The Democratic primary for Manhattan’s next district attorney was a big mess. Leading up to the June 22 election, there were still multiple candidates on the left flank—Tahanie Aboushi, Eliza Orlins and Dan Quart. With none open to rallying around just one progressive, the possibility of a Tali Farhadian Weinstein administration loomed large.
Farhadian Weinstein, a conservative former federal prosecutor, donated over $8 million to her own campaign, pays “virtually no federal income taxes” despite immense personal wealth, and hardly even votes. During the campaign’s one debate, she smeared reporter Sam Mellins for revealing that she did not register as a Democrat until 2017.
Many local and national criminal justice reformers started coalescing around Alvin Bragg as the pragmatic decarceral choice in recent weeks. Bragg pledged to stop seeking as many prison sentences for nonviolent offenses, and also said that he would not support life without parole for serious violent offenses, either. His resume, which included years spent as a federal prosecutor and the Chief Deputy at the New York Attorney General’s office, could not be said to be that of a non-prosecutor, which tends to be helpful for swaying more centrist voters.
The most recent polling in the race before election night showed that Bragg and Weinstein were neck-and-neck, and that none of the most left-leaning candidates were expected to break with more than eleven percent of the vote. Thus, when Bragg was up by almost four percentage points late Tuesday night, with more than 92 percent of precincts reporting—making him the presumptive winner at publication time—some reform advocates breathed a sigh of relief.
However, others expressed understandable frustration at the lack of coordinated strategy from reform advocates. David Menschel, a criminal defense attorney and the president of the Vital Projects Fund, tweeted, “It was a failure of our movement—a sign of our movement’s immaturity and weakness—that we did not all coalesce around Bragg (who was not my top choice) over the past week or two as it became clear that he was the only progressive with a chance to win.”
If Bragg had lost, Farhadian Weinstein would have won, and candidates to the left who had no chance of winning might plausibly have been blamed. After investing so much time, energy, and money into an election, it can be hard to count one’s losses and drop out, even if that’s arguably the right thing to do.
Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who had been deemed Wall Street’s choice by the media, was well-positioned to undo some of the few good things outgoing DA Cy Vance did while in office.
Attaching herself to misguided ideas that DA Vance was too “soft” on crime, the candidate claimed that he had a problem with undercharging cases. She took issue with Vance charging some cases of assault on transit workers as misdemeanors rather than felonies, then claimed she would insist on “truthful charging.”
She also promised that she would “use, and advocate for strengthening, Kendra’s Law,” an ethically mired law that forces people with mental health issues into strict treatment regimes. Kendra’s Law was passed in the same way as many of the most onerous criminal laws: as a reaction to one aberrant, terrible crime.
Outgoing DA Cy Vance had a lot of problems, from delays on charging disgraced Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein to appearances of financial impropriety.
But because Manhattan is the biggest banking center in the world and big banks commit big crimes, the outgoing DA had assembled a $808 million dollar slush fund in civil asset forfeiture money. Vance then used that money, in part, for innovative programs to improve the criminal justice system.
One of Vance’s most important national contributions was grants of tens of millions of dollars to various local jurisdictions to help clear the rape kit “backlog.”
Another was the Institute of Innovation in Prosecution, a liberal-centrist effort to encourage elected prosecutors nationwide to adopt moderate, data-oriented criminal justice reforms. Its current advisory board consists of both “progressive” reformers like Los Angeles County DA George Gascón and Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, as well as more conservative Democrats such as Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and former L.A. DA Jackie Lacey. While IIP often does not go as far as reform advocates would like, it is an important part of the decarceration conversation.
Bragg will be able to reassess how Vance used the office’s civil asset forfeiture money when he is sworn in as DA. He can be expected to build on these successes.
Bragg will also have the opportunity to change existing patterns of injustice in the office under Vance and his predecessors. He pledged to “abolish” the existing Conviction Integrity Unit and “start a new unit from scratch” that will follow national best practices. He even pledged to reopen criminal cases handled by disgraced former prosecutor Linda Fairstein; she obtained the wrongful rape convictions of the Black teenagers who came to be known as the Central Park Five.
But for Bragg to live up to his potential, he will have to be willing to hurt some feelings.
Not only was Vance’s CIU ineffectual, but the outgoing DA also created a Cold Case Unit with Melissa Mourges in charge. Mourges is such a staunch believer in bite mark identification, a form of pseudoscience that causes wrongful convictions, that she verbally attacked the work of one of its critics, a dentistry professor, at a professional event, even reportedly making cracks about her physical appearance.
Getting real reform done will mean a shake-up of the structures and personalities that Bragg looks set to inherit.
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Vital Projects Fund to support reporting on prosecutors in 2018.