Last August, in the wake of two sensational rape cases, speculation mounted that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. would face a hard-fought primary next year. Yet a year later Vance’s political prospects have risen so dramatically that it is as if he were a veritable phoenix that has emerged from the ashes.
The summer of 2011 was rocky for Vance. By Memorial Day two police officers charged with rape had been acquitted, owing to an apparent lack of physical evidence and an accuser too drunk at the time of the incident to recall the details for the jury. Around the same time, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case had taken off like a raging fire across the tabloids and TV, and it would stay in the headlines until past the dismissal of the case on Aug. 23 of last year. These two high-profile cases severely damaged Vance in the media and set off a wave of speculation that the first-term Manhattan DA might not be able to make it to a second.
This year, however, when a third closely watched rape case splashed across the front pages, the result was decidedly different. Vance’s office won a 75-years-to-life sentence against disgraced police officer Michael Pena—despite the bizarre conduct of a celebrity juror. In the wake of the Pena trial a distilled reaction adhered to the DA, the foundation of which had been laid the previous July when Jane Manning, then president of New York City’s National Organization of Women chapter, had defended Vance’s handling of the DSK case: Cy Vance’s office perseveres on behalf of female victims of sexual abuse.
In Manhattan, where just shy of 60 percent of Democratic primary voters—the electorate that determines the outcome of virtually every local race—are female, the reputation that Vance has established is invaluable.
This year two other headline-grabbing investigations further solidified Vance’s standing. In January Vance dismissed the widely reported accusations against Good Day New York host Greg Kelly (Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s son) with disciplined fairness. Then The Wall Street Journal credited Vance’s campaign promise to re-examine cold cases as one of the forces that led to the reopening of the Etan Patz disappearance, which resulted in an arrest after 33 years.
Vance’s office also notched a string of legal victories. Last October he scored a grand-larceny conviction of political operative John Haggerty Jr. in a much-publicized case stemming from the 2009 Bloomberg re-election campaign. He also established a new unit to combat gun and gang violence, which brought down multiple narcotics rings that had long been scourges upon Harlem.
On other fronts Vance formed a cybercrime and identity-theft unit, and he issued a report stemming from a grand-jury investigation, which revealed significant and perhaps systematic evasion of property taxes—the city’s largest single revenue source. In fact, since 2010 the Manhattan DA’s investigations have returned $700 million to New York City and State.
Part of Vance’s problem last year was that he did not fit neatly into the prosecutorial models to which New Yorkers are accustomed. He is not the crusader in search of higher office, like Thomas Dewey, Rudy Giuliani, or the image Joe Hynes aspired to in his 1998 gubernatorial run. He is not the consummate government insider–turned–seasoned prosecutor, à la the Bronx’s Mario Merola approach that Judge Brown epitomizes in Queens. Nor is Vance the consummate career prosecutor embodied by his famous longtime predecessors Frank Hogan and Bob Morgenthau.
Instead Vance may be slowly sculpting a fourth model: the calm, seasoned prosecutor whose office fights financial as well as violent crimes, eschewing rather than embracing a larger political agenda. Time will tell how that model plays in the voting booth.
Vance could still face a primary next year, but today he would stand as a strong favorite for re-election.
In fact, comparing Cy Vance’s standing this summer with the last, one might think of a new riff on an old song: What a Diff’rence a Year Makes. One can almost hear Cy Vance happily humming away.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant at Corning Place Communications in Albany and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
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