The Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney won’t take place until 2021 but the race is already underway.
Current Gotham prosecutor Cyrus Vance Jr., the son of Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, is a comfortable name-brand incumbent and DAs tend to comfortably keep being incumbents in NYC. But it’s a confusing era: criminal justice reformers have turned their attention to sleepy DA races nationally, including this year in Queens. That’s where “decarceral” public defender Tiffany Cabán nearly upended the powerful county Democratic machine. (For the latest on that wild not-over-even-weeks-after-election-day race, read more here).
The Queens race was wide open due to the demise of Richard Brown, the longserving and conservative incumbent. It’s a different picture in Manhattan, because Vance is in his third term and has reduced prosecutions of misdemeanors including for farebeating and marijuana, the type of work a campaign spokeswoman calls “moving our criminal justice system forward.”
Yet challengers see an opening.
Declared candidates Janos Marton and Alvin Bragg believe Manhattan could have an even lighter legal touch on various fronts.
The office’s decline to prosecute policy for subway fare evasion does not apply to buses, for example (though the office does not prosecute the charge frequently).
Marton, who works at the ACLU and formerly helped lead the charge to close the facilities on Rikers Island, says that jails and prisons are “overused” as a way to keep the public safe.
Bragg, who worked in law enforcement as a federal prosecutor and chief deputy attorney general in New York, nevertheless highlights a philosophy of focusing more on the big offenses, saying that during his career “the only misdemeanor that I can recall prosecuting is two men who were blocking access to a Planned Parenthood facility.”
But both also point to a perceived disparity in how Vance’s office have treated the very wealthy vs. the rest.
Vance has been scrutinized recently for some high profile leniency. He declined to bring charges against Ivanka Trump and Donald Jr. for allegedly defrauding investors, and was slow to pursue assault charges against film magnate Harvey Weinstein. His office also supported sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein’s bid for a lower sex-offender status.
Vance’s position is that these are a handful of cases out of many, and he’s now prosecuting Weinstein. A conviction against the alleged serial sexual assaulter might calm voters’ minds.
But for now, the perception of a prosecution gap — being “unwilling to challenge” special interests, as Marton puts it — could make for effective anti-incumbent attacks.
So what are the challengers’ chances?
Both Marton and Bragg have started fundraising, and as per July filings Bragg actually has more in closing balance than Vance: $143,981.74 vs. $105,588.71.
That small sum for Vance has led to some speculation that he might not end up running. At this point in the race last term he had over $1.3 million in the bank.
Other Manhattan politicians are also looking at runs, but the two current challengers both would have a good chance vying for the “reformer,” lefty label that worked well for Cabán in Queens.
But Manhattan and Queens are different landscapes.
That’s true physically speaking — inaccessible apartment buildings mean it’s harder for armies of Democratic Socialists of America doorknockers to reach their targets.
Then there are political differences. Manhattan is an extremely liberal borough but it remains to be seen if it has the same pockets of new, young gentrifying voters who powered insurgent candidacies in parts of Queens and Brooklyn.
In a 2018 primary against established Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, young newcomer Suraj Patel either did well or won in the small outerborough parts of the district, but lost decisively in Maloney’s base of Manhattan.
Manhattan is far from monolithic, of course, and political strategists point to stretches of lower Manhattan or the Upper East Side which are younger than they used to be, and therefore perhaps more open for a challenger.
Then there are wildcards.
The primary will be on the same day as a wide-open mayoral contest, since Bill de Blasio will be term-limited/president. That will likely mean higher turnout than the Queens race, and what that itself indicates is open to broad interpretation.
With Manhattan candidates like comptroller Scott Stringer eyeing Gracie Mansion, will their endorsements be particularly sought after? Where do Harlem’s clergy and leaders go?
And if more DA candidates jump in with slim policy differences between them, does that water down the challenger vote and let Vance coast?
Either way, it wouldn’t be a walk in the park for the incumbent.
“Some of the lessons from the Queens race,” says Fordham political science professor Christina Greer, “if you can mobilize a particular set of voters who are interested in moving beyond the status quo you have a legitimate shot of knocking out the heir apparent.”