Eric Gonzalez couldn’t believe his boss, Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson, was really dying. At some point, Gonzalez hoped, the colorectal cancer would go into remission. Thompson — the borough’s first black district attorney, who had campaigned as a transformational figure — had told Gonzalez, his top deputy, that he planned to return. But he didn’t think he’d have the strength to run for re-election.
“He said to me, ‘You should think about running for D.A.’ And I said, ‘I’m not gonna go down that route,’” Gonzalez told the Voice from a sparsely furnished campaign office in Downtown Brooklyn.
“I just said, ‘We’ll talk about it when you get back.’”
Thompson would never get to have that conversation. On October 9, 2016, he died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was fifty. Gonzalez, a career prosecutor with no experience leading an organization of any kind or speaking in front of city journalists, was suddenly in charge of one of the largest district attorney’s offices in America.
As the acting district attorney, and now seeking a full term, Gonzalez has all the trappings of an incumbent: a formidable fundraising lead, scores of endorsements from politicians and labor unions, and the ability to stage headline-grabbing press conferences. Thompson’s widow is supporting him.
What Gonzalez hasn’t done is ward off challengers, most of them ex-colleagues, in what is unquestionably the most consequential race in New York City this election season.
The Democratic primary for district attorney in overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn is not simply another campaign bunched in with a sleepy mayoral contest and various City Council races. It will determine the directions of the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who come into contact with an enormous and often punishing criminal justice system. Kings County is one of the largest and most diverse in the entire country. If Gonzalez, forty-eight, triumphs next month, he will be able to chart a course that district attorneys in other cities will look to and follow.
“Brooklyn has become a leader nationally for its unwillingness to prosecute low-level cases and its bureau that looks at wrongful convictions,” said JoAnn Page, the president and CEO of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that provides support to the formerly incarcerated.
Under Thompson, who defeated longtime incumbent Charles “Joe” Hynes in an acrimonious 2013 campaign, the Brooklyn D.A.’s office stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests. It had already established a much-heralded unit to review wrongful convictions during Hynes’s transformative, though troubled, two-decade tenure.
In the Thompson (and now Gonzalez) era, the Brooklyn D.A.’s office has asked judges on twenty-three occasions to free defendants who shouldn’t be in prison. Fighting back against the Trump White House, Gonzalez has demanded that ICE agents stop making arrests at courthouses where, in his estimation, they’re also making witnesses and defendants afraid to appear in court. Along with D.A.s in three other boroughs, he expunged a backlog of decades-old warrants and summonses. In Brooklyn, there were 143,000.
Gonzalez grew up in Williamsburg and came of age in East New York in the 1980s, when the Brooklyn neighborhood was racked with violence. Shootings fractured the night. Crack cocaine was rampant.
“As a young boy, all I really saw in my community was violence. I wanted to accomplish something with my life, and the only thing I really knew was crime,” he recalled. “Growing up then, it was not just about the crime but about the dysfunction of the community, which included a significant distrust of law enforcement. I don’t know what made me believe that if I sort of got into the belly of the beast I would be able to make a difference — but I did.”
Gonzalez attended John Dewey High School on Coney Island, a long ride from the neighborhood, and secured a spot at Cornell. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, he came home in 1995 to take a job as an assistant D.A. under Hynes. He was so eager to work in Brooklyn that he drove across the country for the job interview.
Looming over the field of six Democrats is not only Thompson’s legacy, which every candidate is quick to celebrate, but what Hynes left behind. Four of five of Gonzalez’s opponents — Anne Swern, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, and Patricia Gatling — worked for Hynes, who was first elected in 1989. Those close to Hynes say he expressed a preference for Gatling, a former top deputy in his office, but she has struggled to gain traction in the race. (Neither Gatling nor Hynes could be reached for comment.)
Hynes, now eighty-two, suffered a stroke last year and is registered to vote in Breezy Point, Queens, so his degree of involvement in the race is unclear, though a large segment of the Brooklyn legal world remains loyal to him despite the many controversies that dogged the end of his tenure.
Hynes was the rare district attorney in New York to lose an election because of a spate of wrongful convictions on his watch, a failure compounded by corrupt detectives he was seen to have enabled, as well as by his inability to combat sex abuse in insular but politically powerful Orthodox Jewish communities. He lost support in the black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn that often sway Democratic primaries, especially as he clashed bitterly with Thompson, who was seen as a trailblazer.
Yet Hynes reformed the institution, too, pioneering alternatives to incarceration programs that are now staples of D.A.s’ offices in other big cities. In a higher-crime era, Hynes stood out for not simply measuring his office’s success by the number of people he sent to prison. Page, of the Fortune Society, points out that Hynes helped open the Drew House, a residential rehabilitative program for nonviolent first-time offenders.
Despite his unquestioned bond with Thompson, Gonzalez did not campaign for him in 2013. When asked if he voted for Thompson, Gonzalez demurred. “I will keep my vote to myself,” he said. “That’s something that’s private.”
Dwimoh, who ran a lauded special bureau on crimes against children under Hynes and left the office after she was accused, in 2010, of berating interns, proudly backed Thompson in 2013. “I was the only one working on behalf of Ken Thompson to get him elected while the rest were working on behalf of Joe Hynes,” she said. “It’s time for Brooklyn to rebuild.”
All six Democratic candidates have platforms that, to various degrees, bolster Thompson’s work. Dwimoh, who would be Brooklyn’s first black female D.A., wants to enhance the conviction review unit and believes, as other critics have charged, that Gonzalez has failed to hold accountable the detectives and prosecutors who built cases that ruined innocent people’s lives. She would create a commission, independent of the office, on prosecutorial misconduct.
Both Dwimoh, running with the backing of her current boss, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Swern, a former top prosecutor under Hynes as well as a managing counsel for Brooklyn Defenders, support reducing the D.A.’s reliance on cash bail, though Swern is more willing to phase it out entirely. “I think cash bail should not exist where other means exist to assure defendants return to courts. I don’t believe in penalizing poverty,” Swern said. (Gonzalez is not willing to end cash bail, as the state of New Jersey has mostly done.)
The only candidate with lengthy experience as a defense lawyer, Swern wants to reform discovery laws that Gonzalez and other D.A.s have refused to permanently change. New York is one of only ten states where prosecutors may wait until just before a trial to share evidence. Gonzalez refuses to back legislation that would force prosecutors to turn over evidence much sooner, citing fears that witnesses won’t be properly protected.
“The rules of discovery in New York remain deeply problematic,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. “Defense attorneys are not getting potentially exculpatory evidence until the day before or day of a trial.”
Gonzalez’s fiercest critic, arguably, has been Fliedner, a prosecutor who worked with him under Thompson when the then-D.A. brought charges against an NYPD officer who, in 2014, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in a darkened stairwell. Thompson secured the conviction of the officer, Peter Liang, but declined to seek jail time, angering activists and Gurley’s family. Gurley’s aunt is backing Fliedner’s campaign.
“Eric Gonzalez was driving the decision that we shouldn’t seek jail time,” Fliedner said.
Another long-shot candidate, outgoing Brooklyn councilman Vincent Gentile, has attacked all of his opponents for working under Hynes, though he endorsed Hynes in 2013. Gentile once served as an assistant district attorney in the Queens office. “I’m the only one in the race who has the credentials, because I come to this job completely independent of the Brooklyn D.A.’s office,” Gentile said.
Swern and Dwimoh are the Democrats who probably pose the best, if still slim, chance of defeating Gonzalez next month. Swern, a Democratic district leader in brownstone Brooklyn, is a threat to pick off white progressives, while Dwimoh will compete for the black and Latino votes Gonzalez also needs in the central part of the borough.
The greater question, beyond the immediate jockeying, is how far the office will be willing to go to reshape a flawed criminal justice system and what role, in a time of historically low crime, a district attorney should play. “It’s a very interesting time to be district attorney, because they’re spending more time telling you who they’re not prosecuting rather than who they are,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn office.
If Gonzalez wins, reformers want to know how ambitious he will really be. Will he be simply coloring in the lines of Thompson’s legacy or pushing for more? In at least one instance, Gonzalez has shown a willingness to break with Thompson: He told the Voice he now supports the state attorney general’s office, instead of the local D.A., investigating cases of police killing unarmed civilians. Thompson bitterly opposed such a move.
Gonzalez, quietly, is also aware of the history he might make. If he wins, he will be Brooklyn’s first Latino D.A., and the only one statewide. As the campaign hits the home stretch, he often ponders this too.
“The community deserves to have someone who represents them,” he said. “I represent the American Dream.”