You could be forgiven for missing this news amid the unyielding cascade of political developments, but hours after President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, Tahanie Aboushi received her biggest endorsement thus far in the race for Manhattan district attorney: actress and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.
Standing outside the New York State Supreme Court Building in Lower Manhattan, Nixon highlighted Aboushi’s personal story as a civil rights attorney and daughter of Palestinian immigrants. “There is no better way to turn the page on (Manhattan District Attorney) Cy Vance than electing Tahanie Aboushi to replace him,” Nixon said on Oct. 2. “To fill his role with a woman, and a Muslim woman at that, would be a complete game-changer. When we elect Tahanie, we are sending a message that it is time for a complete change.”
Nixon has a growing reputation for backing progressive candidates early. She doesn’t get it right every time – she supported former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who ended up finishing sixth, in the Democratic primary to fill Rep. José Serrano’s seat – but she could bring the unknown first-time candidate greater attention from media, donors and liberal activists. Aboushi is one of several candidates who are running to the left, emphasizing equity in the criminal justice system rather than law and order. Eight months before the June 2020 Democratic primary, Aboushi and her opponents aren’t just competing for votes in Manhattan, but for the national money and grassroots mobilization that have helped sweep a burgeoning class of progressive prosecutors into office. Manhattan could be home to the next Chesa Boudin, district attorney in San Francisco, or the next Larry Krasner, district attorney in Philadelphia – but it isn’t clear yet just who, if anyone, will play that role.
Of course, Vance is an easy punching bag for these candidates.
There are nine candidates currently running in the Democratic primary: Aboushi, a civil rights attorney; Alvin Bragg, former state chief deputy attorney general; Liz Crotty, a defense attorney; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez; Diana Florence, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan; Lucy Lang, a former executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay; Janos Marton, a civil rights attorney; Eliza Orlins, a public defender; and Assembly Member Dan Quart, who is also a civil litigator.
Almost every one of the candidates would represent historic change for what may be the country’s most powerful local prosecutor’s office, which has only ever been led by white men. Quart is the only white man in the race, while Bragg is Black, Aboushi is Palestinian-American, Marton is Indian-American, Farhadian-Weinstein is an Iranian American immigrant and the others are white women.
All of them, to varying degrees, say they’ll run a more progressive office than Vance, who has been relentlessly criticized for what some see as an inequitable approach to justice. Eight of the candidates – all except Crotty – signed on to an open letter calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant mass clemencies to prisoners aged 50 and older because of the health risks posed by the coronavirus. Vance did not join. Five of the candidates co-signed a letter criticizing Vance’s push to jail the looters who burglarized stores during the days of protest after George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota.
Of course, Vance is an easy punching bag for these candidates. He apparently let President Donald Trump’s children off the hook in a fraud investigation after meeting with their lawyer, a generous donor to Vance’s campaign, while sending more than his fair share of defendants – mostly low-income young men of color – to Rikers Island. Women’s rights activists have launched a campaign to review the work of his office’s sex crimes unit for failing to aggressively pursue wealthy and well-connected since-convicted sex criminals such as Jeffrey Epstein, Dr. Robert Hadden and Harvey Weinstein.
Calls for Vance's resignation have plagued him for the past three years, and now he’s not expected to run for reelection. While Vance hasn’t officially announced a decision either way, he’s not doing the kind of things candidates do, like appearing at candidate forums and raising money. He has a paltry $5,419 left in his campaign account.
Instead of Vance, for inspiration, many of the candidates look to the stars of the “progressive prosecutor” movement around the country, like Wesley Bell in St. Louis, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost a 2019 primary in Queens. These candidates, along with Boudin, Krasner, Kim Foxx in Chicago and others, have earned national attention for their promise to revolutionize the prosecutorial role, in part by seeking fewer and shorter prison sentences.
Criminal justice stakeholders can and will debate the efficacy of these reformers’ policies, but the political benefits of aligning with the progressive movement are clear. There’s a whole network of donors and organizations around the country who are committed to helping elect radical prosecutors preaching radical reform, including familiar names: George Soros and his Justice & Public Safety PAC, musician John Legend, and the Real Justice PAC, co-founded by activist and writer Shaun King. Other big players have lower profiles, like Patty Quillin, wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, or Open Philanthropy, which is funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. And there’s a deep pool of small-dollar donors around the country who are eager to follow those big money players’ lead. This network provided some of Cabán’s biggest funders, and some of the same donors are now lining up behind George Gascón, who is trying to replace Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Some 77% of Gascón’s donations came from wealthy individuals, according to the Los Angeles Times, with Soros, Quillin and Hastings accounting for more than $3 million among themselves. Lacey, in contrast, is funded mostly by law enforcement unions, which generally oppose the kind of decarceral reforms pushed by progressives.
Law enforcement unions have barely gotten involved in the Manhattan race yet, and even if they wanted to, they might not find a candidate who wants their support. All of the candidates except Crotty have proactively sworn off donations from police unions as a rejection of the groups’ conservative values and opposition to increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement. After the New York State Court Officers Association donated $1,000 to Quart’s campaign in January, he said he’d donate the money to the nonprofit Communities United for Police Reform. However, other, more liberal unions, including the Building Trades Council and the Teamsters, have already endorsed Diana Florence, thanks to her record prosecuting fraud in the construction industry, and have the potential to pour money into the race.
Manhattan’s criminal justice reform activists – the types who supported Cabán in 2019 – are favoring other candidates. There’s general agreement that Marton, Aboushi and Orlins are running on the most progressive platforms in the race. Quart, the Assembly member and Bragg, the former deputy AG, are also well regarded, despite their establishment ties, thanks to Quart’s pushing criminal justice reform legislation in Albany and Bragg’s record speaking out on police violence.
Those five candidates’ policies and language, heard at forums and read on Twitter, often sound the same. “Several years into the progressive prosecutor movement, people are pretty good at learning the buzzwords and catchphrases,” Marton told City & State. A leftist platform alone often isn’t enough to attract donors, so the candidates each have their own personal spin. Marton is the plans candidate, eager to dive into details, and often recalls that he was harassed by the NYPD as a young man of Indian descent growing up in Rudy Giuliani’s New York. Aboushi’s father was sent to prison during her childhood in Brooklyn, and she talks about feeling the far-reaching impacts of incarceration – a story reminiscent of Boudin in San Francisco, whose parents were incarcerated. Orlins is the only public defender in the race, just like her old colleague – but unlike Cabán, she has a built-in fan base from her time as one of the “most influential” contestants of all time on the TV show “Survivor.” Lucy Lang may have done the best job so far directly aligning herself with other cities’ progressive prosecutors, releasing a letter co-signed by Boudin, Foxx and others pledging not to prosecute abortion cases, even if the protections of Roe v. Wade are reversed by a more conservative Supreme Court. (Since Roe v. Wade has been codified into state law in New York, it is more of a branding exercise than a meaningful policy stance.) Bragg, the only Black candidate in the race, and Quart, the only one who has won office before, have already been running for the seat for more than a year, longer than any of their opponents. The primary has been a race to the left from the start – City & State looked at whether Manhattan could elect the next leftist prosecutor way back in July 2019, before the Queens district attorney primary was officially called in favor of Melinda Katz over Cabán. Since then, the field has only gotten more crowded.
“There’s not really a clear Tiffany Cabán yet,” said Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and a Manhattan resident. Split endorsements so far already have made that clear. Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who ran for attorney general in 2018 on a pseudo ticket with Nixon, both backed Cabán in Queens. But in this race, Nixon has endorsed Aboushi, and Teachout is supporting Marton. Days after Nixon’s backing, Real Justice PAC endorsed Aboushi as well. Other candidates have already attracted big money from reform-minded donors too. Bragg got $25,000 from Frank Baker, a private equity executive who sits on the board of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. Bragg has also been endorsed by Arena, a Silicon Valley-funded progressive organization.
The race, which has been chugging along relatively quietly, could change dramatically after the November election, when Democrats who have been focused on defeating Trump start picking candidates in the 2021 New York City races. The Working Families Party, a major force behind Cabán’s campaign, will likely back one of the candidates then. The Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter, another major Cabán supporter, is expected to stay out of the race in order to focus on electing socialists to the City Council. But these local progressive organizations are still surveying the field. Brandon Holmes, co-founder of the criminal justice reform group Freedom Agenda, said he has been coordinating with a coalition of like-minded groups including Legal Aid, New York Communities for Change and VOCAL-NY that intend to vet the candidates and set priorities for the race. Holmes has been watching the candidates closely, and has donated $28 to Marton’s campaign, but he’s not ready to throw his support behind anybody yet. “I’m not really sold on any of these candidates,” he said.
Of course, the left may have to coalesce around one candidate in order to win. Unlike the city races that will be on the ballot in the 2021 primary, the district attorney is technically a state office, so the new ranked-choice voting provision won’t apply. That means vote-splitting is a real fear, and some progressives like Trujillo are already hoping that weaker candidates will drop out if a favorite emerges. “I hope the actual progressive candidates will recognize that Manhattan is more important than their ego and would drop out,” he said.
Running to the left and trying to attract national progressive money is just one path to winning office, but it’s a promising one in the high-profile and left-leaning jurisdiction of Manhattan. If Queens had Manhattan’s electorate, Cabán might have won – and candidates like Eliza Orlins are banking on that. “I remember sitting next to (Cabán) in court one day and she was like ‘Eliza, I think I’m going to run for Queens DA.’ And I was like, ‘Tiff, I think I’m going to run for Manhattan DA.’ And we both were like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s fucking do this!’” Orlins told City & State. “Getting public defenders into prosecutor’s offices, we both recognized that was how you really bring the change necessary.”
This story has been updated to reflect the donation that Quart returned from the New York State Court Officers Association.
Correction: Tali Farhadian Weinstein is an Iranian American immigrant.