alvin Bragg, has been the chief deputy attorney general of New York and was cocounsel in the case seeking full transparency regarding how the New York Police Department handled Eric Garner’s death. Bragg, who has the endorsement of Zephyr Teachout and a couple of labor unions, has worried some on the Left because of his extensive career serving in prosecutorial roles.
The biggest roadblock to a reformer occupying the Manhattan DA’s office is Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor. Five Boro Defenders gave Weinstein one of their lowest ratings. “In our interview, Farhadian Weinstein espoused an ardent belief in traditional prosecution and was the most unreceptive to exploring or understanding the very real harm done to communities by these practices,” wrote the public defender group in their voter guide, adding that she’d follow the “same carceral rigidity and cronyism that has been the hallmark of Cy Vance.”
What’s most striking about Weinstein is her fundraising. Unlike the other top-tier candidates, she has aggressively fundraised from Wall Street megadonors. Her top givers include wealthy employees of Goldman Sachs, Pershing Square Capital Management, and Saba Capital Management, a hedge fund founded and managed by Boaz Weinstein, her husband. His net worth is near half a billion dollars.
The problem with Farhadian Weinstein raising so much from Wall Street is that the Manhattan DA is the preeminent investigator, along with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, of white-collar crime in America. Tax evasion, money laundering, and real estate cases of national and global import all fall under the purview of the Manhattan office.
A challenge for the Left, which would hope to consolidate its forces against Farhadian Weinstein, is the absence of ranked-choice voting in this primary. The mayoral race, held on the same day, will allow voters to rank five candidates, diminishing the chances of vote-splitting. Since the DA is technically a state office, it follows state election law. Ranked-choice voting, at this point, is only in effect for city offices.
Quart, Bragg, Orlins, and Aboushi all have their strengths as candidates. With no reliable public, independent polling of the primary, the outcome will be hard to predict. Given the ongoing pandemic, and the familiar Manhattan challenge of reaching voters in secure, high-rise buildings, conventional canvassing will not determine the winner. Instead, it will be the various interest groups, elected officials, and political clubs — along with the direct mail and advertising spending undertaken by the candidates’ campaigns — that decide the victor. Criminal justice reformers have an opportunity to control one of the most influential prosecutorial perches in the world on June 22. They’ll have to figure out how to seize the office and not allow a member of the corporate elite to control it instead.