News 2021

Will Progressive Splits Lead to a Conservative Win in the Manhattan D.A.’s Race?

There is a very real threat, at this point, that candidates with varying left platforms could split the vote, allowing a more conservative contender to win

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On June 22, voters in Manhattan will head to the polls to make several monumental decisions. At the top of the ballot, of course, will be the Democratic primary for mayor, where the winner could end up governing for the next eight years. Voters will also weigh in on who to choose for city comptroller, another post that often serves as a springboard for a mayoral run.

But arguably the most importance primary is occurring below them both, garnering relatively little media attention: the race for Manhattan District Attorney. Cy Vance Jr., the controversial incumbent, is not seeking re-election, and eight candidates are vying to replace him. 

There are many reasons the primary is of great consequence. In overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan, the victor is assured the office. Since the 1970s, there have been only two other Manhattan DA’s: Vance and the late Robert Morgenthau, who retired after 2009. 

With a budget nearing $170 million, the office has a vast jurisdiction, prosecuting the wealthy and powerful on Wall Street, along with the poor and the vulnerable. Right now, Vance’s prosecutors have reportedly entered the final stages of a criminal tax investigation into Donald Trump’s long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, setting up the possibility he could face charges in the summer. 

All of the candidates have promised to continue the investigation, vowing to be tough on Trump and his associates. Yet while this is the reason many voters may care about the race — the next Democrat will be in position, perhaps, to drag the former president into a courtroom — it has far greater implications for the thousands of people, many of them Black and Latino, who are prosecuted for petty crimes every year. For defense attorneys and criminal justice reformers, Vance’s legacy is punitive. He has sought stiff sentences against poor defendants and pushed his attorneys, as often as possible, to go to trial to win convictions. 

Many of the candidates have criticized Vance and vowed to overhaul the office in the mode of progressive DA’s across America, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin. Some want to slash the office budget in half, abolish cash bail and pre-trial detention, and reduce the overall number of prosecutions. 

The dynamics of the race, however, may not favor the progressive candidates — Tahanie Aboushie, Eliza Orlins, Dan Quart, and Alvin Bragg — because, unlike the mayoral race, there is no ranked-choice voting. A DA race is run under state rules, not municipal law, so voters will only pick one candidate. There is a very real threat, at this point, that candidates with varying left platforms could split the vote, allowing a more conservative contender to win.

And one of them looms over the field: Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former Brooklyn and federal prosecutor. Married to Boaz Weinstein, a multimillionaire hedge fund manager, Farhadian Weinstein has far outspent the field, raising millions from Wall Street megadonors while pouring $8 million of her own cash into the campaign. 

Farhadian Weinstein, at the minimum, would be a prosecutor in the mold of Vance and progressives fear she may tug the office further to the right. Running with the endorsement of some establishment Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Farhadian Weinstein has repeatedly warned about the rising number of shootings and murders. She is one of the only candidates who will not rule out entering into information-sharing agreements with federal agencies like ICE and Homeland Security Investigation. Reformers worry she will be too close to the financial sector to effectively prosecute white-collar crime. 

Polling in the race has been scant. One recent poll, from the left-leaning firm Data for Progress, showed a dead heat between Farhadian Weinstein and Bragg, a former prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office who was endorsed by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and the New York Times. A Harlem native, Bragg speaks openly about being a victim of the criminal justice system as a Black man. He made a name for himself seeking full transparency into how the NYPD handled Eric Garner’s death.

Bragg is a former prosecutor, not a public defender or a civil rights attorney like two candidates running to the left of him, Orlins and Aboushi. But Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and prominent progressive activist who supports Bragg, has urged backers of other candidates to consolidate around him.

Some progressives, however, reacted with anger at the suggestion. “This is not your finest hour. Your point of view is myopic, privileged, and just plain wrong,” tweeted Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist backing Aboushi. “Your song is ugly & out of tune. You should do yourself & everyone else a favor and stop singing it.” 

Teachout, though, may have a point with only days left in the race. In the 2020 presidential primary, Joe Biden crushed Bernie Sanders by winning the endorsements of his top Democratic rivals. No such consolidation appears to be in the works now, with the candidates to the left of Bragg arguing, publicly and privately, they still have a path to victory. Without RCV, it will be possible to know the outcome on Election Night — and whether Nixon or Teachout, in all their ardor, are proven right.   ❖

This story was updated on June 18:  Zephyr Teachout says she specifically asked no candidates to drop out, only that the supporters of other candidates back her candidate, Bragg.

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