On the trail

On the streets of Manhattan with two leading DA candidates as concerns over crime spike

Alvin Bragg and Tali Farhadian Weinstein differ on policing strategy as uptick in violent crime comes to define the election

Courtesy/Matthew Kassel

Tali Farhadian Weinstein and Alvin Bragg (Courtesy/Matthew Kassel)

Most of the eight Democratic candidates running for Manhattan district attorney in New York City’s crowded June 22 primary election believe that the office is in need of a makeover, even as they have put forth competing visions — some more sweeping than others — for enacting change. 

The open-seat race to succeed outgoing District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., whose record has drawn scrutiny as he prepares to retire after more than a decade in office, represents a rare and unique opportunity to advance a new criminal justice agenda amid a national reckoning over racial inequality, mass incarceration and police accountability.

Some candidates in the race advocate for relatively measured reforms, including calls for restorative justice, prioritizing major crimes over low-level offenses that distract from more meaningful casework and revamping a variety of units. But three outspoken progressives are vowing to reshape the office by slashing its budget and reducing staff, among other measures. The candidates — a civil rights attorney, a public defender and a state assemblyman — have no prosecutorial experience but wear that distinction as a point of pride, claiming that the system is excessively punitive and in need of an outsider’s perspective.

But with just under a week remaining until Manhattanites cast their ballots — and with early voting already underway — voter enthusiasm instead appears to be coalescing around two center-left establishment candidates: Tali Farhadian Weinstein and Alvin Bragg, former federal prosecutors with years of experience working within the criminal justice system. In one of the few publicly available polls on the race, released Monday by the progressive think tank Data for Progress, the two were tied for first place with 26% among likely Democratic primary voters in Manhattan surveyed between June 7 and 13.

Though 21% of respondents were undecided, suggesting that the race is somewhat fluid, the third-place candidate, Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney for Manhattan, was trailing by double digits with just 8% of the vote. Tahanie Aboushi, the left-leaning attorney who recently earned a major endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), was a point behind Lang in fourth place. Despite describing herself as “the leading progressive” in an email to Jewish Insider earlier this week, Aboushi has struggled to break out, as have Dan Quart and Eliza Orlins, who fill out the roster of non-prosecutors eyeing one of the most high-profile prosecutorial jobs in the country.

The apparent lack of enthusiasm for a staunchly progressive Manhattan district attorney in some ways mirrors the dynamic at play in the mayoral race, whose contours are being increasingly shaped by the uptick in violent crime across the city. Most of the left-wing mayoral candidates have been overshadowed by moderates like Andrew Yang, Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former police captain who has surged to the top of the polls while aggressively promoting a public safety message.

Farhadian Weinstein, who most recently served as general counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, has sought to allay such fears, casting herself as one of the few candidates in the race who is willing to address crime with a sense of practicality. “Isn’t that interesting that in the mayor’s race, the candidates are, as a group, by and large, speaking about it much more sensibly and realistically than the candidates for the chief law enforcement officer of Manhattan?” she wondered rhetorically last Friday afternoon at a campaign stop outside a kosher market on the Upper West Side.

“People want to feel safe, and they know that safety is connected to the recovery of the city,” Farhadian Weinstein, 45, told JI. “When I stand outside of subway stations, as political candidates often do in order to try to meet a good flow of voters, it seems to be an invitation for people to talk about how they feel about the subway, and people are talking about how their chests are tightening up when they’re going in. There’s just this sense of insecurity that is affecting people’s choices and is really degrading, and we have to do something about that.”

Farhadian Weinstein, who says that women in particular have often expressed such anxieties to her, proposes establishing a bureau of gender-based violence, while pledging to prosecute subway crimes “where appropriate” as well as appointing a gun violence coordinator and opening a courtroom in Manhattan dedicated to gun cases. 

Her message seems to be resonating. “I responded to her immediately,” Thomas Kopache, an actor who lives on 93rd Street and Columbus Avenue, told JI outside the kosher market.. “It just seems like the gun violence has gotten out of control, and I just feel like we need a stronger stance on that. I applaud what she’s going to try to do.”

A woman who approached Farhadian Weinstein last week near the intersection of 90th Street and Broadway expressed a similar concern. “I’m concerned about what’s going on with the police, not that they’re doing bad things — it’s just the opposite,” she said. “This business of defunding the police, an 11-year-old being shot, a father being shot — where do you stand on this?”

Farhadian replied without hesitation. “So I am alone, almost, in my field in not being for defunding the police,” she averred. “Six out of eight people in my race are defunders of one kind or another, and the other one besides me, her name is Liz,” Farhadian Weinstein said, referring to Liz Crotty, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan and now a practicing criminal defense lawyer who has carved out a somewhat more conservative path than her opponents. “But she’s not a viable candidate.”

Crotty, who has indeed failed to gain traction in the crowded field, does reject calls to defund the police, though she has also noted, correctly, that the district attorney has no authority over the police budget. 

Not that candidates are shying away from the subject: Bragg, for his part, is in favor of trimming the budget for homeless sweeps, mental health responses and policing in schools — proposals he believes rank-and-file officers will agree with. But in terms of what he will be able to do in office, Bragg emphasizes a need for more rigorously investigating allegations of police misconduct if he is elected.

Bragg, who has been described as a “pragmatic progressive,” opts for an evenhanded approach that is informed by his own lived experience as well as his background as a career prosecutor.

“My whole life has been talking about both safety and fairness,” Bragg, 47, told JI on Tuesday afternoon in Harlem, where he lives with his wife and two children, as he campaigned on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 116th Street, just a block from a group of volunteers distributing flyers for Farhadian Weinstein. “More people started talking about police accountability this past year because of the uptick in gun incidents,” he said. “So I’ve talked to people about them, but about how they’re inextricably interwoven. Places where we have the most acute police accountability issues are also where we have the most acute public safety issues, and everyone wants both.”

Bragg, a former civil rights lawyer who worked as New York’s chief deputy attorney general from 2017 to 2018, where some of his most notable cases included suing disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the Trump administration, would be Manhattan’s first Black district attorney. He often speaks about growing up in Harlem, where he was wrongly held at gunpoint by the police on numerous occasions — injustices that influenced his decision to become a lawyer while adding a personal dimension to his candidacy.

Gwen Barton, a retired healthcare worker in Harlem, told JI that she is voting for Bragg because she appreciates his story. “Being from the area, raised in the area, I like that, because I’ve been in the same neighborhood,” said Barton, a member of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the city, which has endorsed Bragg. “He would really know the experience, and he sees what’s been going on here with the police and all of that.”

“I’m going to vote for him,” said Santiago Almonte, a retired correctional officer who lives in the neighborhood. “He’s going to do better than the one that’s in there right now,” he added, referring to Vance, who has faced accusations of going easy on powerful figures in recent years.

Alvin Bragg on a recent stroll on the streets of Harlem. (Mathew Kassel)

While Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein have crafted differing strategies for addressing such matters as violent crime, gun control and incarceration, the two candidates are more aligned than it may seem on those issues, though there are some subtle distinctions, according to Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School. 

“These two candidates are not wildly different in their approach to violent crime,” Roiphe told JI. “Alvin Bragg’s approach focuses on cutting off the flow of illegal guns to the city, community programs and prosecution targeted at the most violent crimes. He does not want to use incarceration as a primary tool to address violence. Tali Farhadian Weinstein proposes similar programs, but she is more interested in creating specialized gun courts, which will accelerate prosecutions and is more open to prosecuting gun possession in certain circumstances.”

Both candidates “see a role for incarceration in crime control, but for Bragg it is more of a last resort reserved mostly for people who have committed violent acts and are unlikely to benefit from community and other social programs,” Roiphe added. Farhadian Weinstein, on the other hand, “seems more willing to use it as a deterrent in some cases.”

Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein have also vowed to increase the office’s focus on hate crimes as attacks against Jews and Asian-Americans have surged over the past year.

As the primary draws near, Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein have pulled ahead in the race, thanks to a series of high-profile endorsements that have buoyed their candidacies. Bragg was recently endorsed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the powerful chair of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as The New York Times, a stamp of approval that is likely to lend him credibility among the newspaper’s conventionally liberal readers in Manhattan. Farhadian Weinstein, meanwhile, has earned the support of the city’s two major tabloids, the Daily News and The New York Post — which do not usually align politically — and on Tuesday was endorsed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Farhadian Weinstein has also benefited from boosting her campaign with $8.2 million of her own money, which she has used to blanket the city with TV advertising and campaign mailers in the final weeks of the race. The massive personal donation has raised some eyebrows, as have contributions from a number of Wall Street-affiliated donors. Farhadian Weinstein, who is married to the hedge fund owner Boaz Weinstein, has maintained that such apparent conflicts of interest will not hinder her ability to perform in a job whose duties include prosecuting white-collar criminals. The next district attorney is also expected to inherit Vance’s current ongoing investigation into former President Donald Trump’s taxes. 

Farhadian Weinstein has continued to face scrutiny as she has emerged as a frontrunner. A recent ProPublica investigation found that Farhadian Weinstein and her husband paid no federal income taxes in 2013, 2015 and 2017. They paid just $6,584 in 2014. 

Recently, Farhadian Weinstein has gone on the offensive, commissioning a poll that was accused of spreading misleading information about Bragg as well as releasing a new attack ad alleging that Bragg and Quart “won’t protect women” when it comes to rape and domestic violence cases. Both campaigns have rejected the characterization.

Bragg has raised $2.35 million, according to a spokesperson for his campaign, which has also garnered $1 million in outside spending from a national progressive political action committee. Despite being outspent, however, he may still have an advantage in a primary where identity politics is likely to influence the race, particularly at a moment when Adams is vying to be the city’s second Black mayor, says Eli Valentin, an author and political analyst. “You have the below-96th Street dynamic and the north-of-96th Street dynamic, and I think in this election that may actually play out,” he told JI. “High Black turnout may favor someone like Bragg.”

If she is elected, Farhadian Weinstein would be the borough’s first female district attorney. A Persian Jew, she fled Iran at the age of 4, settling with her family in New Jersey before pursuing a law degree and scoring clerkships with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who was then a judge, and former Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Farhadian Weinstein worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration and went on to serve in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office under Eric Gonzalez, where she helped publish a comprehensive study analyzing wrongful convictions and filed a successful lawsuit in partnership with New York State Attorney General Letitia James against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

On the Upper West Side last week, Farhadian Weinstein seemed to be enjoying her status as a leading candidate competing in a primary whose victor will be all but assured safe passage in the general election given the partisan makeup of the borough. Between conversations with potential voters, she stopped to chat in Hebrew with an elderly man who had just recently returned from Israel, while her mother and daughter, one of three, hovered nearby for moral support.

Likewise, Bragg was in his element days later as he pounded the pavement about 30 blocks north, engaging potential constituents and reflecting with locals about Harlem during the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Standing on the corner of 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, he took a brief pause from campaigning when a man he recognized rode by on a bicycle without a helmet on. Bragg seemed mildly alarmed at the sight.

“Joseph!” Bragg yelled from across the street. “You out here on a bike? Is that Marley? I love it. Be safe! Helmet! Helmet!”

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