Before this month, few progressives had heard much about Cy Vance. The Manhattan district attorney is up for reelection this year, but was unopposed in the September Democratic primary and doesn't have a Republican challenger. It was the least important race in city politics, if you could even call it a "race." Then came the deluge of bad stories. Then came the outrage and the protests.
On October 4, almost a month after the primary in New York, ProPublica, WNYC, and the New Yorker published a report detailing how Vance put a stop to a two-year investigation of Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and the Trump Organization after meeting with their father's longtime attorney, Marc Kasowitz. According to the report, the Trump children misled "prospective buyers of units in the Trump SoHo, a hotel and condo development that was failing to sell... The evidence included emails from the Trumps making clear that they were aware they were using inflated figures about how well the condos were selling to lure buyers." Vance decided that evidence wasn't good enough after talking to Kasowitz, who had donated $25,000 to Vance's reelection campaign.
On WNYC, Vance defended his decision to drop the case against the future first children. "I had always talked with Adam [Kaufmann, then chief of Vance's investigative division] and my general counsel about my general concerns about whether this was worth our resources," he said. "By the way, not every lie is a crime." He also returned the $25,000 before the meeting—though Kasowitz later bundled $50,000 in donations from himself and others for Vance. (The DA said he'd return that money too after being asked about it.)
Less than a week later, he was in the news again as the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. In 2015, he decided not to bring charges against the Hollywood mogul after Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez accused the Hollywood executive of groping her. That was despite the NYPD having a recording of Weinstein seemingly admitting to grabbing her breast—a recording that the New Yorker published as part of its bombshell on Weinstein. "We had the evidence," a police source told the magazine. "It's a case that made me angrier than I thought possible, and I have been on the force a long time." Vance's office contended it didn't have enough evidence to press criminal charges.
After Vance decided not to pursue the case, he reportedly received a $10,000 donation from David Boies, one of Weinstein's lawyers. (The DA's office said Boies did not represent Weinstein in the Gutierrez matter.) The IBTimes reports that Boies, his son, and his law partners have delivered more than $182,000 to Vance throughout his political career.
In a statement, chief assistant DA Karen Friedman-Agnifilo told me, "If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct that occurred in 2015, we would have."
But amid the flurry of allegations of impropriety—or at the very least the appearance of being soft on wealthy wrongdoers—many New Yorkers aren't convinced.
The New York Daily News published an op-ed headlined, "America deserves better than Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance" last week. On Thursday, the New York Times published two letters to the editor decrying Vance's decision not to hold Weinstein accountable. "What makes Mr. Vance's decision even more striking is the stark contrast with how prosecutors use that same discretion in criminal proceedings against low-income people of color in places like the Bronx," wrote Michael Bloch, an attorney who works with the Bronx Defenders. On Friday, the National Organization for Women of New York organized a rally outside the Manhattan DA's office to protest Vance's decision to not prosecute Weinstein. Even Vogue is condemning the suddenly controversial DA.
But at this point it's too late to formally challenge Vance's reelection bid. Marc Fliedner, a longtime public prosecutor who was one of several reform-minded candidates in the Brooklyn DA race, is doing the best he can, however. He announced a write-in campaign to challenge Vance this week, which he told me was a result of encouragement from Twitter user @showusyourwork.
"It just took off on Twitter," Fliedner said. "I thought it was great that voters were not resigned to just sit it out and accept an unchallenged incumbent they found distasteful, that they actually began formulating a plan to change the status quo."
Fliedner says he's not actively campaigning because he has "no machine in place" and has to continue working in order to make a living. "It's a grassroots, social media–driven experiment for the new age, but since it comes from such a pure, engaged voter-driven place, it's pretty exciting to watch it unfold," he said.
Write-in campaigns are always long shots at best, though, and the plain fact is that Fliedner doesn't have any institutional support. Even the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, the internet's favorite leftist organization, isn't backing Fliedner. A spokesperson at the group (which I am a member of) told me it hasn't endorsed anyone for the Manhattan or Brooklyn DA races, and doesn't plan to.
"We are deeply disappointed that both Democratic nominees, Eric Gonzalez and Cy Vance, continue to use unfair bail practices to perpetuate a racist two-tier justice system, leaving people of color to suffer in Rikers Island while powerful and well-connected criminals face no meaningful consequences," NYC-DSA wrote in a statement.
And needless to say, the Democratic establishment is in no hurry to condemn Vance. Eric Phillips, the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, told me in an email:
"The Mayor hasn't been involved in the DA's race. He obviously isn't privy to all the evidence, so he's not going to second-guess prosecutors who are. But clearly the allegations are disturbing and that's why the NYPD was right to take them so seriously."
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