On February 18, four of the eight candidates vying to replace the outgoing New York institution Cy Vance, who is not running for another term as Manhattan’s district attorney, gathered for an online debate hosted by a group of public defenders. Most of the candidates are far to the left of Vance, with decarceration a running theme. All four have vowed to cut the office’s budget, decriminalize sex work, and vastly reduce the number of low-level misdemeanors that the district attorney’s office prosecutes, among other reforms.
The amount that they have in common has made for a crowded field in which it’s not easy for voters to discern their differences. Instead, the candidates’ identities and backgrounds have become frequent refrains — and, sometimes, sticking points.
At the debate, Tahanie Aboushi, who is running as a civil rights attorney, challenged the only public defender in the race, Eliza Orlins, questioning whether someone with her “privilege” could serve effectively.
“You’ve often referred to people you’ve represented as your clients, those that you seem to have transactional relationships with,” Aboushi said. “How do you reconcile your privilege, having not had the experience of the overwhelming majority impacted by the office, with the need to have that lived experience for the next district attorney of Manhattan?”
Aboushi has leaned heavily on her family history in the campaign. Both of her parents were born in occupied Palestine. Aboushi and her nine siblings, including New York Jets player Oday Aboushi, were raised by their single mother. Her father was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for charges related to his involvement in a conspiracy to rob commercial trucks and their drivers, according to court documents.
But the implication that the relationship of public defenders to their clients is purely transactional strains credulity. Orlins has spent more than a decade with The Legal Aid Society, which does not charge defendants to represent them.
Orlins, visibly annoyed, underscored her bond with the people she works with and for. “You can ask any public defender … and they’ll tell you that the comments about us ‘clocking out’ are kind of offensive,” she said, before adding that she recognizes her clients of color face police aggression that she doesn’t. “Certainly I recognize, Ms. Aboushi, that I am white. I have never really spoken any other way.”
Aboushi’s performance at the debate was followed, in early March, by a major endorsement from New York’s Working Families Party, which cited Aboushi’s “first-hand personal experience” with the criminal justice system alongside her professional bona fides. She’s also racked up endorsements from significant progressive power players, including New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York state Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.
Orlins, for her part, has leaned heavily into her career as a public defender. “I am the only public defender in this race,” she said on Monday, launching her first ad, which broadcasts the fact that she has represented 3,000 defendants over the past decade-plus. Her messaging calls to mind the campaign of Tiffany Cabán, a public defender who captivated the city’s social justice movements and came within a handful of votes of winning the Queens County District Attorney race in 2019. While Cabán was able to lean on her background — growing up a queer Latina in a Queens housing project — as well as her career as a public defender, Orlins — a graduate of the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. — can lean only on her experience. (She has also had brushes with celebrity, competing as a high-profile contestant on Survivor in 2004, when the show was at the peak of its cultural relevance, and, in 2018, on The Amazing Race.)
Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney, has also emerged as a contender. A public poll that concluded on April 21 found Tali Farhadian Weinstein, formerly general counsel for the Brooklyn DA and one of the most conservative candidates in the Democratic pool, at the top with 16 percent, trailed closely by Lang at 12 percent. Lang, after more than a decade as a prosecutor, became executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College. She’s been endorsed by other progressive-leaning prosecutors around the country, including Marilyn Mosby (Baltimore), Kim Gardner (St. Louis), and Sherry Boston (Dekalb County, Georgia).
“In New York City politics, representation matters,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, a campaign director at the grassroots organization Vocal New York. “It’s something that people in general think about. So Tahanie’s story of having her father incarcerated speaks to people in a way that other candidates aren’t able to.”
Alvin Bragg, the only Black candidate, meanwhile, often mentions being stopped at gunpoint by police three times while growing up in Harlem. And while the left remains divided among progressives, Wall Street has strategically coalesced around a single candidate, hoping to snatch a victory for the status quo even as the public clamors for change.
Farhadian Weinstein has dramatically out-raised every other candidate, raking in more than $2.26 million by January. Bragg reported $1.3 million in donations, Aboushi raised about $771,000, and Orlins raised just under $600,000.
An internal poll paid for by Aboushi’s campaign, conducted by Tulchin Research of 500 Manhattanites and released on April 14, ranked Farhadian Weinstein at the top of the pack alongside Aboushi, both with 11 percent of the vote. Two other candidates, Bragg and Dan Quart, tied for second with 5 percent, and Eliza Orlins got 2 percent, with 57 percent of voters undecided. And since the election is a county race and won’t have ranked-choice voting, there’s a real possibility that Farhadian Weinstein could rake in the most votes in the primary on June 22.
The public poll conducted by Benenson Strategy Group found Aboushi at 5 and Orlins at 4.
But the endorsements haven’t cleared the field for Aboushi either; while Aboushi ranked above the other three progressives in her campaign’s internal poll, her lead is anything but certain. With more than half of the voters undecided according to the single poll, the race remains fluid.
And some endorsements yielded their own backlash. The Working Families Party’s endorsement of Aboushi, which wields significant power because of the party’s influence in New York state, was slammed by some members of the party’s Manhattan chapter, which had voted to endorse Orlins by a 10-to-9 margin, according to Working Families Party spokesperson Ravi Mangla. In the tight world of New York City movement politics, the director of a group that played a large role in the Working Families Party’s endorsement of Aboushi, New York Communities for Change, is married to a partner at a consulting firm doing work for Aboushi’s campaign.
With more than half of the voters undecided according to the single poll, the race remains fluid.
Until the January filing period, Aboushi had lagged behind Bragg, Quart, and Orlins in fundraising, but she has since kicked her efforts into high gear, raking in more than $1 million as of May 7, according to her campaign. Bragg, who’s won a number of high-powered allies from his years working as a state and federal prosecutor, is projected to raise around $2 million by the next filing deadline, according to his campaign, while Quart expects to raise “several hundred thousand dollars more” by the May deadline in addition to the $632,000 filed in January. Orlins, meanwhile, has raised $1,001,000, her campaign said. Farhadian Weinstein’s campaign did not respond to a request for an updated total.
Farhadian Weinstein’s war chest has allowed for a powerful digital ad campaign and frequent mailers that have helped propel her candidacy. The former federal prosecutor has fashioned herself as a “progressive prosecutor” to the left of Vance — advocating for the elimination of cash bail and promising to increase funding for violence interruption programs — as have many mainline prosecutors recently, as support for criminal justice reform has finally become politically beneficial. But she has stopped short of backing some of the more robust reforms that Aboushi or Orlins have endorsed, such as pledging not to seek sentences of over 20 years.
And her close ties to Wall Street raise questions about her stated commitment to prosecuting white-collar crime. Not only is Farhadian Weinstein married to Saba Capital Management hedge fund executive Boaz Weinstein (the couple purchased a $25.5 million apartment on Fifth Avenue in 2012), but a significant portion of her $2.26 million in donations comes from Wall Street and business leaders. Of the donations she received during the last filing period, 21 were $30,000 or more, and many came from Wall Street executives and business interests. Each contributor can donate a maximum of $37,829 total; one business leader, Standard Industries executive David Millstone, and his wife, Jennifer Millstone, donated $35,400 each.
Farhadian Weinstein, for her part, has repeatedly told her story of flying from Iran to New York in 1979 with her family as a child, where a border agent let them in despite slapdash documents. That the childhood memory of being cleared through customs is the most profound experience with law enforcement she can muster says more than the story itself.
The focus on personal experience has also distracted from a more meaningful look at the candidates’ professional backgrounds.
A closer look at Aboushi’s legal career complicates her image as a civil rights attorney. Her day-to-day lawyering involved work on behalf of employers or on other cases that did not involve civil rights claims. The Aboushi firm, made up of three members of the Aboushi family, practices all kinds of law: commercial litigation, employment law, white-collar crime, immigration, corporate, public interest/pro bono, personal injury, not-for-profit, and bankruptcy law. In some cases, she actually worked on the opposite side of the person fighting for their civil rights.
Aboushi is not listed as the attorney of record in many cases, as many settle before going to court, but one prominent example is Echevarria v. Insight Medical. In the case, decided in 2015, Ingrid Echevarria sued her former company, claiming that she had been sexually harassed and then retaliated against when she filed a claim about it. Echevarria’s case clearly falls within what is understood as a civil rights case, but Aboushi represented the company, not Echevarria.
A closer look at Aboushi’s legal career complicates her image as a civil rights attorney.
Aboushi filed a motion during the case attempting to force the woman to pay Aboushi’s legal fees, which she listed as $350 per hour but was willing to settle for $300 per hour. Instead, the case went to trial, and Aboushi’s client lost and was ordered to pay Echevarria $50,000 in addition to covering her own legal fees of more than $80,000.
To be sure, Aboushi has done real civil rights work, much of it pro bono, on behalf of those seeking justice for civil rights abuses. Among other cases, she represented children in a Harlem public school who were beaten by an aide in 2018 and won a case later that year against the New York City Fire Department for implementing policies that disproportionately hurt Black firefighters. Several of her cases have involved holding the New York Police Department accountable: In 2015, she represented a protester attacked by police at a Black Lives Matter event, and in 2018, she sued the police force for forcing three Muslim women to remove their head coverings.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a corporate law practice whose partners take on civil rights cases as well; indeed, many corporate firms entice progressive-minded early-career attorneys by highlighting such opportunities. And attorneys who work on civil cases, even when on behalf of employers fending off worker lawsuits, often refer to themselves as civil rights attorneys.
Aboushi’s campaign manager argued that the critics of Aboushi’s lack of criminal court experience misunderstand the largely supervisory role of the district attorney. “[It’s] a weird understanding of what the district attorney does,” said Jamarah Hayner. “The head of the Postal Service isn’t delivering your mail.”
“After the past year and especially the Chauvin verdict, I can’t think of anything more tone deaf than questioning the role of civil rights attorneys in systemic reform of the justice system,” she said. “As a black woman myself—whose rights are quite literally the result of decades of civil rights litigation—I’m really shocked and frankly hurt at the narrowness of that line of thinking.”
Aboushi’s lack of criminal experience has come up, in a limited way, in the election. In one early debate, Aboushi endorsed the use of gang conspiracy prosecutions, which opponents argue are deployed in an overbroad and racist manner to criminalize otherwise legal behavior. Two days later, under pressure, Aboushi clarified that she only supported such prosecutions in limited situations.
“My suggestion at the forum this week that I may pursue gang conspiracy charges under some circumstances reflects my determination to use all the tools at my disposal to hold the powerful accountable,” she posted on Twitter.
“It occurred to me that, under the statute, groups of people who, for example, force women and children into prostitution or who conspire to abuse or silence protestors could meet the definition of ‘gangs.’ If those statutes would allow me to bring individuals to justice who abuse people that are vulnerable or marginalized, I will certainly use them.”
That reasoning, however, is the same that standard prosecutors use to defend the tool and that public defenders across the city continue to object.
I would like to make my policy on gang conspiracy prosecutions very clear. My suggestion at the forum this week that I may pursue gang conspiracy charges under some circumstances reflects my determination to use all the tools at my disposal to hold the powerful accountable. 1/5— Tahanie Aboushi (@TahanieNYC) October 15, 2020
None of the candidates have emerged unscathed from the campaign trail. Bragg, who has prosecuted cases with the New York Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, has come under fire during candidate forums for incarcerating people for nonviolent offenses and for declining to take hard-and-fast stances on many hot-button issues, such as whether to restrict sentences to 20 years and stop cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others have criticized Orlins, Aboushi, and Quart for lacking managerial experience, given the district attorney’s more than 1,000 employees and $169 million budget.
Orlins has had her own awkward moments. In an interview with Filter, an online magazine, Orlins did not promise to stop prosecuting drug possession entirely.
“I can’t say I’d categorically never prosecute possession because I don’t think people should be bringing in kilos of heroin or fentanyl or crack or anything of the above, because, you know, they’re endangering people in our community,” she said. “Personal possession is different than a truck of 10 kilos.”
But someone with such a large quantity of drugs would not be charged with possession, but intent to distribute, a fact Orlins must know.
For now, candidates on the left will remain divided unless some candidates drop out — an unlikely outcome, according to a civil rights lawyer and former candidate in the race.
“Given the importance of this race, progressive leaders should have intervened much earlier, and more intentionally, to figure out who the best left candidate was, and encouraged folks to coalesce behind them,” said Janos Marton, who dropped out of the Manhattan district attorney race in December and recently endorsed Alvin Bragg. “To ask candidates to drop out now, after petitioning, after endorsements, after all that fundraising, isn’t really fair to the candidates.”
It will take a unified effort among the left to galvanize behind one progressive candidate, Marton said.
“Though if we see polling down the stretch that suggests a way to unite behind a progressive to beat Tali Farhadian Weinstein, that could change someone’s mind.”
During a televised debate last week, Farhadian Weinstein complained that her opponents were “putting forward purity tests” but said that, ultimately, she was beating them all. “In the end, everyone’s taken the same approach,” she said. “I’ve been more successful.”
Update: May 11, 2021
This story was updated to include details of a public survey conducted by Benenson Strategy Group.