The ongoing war of words between State Senator Eric Schneiderman and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, two of the top candidates for New York Attorney General, is at least novel. Does anyone really think a DA should be blamed, as Schneiderman has Rice, if crime goes up on her watch? Should she be credited if it goes down?
Schneiderman endorsed Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan DA, when he ran for re-election in 2001 and 2005, and crime was going down in Manhattan in those years. But it exploded during other Morgenthau terms. He ran for re-election in 1989, for example, and total crimes had ballooned by 30,000 during the preceding, four-year, Morgenthau term, compared with the meager 847 rise in crime between 2005 and 2009 that Schneiderman is throwing in Rice’s face.
Manhattan murders ballooned by almost a hundred during this Morgenthau term, from 369 to 461. And Manhattan’s crime and murder rates were considerably higher throughout Morgenthau’s years than other parts of the city’s. Does that mean Morgy, the icon of “Law and Order,” was a monstrously bad DA in the 1980s?
I called the now-retired Morgenthau and asked him what he thought of Schneiderman’s assault on Rice. He told me he had a high regard for Schneiderman, who contributed to Morgenthau in 2006 and endorsed his designated replacement, Cy Vance, last year. Pushed to say if he thought it was fair, in the abstract, to blame a DA for rising crime rates, Morgenthau refused to comment.
Schneiderman, whose only public office has been the state senate position he now holds, actually charged last week that Nassau’s minuscule crime increase between 2005 and 2009 proved that Rice’s “old, conservative methods just don’t work.” Asked by the Voice what specific policies or actions Rice had engaged in that might have contributed to the supposed 4 percent boost in crime, Schneiderman told the Voice: “I haven’t delved into it.” Incredibly, his campaign has posed the question: “If DA Rice couldn’t keep crime down as DA, why does she deserve a promotion to AG?”
Schneiderman makes the salient point that Rice invited this critique by laying some claim to the credit for “reducing crime in our most dangerous neighborhood by 70 percent” in her announcement. If Rice can’t make the case that any particularly focused policy of hers’ helped prompt that decline, she should shut up about it. Indeed, when crime was plummeting in Manhattan in 2005, a Morgenthau re-election ad boasted that “under Morgenthau’s leadership” it had hit “record lows.” District attorneys prosecute crime; they rarely prevent it. As mystical as these upside claims are, it’s at least as ridiculous to dump on DAs when crime climbs, especially at such statistically insignificant levels as it has in Nassau (it actually did decline in the last year; does that mean Rice got better at her job?).
Rudy Giuliani was the first public official in New York to convince people that he had something to do with a decline in crime. It had actually dropped significantly for three straight years under David Dinkins, and the Times did stories about the decline without even mentioning Dinkins. It soared under Ed Koch and no one blamed him. Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg have sold New Yorkers on the notion that their NYPD strategies have kept the city safe, when social and economic factors beyond their control may have more to do with it.
But using this argument to start the debate over who New York’s next AG should be — an office that has almost nothing to do with street crime — is a triumph of sound bite over substance.
Research assistance by Cat Contiguglia, Scott Greenberg, Alana Horowitz and William Kline