With challengers lining up and criticism mounting of his handling of some high-profile cases, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek a fourth term.
“I must say, the election is two-plus years out,” he told THE CITY Tuesday. “It’s really too early for me to make any decision.”
Campaign disclosures filed with the state Board of Elections last week show Vance’s campaign raised $25,600 in the last six months, leaving him with just over $105,000 on hand. That’s less than 10% of the $1.35 million he had in the bank two years before his 2017 run.
But those figures don’t worry the three-term incumbent.
“I feel very comfortable,” Vance said.
“I’m not concerned about fundraising, but obviously if the campaign needs money, then we’ll need to raise it and we will,” he added.
The modest recent contributions to his campaign followed a nearly 18-month fundraising hiatus, according to THE CITY’s analysis of records.
Donations to Vance’s campaign stopped after October 2017, Board of Elections records show. Money began trickling back into his campaign coffers in late January, although only 10 donations were made between then and mid-March.
Vance’s fundraising kicked into somewhat higher gear in May — just as Tiffany Cabán’s long-shot bid to become the next Queens DA on a progressive platform gained steam with her endorsement by insurgent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens, The Bronx), records show.
He’s already looking at what’s shaping up to be a crowded 2021 Democratic primary as challengers pounce on headline-grabbing cases that came out of his office.
Knocked for Who He Didn’t Charge
Multiple Manhattan political-watchers who spoke to THE CITY summed up Vance’s challenges in three names: Weinstein, Epstein and the Trumps.
That refers to the lack of charges brought by Vance’s office in the cases of film producer Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, and its support for reducing financier Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-offender status to the lowest classification.
Vance’s first challenger, Alvin Bragg — who previously served as the chief deputy attorney general in New York and an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District — already has publicly knocked him for how the Epstein case was handled.
“There’s either an unwillingness or an inability to do cases against influential people,” Bragg told THE CITY.
Vance brushed off criticism of what he called “three cases out of a million cases, almost literally, that the office has handled since I’ve been DA.”
“I think it’s very easy to focus on three cases — and I’m happy to talk about them,” he said, but disagrees “completely” with charges of favoritism, or making exceptions for connected people.
“I think the record bears out that I have no interest in providing a haven for wealthy and privileged individuals in the criminal justice system,” Vance added.
Disparities in Prosecution Charged
Vance’s challengers also contend his office treats poor and minority defendants differently — particularly given the high rates of prosecution of low-level crimes in Manhattan, including violations and misdemeanors.
In a recent analysis by the city on crime trends in the past five years, a steep drop in arrests and a major decrease in jailings, particularly misdemeanors, is apparent.
But while jail admissions have dropped by more than half in Manhattan over five years, the rate of admission to jail from the borough is much higher than the city’s overall average.
To Bragg, “the seeming unwillingness to do challenging cases that affect the so-called influential” is equal in importance to “the churn of people in and out of the system.”
“I think they’re related. The moral force and the urgency is underscored when you sit them side by side,” he told THE CITY.
Vance’s second challenger, Janos Marton, announced his candidacy Monday. The decarceration proponent — now with the ACLU, and formerly of JustLeadership USA, which pushed to close Rikers Island — echoed the sentiment.
“He’s going to have articulate why he’s been so successful at prosecuting low-income communities of color and yet so unsuccessful at prosecuting powerful interests,” Marton said.
Vance defended his record, saying, overall, it has been “incredibly strong.”
He noted his office has reduced prosecutions of misdemeanors and violations by nearly half since 2012, from 86,000 to about 45,000.
“Manhattan is still the safest borough and New York City is still the safest city in the country, so if you ask me if I’m worried — absolutely not,” he said.
A Crowded Field Is Sprouting
Bragg and Marton are the first to announce challenges to Vance, but almost certainly won’t be the last.
At least another six people are said to be mulling a run, including a public defender and a Manhattan state lawmaker.
Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) is “strongly considering” running for Manhattan DA and will be making a decision in the “near term,” he told THE CITY Tuesday.
— Dan Quart (@AMDanQuart) July 8, 2019
The “Dan Quart for NYC” campaign account has $667,000 after raising $17,200 in the last six months, and transferring roughly $650,000 in from other campaign accounts, according to BOE records.
Other potential candidate, according to people familiar with the race, include: Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben; attorney Marc Fliedner who ran unsuccessfully against Vance in 2017 as a write-in candidate, public defender Eliza Orlins, who penned an op-ed days after Cabán’s strong showing in the June 25 Queens DA Democratic primary; and Julie Menin, who heads City Hall’s 2020 Census operation.
Biben, through a spokesperson for the state’s court system, said any discussion of her candidacy is “wildly speculative.” Fliedner, Orlins and Menin did not return requests for comment.
The race would mark the most serious challenge Vance since he was first elected in 2009, replacing longtime Manhattan DA Robert Morganthau, who died at age 99 on Sunday.
“He’s weak and this is the time to strike,” Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor, said of Vance. “But we know that [Vance] has a lot of important friends in a lot of important places and a lot of wealthy people who would like to definitely see him relelected.”
The Queens Effect
As the recount in the Queens DA race continues to determine whether political newcomer Cabán beat party favorite Melinda Katz, those looking ahead to the 2021 Manhattan race wonder if the Cabán effect will travel across the East River.
For one candidate, it already has: Marton said the Cabán campaign inspired him to join the fray after seeing her core issue resonate with voters “in a way that I don’t think anybody was fully sure they would,” he said.
But it’s far from certain energy behind the Cabán campaign — focusing on shaking up the prosecutor’s office, with radical reforms — will take hold in Manhattan
Ravi Gupta of the political group Arena, which is backing Bragg, said even if Manhattan doesn’t lean as far left as Queens, big changes are on the way, following major shake-ups in other DA races across the country.
“This race will undoubtedly follow the national trend of the electorate viewing the office of the district attorney as something more than just locking up as many people as possible,” he said. “Whoever wins this office is going to be somebody who makes fundamental reforms.”
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