The latest candidate entering the race to replace Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance won’t say a word about him — including whether her old boss will run for re-election.
Lucy Lang, a former Manhattan prosecutor and current leader of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, joined the crowded field this week.
The move is telling: For nearly a year, political observers and staffers within the Manhattan DA’s Office have privately remarked that Lang would only join the race if Vance opted not to run for a fourth term. She has been an ally of his for years.
Through a spokesperson this week, Vance said he still hasn’t decided whether he will seek re-election.
But the once-prolific fundraiser — who stockpiled $1.35 million for his 2017 reelection campaign — has raised only $2,101 so far this year, campaign records show, following waves of attacks from critics who labeled him too soft on the rich and powerful.
In an interview with THE CITY, Lang would not discuss Vance’s intentions or their effect on her campaign, saying only that she “can’t offer any insight into the rest of the landscape of the race.”
She said the pandemic, coupled with the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, highlighted “the urgency of making change” and motivated her to jump into the fray.
“The time is ripe for someone with a vision that’s aligned with what our communities are calling for, and the depth of experience to operationalize it,” she said.
Newest of Nine
Lang, 39, is the ninth candidate to join a growing choir of Democrats vying to replace 66-year-old Vance, who was first elected to lead the office in 2009 following the retirement of longtime district attorney Robert Morganthau.
While many candidates seeking to replace Vance have sought to distance themselves from and criticize him, Lang has enduring ties to him that followed her to her most recent job.
After 12 years with the Manhattan DAs office, Lang left in 2018 to lead the Institute for Innovative Prosecution at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York.
A think tank with a stated mission to focus on “data-driven strategies, cutting-edge scholarship, and innovative thinking,” the Institute was created with a $3 million allocation from Vance’s office, using funds obtained in settlements with international banks investigated by the DA.
Vance also serves as co-chair of the group’s advisory board, along with a top executive in his office, Karen Friedman Agnifolo.
Though Lang left the DAs’s office in 2018, payroll records suggest she was still drawing a salary from the Manhattan DA’s office during 2019. A campaign spokesman said that is due to an arrangement with John Jay in which the college reimburses Vance’s office for Lang’s position.
At her time in the DA’s office, Lang served as executive director of the Manhattan DA Academy and as a prosecutor in gang and murder trials, as well as in wiretapping investigations, according to the announcement of her appointment to the IIP.
Lang stepped down from her role at the institute before she announced her campaign.
Vance Under Fire
With 10 months until the primary, the crowded race for Vance’s seat has been marked by pointed criticism of the three-term prosecutor.
Reform-minded candidates, some seeking to follow the path blazed by outsider Tiffany Cabán in her near-win of the Queens district attorney seat last year, have taken aim at Vance’s approach to prosecutions.
His decision not to prosecute Harvey Weinstein following a 2015 sexual assault investigation has trailed him, even after his office secured a rape conviction against the movie mogul, who was sentenced earlier this year to 23 years in prison.
Vance also has been dogged by his office’s inaction on real estate dealings by children of President Donald Trump following an investigation that WNYC and ProPublica reported the DA ordered closed. The office’s support for reducing Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-offender status to the lowest classification in 2011 has provided still more ammunition for opponents.
Vance has made headlines more recently for subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns as part of an investigation into the president’s business practices.
In the first candidate forum of the race, held on July 14, contenders competed to declare how they would depart from the Vance legacy.
Former public defender Eliza Orlins, for instance, said she had “fought against Cy Vance’s office” and against “a cruel and unjust criminal punishment bureaucracy — one that is rigged for the rich and powerful.”
Lang, however, won’t join the public bashing of her former boss.
“Maybe it’s naive optimism to say that I believe that we can have elevated discourse about issues that all of us who are in the race, who are watching the race and who are going to be affected by the outcome of the race,” she told THE CITY.
“I think that the level of vitriol and political discourse, writ large, is troubling. And I’m not sure how effective I ultimately think that it is,” Lang added.
Campaign Contribution Vows
Many candidates in the race are staunch critics of the office, including Orlins, human rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, criminal justice reform advocate Janos Marton and Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan), who’s also a litigator at a Manhattan law firm.
Alvin Bragg, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office who also served as New York’s Chief Deputy Attorney General, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who recently stepped down as general counsel at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, have also declared their candidacies.
Lang isn’t the only alum of the Manhattan DA’s office seeking to lead a staff of hundreds. Former assistant district attorney Liz Crotty, who worked under Morgenthau, and Diana Florence, who worked for Morgenthau and Vance, are also vying to unseat him.
Florence, who quit in January amid allegations she withheld evidence, slammed Vance’s office in her resignation letter, saying she faced a “hostile work environment,” “bullying” and interference with pending legal cases.
Some candidates are swearing off campaign contributions they contend would have undue influence on the office — above and beyond restrictions Vance imposed on himself after complaints about the possible sway of donors who had clients under investigation by his office.
For example, all five candidates at the July forum said they would not take money from police unions.
Donations to Lang will be “limited as the law limits,” she said, which includes rejecting money from lawyers with cases before the office, from people being investigated by the DA or those with open warrants in Manhattan.
Lang said she wants to focus on “dignity, equity and safety,” pushing assistant district attorneys to interact more with communities touched by the justice system — as she did in a college-in-prisons course she founded within three state-run facilities in New York City.
“I have had essentially a master class in implementing change in district attorney’s offices because I have worked with DAs all over the country, in offices of all different sizes,” she said.
From Wealth to Prosecutors
She and Vance share similar backgrounds, each choosing a career in public service following upbringings in wealthy, well-connected families. Cyrus Vance Sr., the DA’s father, served in high-level roles in three White House administrations, including as secretary of state to President Jimmy Carter.
Lang’s grandfather, the late Eugene Lang, had “an incredible Horatio Alger story,” she said, becoming a self-made multi-millionaire and, later, a major philanthropist.
In 1981, he promised to pay the tuition of any student who got into college from P.S. 121 in East Harlem. He also gave $50 million to his alma mater, Swarthmore College, and $20 million to the Eugene Lang College at The New School.
Lucy Lang serves as a member of the board of his foundation, which supports educational causes.
Social class has become a flashpoint for critics of Vance, who claim he and his office have given special treatment to defendants and would-be defendants with money and the right connections.
Lang would not comment on those accusations, but insisted that type of conduct would not fly if she were the boss.
“No one should get special access and treatment because of who they are, or who their lawyer is,” she said. “And the public is rightly outraged when it appears that that has happened.”