Tali Farhadian Weinstein announced her candidacy for Manhattan district attorney in July 2020, joining a crowded field of candidates for the June 22 primary. At least eight other contenders have jockeyed for attention since last summer. And all of them, to varying degrees, have sought to position themselves as progressive or reform-minded alternatives to a stilted status quo. (Cyrus Vance, who has served as Manhattan DA since 2010, is not seeking reelection.)
Some candidates wear their progressive label more credibly than others. Janos Marton, a prominent advocate of closing the Rikers Island jail complex, announced his campaign with a plan to slash Manhattan’s jail population by 80 percent. Tahanie Aboushi, endorsed by the Working Families Party and Bernie Sanders, pledged to introduce a policy of non- or delayed prosecution for many misdemeanors and to provide alternative-to-incarceration programs in all cases, “no exceptions.” Eliza Orlins, a longtime public defender, has consistently led the race in small-dollar donations while campaigning on what she describes as a “decarceral vision” for the DA’s office.
The presence of Aboushi, Marton, and Orlins in the race established a principled (and competitive) progressive pole against which more moderate candidates were forced to pitch their own positions — including former federal prosecutor Alvin Bragg, whom Marton endorsed after dropping out of the race in April. Even more significantly, Aboushi and Orlins demonstrated early on that a bold anti-incarceration agenda could be electorally viable in Manhattan by amassing endorsements, small donors, and volunteers.
As recently as April, an optimistic observer could be forgiven for thinking that the “progressive prosecutor” movement — embodied by figures like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin — was on the cusp of claiming Manhattan. Two years after the razor-thin defeat of Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens DA, the race represented another referendum on New York City’s expansive law-and-order infrastructure — and a rare opportunity for residents to vote for a reduction in the city’s capacity to send people to jail.
But elites had other plans. With breathtaking speed, Tali Farhadian Weinstein was elevated from minor player to presumed front-runner thanks to a wave of big-dollar donations. In mid-April, Gothamist reported that Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor and director of an underperforming conviction integrity unit in Brooklyn, had out-fundraised her nearest opponent (Bragg) by more than two to one. “Wall Street Has Chosen Its Candidate,” read Gothamist’s headline.
While Farhadian Weinstein, like so many others in the race, rushes to call herself a progressive and a reformer, her platform reveals she is well to the right of nearly every other candidate on nearly every important issue — from sentencing to policing to felony murder.
“Tali is a favorite among financial services and other members of the business community who know her both socially and professionally,” one private sector lobbyist told Gothamist. The lobbyist went on to say that “the business community has generally thought that Cy Vance has done a good job at reconciling quality of life and criminal justice issues.” Farhadian Weinstein’s meaningless campaign slogan, “Real reform is about results,” makes sense when you realize that, for her wealthy donors, the candidate represents what the lobbyist called “continuity” and “a moderate approach.”
At the time, other candidates were unruffled by Farhadian Weinstein’s deep pockets — Aboushi and Orlins emphasized that their campaigns were driven by small donors, while Bragg and others questioned Farhadian Weinstein’s ability to credibly investigate and prosecute financial crime.
But in the weeks since, Farhadian Weinstein has taken the spending offensive to new heights. What had previously been a scandalous, if predictable, imbalance of campaign resources has become what attorney David Menschel calls “the most outrageous effort to flat-out purchase a district attorney position in America ever.”
Farhadian Weinstein donated $8.3 million of her own money to her campaign, boosting her fundraising total to about $10 million more than any other candidate in the race. “It’s an enormous amount of money to spend on a local DA race and it [seems like she’s] trying to buy justice,” the director of Common Cause New York, a watchdog organization, told Gothamist.
Farhadian Weinstein outspent her opponents seven to one between May 17 and June 7. During that time, the campaign shelled out roughly $6.5 million to pay for mailers, TV ads, and digital outreach.
This digital outreach included an online “push poll” that purported to be nonpartisan while misrepresenting rival candidate Alvin Bragg’s record and campaign platform. In a televised debate, another DA candidate, city assembly member Dan Quart, called Farhadian Weinstein’s attack on Bragg “disgraceful.”
The next day, the Farhadian Weinstein campaign used portions of a $5 million ad buy to circulate images of Quart and Bragg together under the headline “Do you want a District Attorney Who Protects Domestic Abusers?” (Quart and Bragg, along with Aboushi and Orlins, indicated in a candidates’ survey that they would not pursue domestic charges in cases where neither the accused nor the accuser wants to proceed.)
Farhadian Weinstein, who owns a $25.5 million Fifth Avenue apartment and a $13 million summerhouse in the Hamptons, has characterized comments about her affluence as “misogyny.” But it is clear her immense wealth is relevant to her newfound viability as a DA candidate. And as her rivals have pointed out, it also raises significant questions about what kind of DA she’d be in office.
The source of much of Farhadin Weinstein’s personal wealth is her marriage to Boaz Weinstein, the founder and manager of the hedge fund Saba Capital Management. ProPublica recently revealed that the couple declared an annual income as high as $107 million in the last ten years, although they paid no federal income tax in 2017, 2015, or 2013. And Gothamist uncovered that among her donors are a number of finance and real estate heavyweights.
As Ross Barkan wrote in Jacobin last month, “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 key criticism sitting DA Cyrus Vance faced throughout his tenure was that he was insufficiently aggressive in pursuing financial and other corporate crimes. Beyond her hollow slogan, Farhadian Weinstein has given voters no reason to believe she would be any different.
There are no term limits for DAs in New York, and the Manhattan office is especially famous for the longevity of its chief prosecutors. Vance served just three terms. But his predecessors, Robert Morganthau and Frank Hogan, each held office for more than thirty years. In nearly a century, then, the most powerful law enforcement position in one of the most significant jurisdictions in the country has been occupied by only three men.
Manhattan voters have a choice to make on Tuesday — and they can only make one. (Because district attorney is a state position, not a municipal one, ranked-choice voting won’t apply in this race.) Will they join Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s cohort of millionaire backers and vote for “continuity”? Or will they demand change?