The Democratic hopefuls for Manhattan district attorney have similar policies on crime prevention, alternative sentencing and building community coalitions. And they are all alumni of the 89-year-old Robert Morgenthau’s office.
But in the months before the September primary, each has highlighted a different background to illustrate why they are the right person to run the highest profile district attorney’s office in the state.
Leslie Crocker Snyder, Cyrus Vance, Jr. and Richard Aborn are all vying to succeed Morgenthau. One of them will likely face Greg Camp, a liberal Republican running in the general election.
Morgenthau’s presence is still felt in the primary campaign, as his 2005 primary opponent, Leslie Crocker Snyder, is making her second bid for district attorney.
The 2005 race was highly personal and contentious: Snyder criticized Morgenthau’s tenure and said the office had been stale for a decade. In turn, Morgenthau’s campaign characterized Snyder as a supporter of the death penalty, a position that does not gel with most of the Manhattan Democratic primary electorate. Snyder lost with 40 percent of the vote.
Snyder’s 2005 talking points are still prevalent in the 2009 campaign. But she points to her first run for office as proof that she has been promoting change in the district attorney’s office for more than four years now, unlike her opponents, who are only now calling for reform.
“If they were eager for change, why didn’t they run until they got permission from Morgenthau?” Snyder said. “It makes people question whether they can effect change, whether they have the courage to take on big challenges.”
Snyder said she witnessed the strengths and weaknesses of the Manhattan district attorney’s office as a judge on the Criminal and State Supreme courts. During her time on the bench, she earned a reputation for doling out harsh sentences, but she said she also used alternatives to incarceration—“not what I’m known for,” she added. That practice is something she would continue as the borough’s top prosecutor.
She also wants to create a so-called Second Look Bureau, an office to investigate cases in which the district attorney’s office has made a mistake. This stemmed from the wrongful conviction of a man for the slaying of a nightclub bouncer, known as the Palladium case.
“If we do make a mistake,” Snyder said, “we’re going to admit to the mistakes and share training we got from that with every other district attorney.”
Despite any blowback from her 2005 challenge, Snyder is picking up support from judicial and law enforcement unions and organizations.
Cyrus Vance, Jr., however, has been getting behind-the-scenes support from Morgenthau, who is widely known to prefer the litigator and defense lawyer.
Morgenthau is not allowed to outright endorse Vance due to a rule by the state District Attorney’s Association. The district attorney can, however, express a preference for a candidate publicly and tacitly.
On May 6, Vance unveiled the endorsements of prominent former assistant district attorneys from Morgenthau’s office.
“They believe that I can best steward the traditions of this office and deliver public safety and fairness at the head of it,” Vance said. “To me it’s the most significant endorsement, not the police unions.”
Vance was also endorsed by former Mayor David Dinkins and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.
Vance, the son of President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, was a civil and criminal litigator who spent 16 years of his post-Morgenthau career in Seattle, Wash. Snyder hits Vance on this frequently, but Vance said he and his family have roots in Manhattan. And in starting a law firm in Seattle, “I acquired a lot of experience in doing a lot of complex and interesting work,” Vance said. “That gives me perspective and insight that is useful for me as D.A.”
Vance touts his current and extensive experience as a litigator and defense attorney. He’d like to expand the discovery phase of cases and ask the Office of Court Administration for more judges to process cases faster—efforts Vance said will foster a better sense of fairness for defendants.
Vance is also arguing for restructuring the Manhattan district attorney’s office to revolve around community organizations rather than the court system. He wants to pair senior assistant district attorneys with junior attorneys to tackle backlog, pair assistant district attorneys with police precincts and base a reward system for prosecutors on developing crime prevention strategies rather than the number of convictions.
“The only candidate who has talked about prevention in terms of the office’s structure is me,” Vance said.
While Vance is stressing structure, attorney Richard Aborn has become the candidate of big ideas. He drafted two major pieces of gun-control legislation—the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban—and has been a technology consultant for police departments and law enforcement agencies.
Aborn feels the district attorney’s office could coordinate with other law enforcement agencies throughout the country to share information. This, he said, would be useful in preventing illegal firearms likely to be used in crimes from entering the city.
Aborn is pushing his background in technology to prove he can update how the district attorney’s office tracks and deters crime. He feels the new district attorney needs to be well versed in the latest crime fighting techniques to implement them effectively.
“Voters want a D.A. who has a broad vision of the office and the broad experience to implement that vision,” Aborn said.
Aborn said this strategy has captured the endorsement of seven elected officials, including the bulk of Manhattan’s office holders.
“The elected officials, in part, understand the critical roles of the district attorney, particularly in Manhattan,” Aborn said. “That office has to be a vibrant participant in the public discussion around criminal justice and I’ve done that for years.”
Aborn points to his role in the gun-control movement as proof that he can shape and frame the debate around criminal justice and build coalitions.
“We were able to push back against the NRA [National Rifle Association] and defeat them,” Aborn said. “We did that at a time where we really defied the odds.”
At a recent forum for West Side Democratic clubs, he said the same strategy could work for the death penalty. While his opponents are all against the death penalty—now unconstitutional in the state—he told voters that he would use the office as a bully pulpit to quell any attempt to reinstate it.
“There might be a drum beat to bring it back,” Aborn warned. “I will build and lead a coalition to stop it.”
At that same forum, however, Snyder brushed aside the death penalty debate.
“Let’s get real. It’s being used by my adversaries,” she said. “Ask yourself what are the real issues in this race.”
Candidates nonetheless seem eager to pass progressive litmus tests, even though most issues may not fall in the jurisdiction of the district attorney’s office. Such issues will engage the Manhattan electorate in this low-turnout election, said political consultant Norman Adler.
“Everybody’s against the death penalty, everyone’s for gay marriage. Everybody’s going to sound the same,” Adler said. “The question is, who has the most name recognition and who gets out the vote?”
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