The Brooklyn DA race and the weight of Ken Thompson's legacy

Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

The most intriguing and consequential primary in New York City this year will be the Democratic race for district attorney in Brooklyn. This primary will almost inevitably become a referendum on the reform measures put in place by the late Ken Thompson, who passed away last year

In 2013, Thompson pulled off an upset victory running against the tarnished tenure of seven-term District Attorney Charles "Joe" Hynes. Thompson stitched together a reform coalition of minority voters and white progressives, using the connecting threads of opposing discriminatory prosecutorial discretion and wrongful convictions to defeat Hynes. Thompson drew "national attention to himself and to his office for his efforts to restore a sense of racial equity to the borough's courts and policing practices", according to a New York Times article in April.

Before Thompson died suddenly in October, he anointed his top deputy, the current Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, as his successor. The pathos surrounding Thompson's untimely death, at the zenith of his professional prestige, created a peculiar political dynamic.

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First, given the partisan breakdown in Brooklyn, it is safe to say that the winner of this Democratic primary will be elected as the next district attorney in November.

Second, Eric Gonzalez is not a central casting candidate for DA. He is slightly rumpled and lacks charisma. But he is, according to those who know him, hardworking and disciplined, with a creative, albeit wonky, policy streak. For example, Gonzalez' innovative program training prosecutors so that immigrants are not unfairly deported due to low-level offences, has won accolades from immigrant advocates across the nation. We have a clear sense of what kind of DA Gonzalez will be, but not necessarily his capabilities as a candidate.

Third, it is a sign of the potency of Ken Thompson's brief legacy that despite Gonzalez’s clear alliance to his predecessor, all of the challengers are, in one way or another, trying to seize Thompson's mantle of reform.

Let's take a look at Gonzalez' five primary challengers. Ama Dwimoh, of African immigrant and American Indian heritage, has impressive educational credentials and some prosecutorial pelts on her belt (see the Nixzmary Brown case) from her days working under Hynes. Dwimoh encouraged Thompson to run in 2013, after Hynes suspended her amid serious and credible allegations of her being verbally abusive to interns, but she never established herself in Thompson's orbit.

Patricia Gatling began working in the Brooklyn DA's office under Elizabeth Holtzman and continued under Hynes, rising to become his first deputy. She also served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the city’s Commissioner of Human Rights. For Gatling to emerge as a true contender, her credentials must vault over her strong ties to Hynes.

Marc Fleidner also began his work in the Brooklyn DA's office under Holtzman, continuing to hold high positions under Hynes, including as chief of the Major Narcotics Bureau. As with Gatling, the question becomes can Fleidner simultaneously establish a broad reform coalition given his deep ties to Hynes?

Anne Swern has strong political ties, since she is the Democrat's female District leader in the 52nd Assembly District, to augment her long service under four Kings County DA's, including Hynes. Here again, the question becomes can Swern build a broad reform appeal given her strong professional credentials, including her work directing the highly acclaimed Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison program, while avoiding Hynes' taint.

Finally, City Councilman Vincent Gentile, a one-time state senator from Bay Ridge, is in the race. He had served as an Assistant District Attorney from Queens, before entering Brooklyn and Staten Island politics. His once promising political career lost some luster after defeats for re-election to the State Senate and a failed congressional run in the 2015 special election to replace Michael Grimm.

What factors should we look to as driving the outcome of this primary? First, turnout will be of enormous significance. Conventional wisdom portrays Brooklyn politics as an electoral contest between black and Jewish voters, with white Catholics serving as a balance wheel. However, the emergence of younger white professionals in Williamsburg and Dumbo expands the electoral potency of what we once called the Brownstone Belt around the Prospect Park section – the third core pillar in Brooklyn politics. Moreover, Brooklyn's demographic trends have increased the ranks of immigrant voters, especially Latinos and Asians. Victory will, by necessity, be the product of coalition-building from more than one or even two voting blocs in this primary.

Second, labor endorsements could have an outsized impact on this contest. Gonzalez has secured the endorsements from a handful of unions with proven track records for pulling votes: United Federation of Teachers, SEIU 1199 and 32BJ, the Transportation Workers Union, Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, as well as the Working Families Party line, which adds to his campaign's turnout muscle. To date, none of Gonzalez' challengers have secured a major labor endorsement. If this does not change, Gonzalez could have a significant vote polling advantage on primary day.

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Third, the editorial boards, especially the New York Times and the Daily News, but also the New York Post, Newsday's AM could prove quite significant. I can hear the chortling among the political cognoscenti dismissing this point. They will point to Christine Quinn snagging all three major editorial boards and finishing a disappointing third in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, not to mention the dominance Hillary Clinton held in editorial endorsements over Donald Trump, to no avail in the Electoral College.

But that analysis fails to measure an empirical reality here in New York. When voters sense an office is important to their lives and communities (like a district attorney's office), but feel that they don't really know the candidates (this race lacks the notoriety and spotlight of a mayoral or a presidential contest), they often look to editorial boards for guidance.

For example, the New York Times endorsement turbo charged Eric Scheiderman's campaign in the 2010 attorney general primary, just as the Times endorsement cleared the path for Cy Vance's election as Manhattan DA in 2009. The Daily News, Newsday and the Times endorsements were essential to Madeline Singas' upset victory as district attorney in Nassau County in 2015. Even the Daily News' lukewarm endorsement of Thompson had a clear impact in 2013 in nudging voters to toss Hynes out of office.

If a single candidate in this race manages to secure the Times endorsement (which resonates in the expanding Brownstone Belt, in particular) and the Daily News (which has proven itself as an aggressive and influential voice in too many recent DA races to ignore, especially since it is widely read by Brooklyn’s black as well as older Jewish and white Catholic voters), that could be a critical advantage in this contest.

It will be interesting to see if the editorial writers come to consensus choice, or if they divide on recommendations, splintering their impact. It will be fascinating to see how editorial writers weigh experience, temperament and commitment to Thompson’s reforms, as well as each candidate’s past allegiance to Hynes.

New York's political pundits should take note of this primary for district attorney: for the future policy roots of criminal justice reform to spread deeply, a tree will have to grow in Brooklyn.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.