“I have an ear for innocence,” Cyrus Vance, Jr., said as he discussed what distinguished him from his two Democratic rivals in the September 15 primary for Manhattan district attorney.
“My ear for innocence isn’t derivative of somebody else telling me about a case they had. My ear for innocence and my ear for innocence as a head prosecutor will be because I have represented people who I knew were improperly charged and it was my responsibility to try to convince the DA or the prosecutor that the charges or the investigation should be stopped.”
And then the 54-year-old Yale/ Georgetown Law graduate, son of a former US secretary of state, and favorite of Robert Morgenthau, the nine-term incumbent, added, “I think it gives you a sense of fairness in your application of power.”
Morgenthau, for whom all three of the Democratic candidates worked as assistant district attorneys — remarkably, each more than 20 years ago — said of his preferred candidate, in Vance’s telling, “Cy Vance is by far the best qualified. Good lawyer and fair.”
Vance returned the esteem, in a May interview with Gay City News. “Bob Morgenthau has been a remarkable DA and I feel very proud that he views my candidacy favorably,” he said, as he emphasized what he views as the “core” responsibility of the district attorney — management of a 500-member trial lawyer staff, what he described as the largest in a city full of major law firms. “I am the only lawyer” in the race, Vance said, “who has been a trial lawyer all my life.”
As Vance talked about his career as a trial lawyer, he was careful to emphasize the social good that can result from that pursuit. In 2005, a class action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against Boeing in which he and his law firm represented Pacific Northwest female employees of that company ended in a court-supervised settlement totaling $72 million.
His clients, he explained, were “many thousands of underpaid, underpromoted women” who won “a very fair settlement” that also led to institutional changes at Boeing. That courtroom victory was mentioned in the Vance campaign press release announcing Gloria Steinem’s endorsement of his candidacy.
Vance’s ability to be part of the Boeing lawsuit, however, is tied to what might be his greatest liability in this year’s race — the fact that he lived in Seattle from 1988 until 2004, unlike his opponents, Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former State Supreme Court and Court of Claims judge, and attorney and gun control advocate Richard Aborn, both of whom are life-long New Yorkers.
Crocker-Snyder waged a bitter contest with Morgenthau in 2005, and the incumbent’s anointing of Vance as his hoped-for successor has allowed her to suggest that he earned this advantage not by his work on the ground but rather by his club ties, as it were. “Leslie accuses me of being from the old boys’ network and I never thought of David Dinkins and Betsy Gotbaum as being from the old boys’ network,” Vance said of endorsements he had recently picked up from the former mayor and the current city public advocate.
Vance is not shy about taking Crocker-Snyder on in turn — particularly on the issue of the death penalty, which she supported as recently as the 2005 race against Morgenthau. Both he and Aborn took aim at her on this point at an April debate sponsored by the Stonewall Democrats of New York City and moderated by this reporter.
“Those of us who have been working in the criminal justice system as judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have known for years and years and years the risks of wrongful convictions,” Vance told Gay City News. “I’m saying that the timing of her change in between her 2005 election loss and a 2009 election — it’s relevant to look at her change of position in the context of the timing of the elections… I think it’s relevant to understand where people stood on the death penalty to begin with, just as a basic philosophy.”
Vance’s ties to Morgenthau could create a different sort of problem for him in the LGBT community, angry over recent prosecutions of gay men busted on prostitution charges by undercover cops in Manhattan porn shops. With many of the men apprehended a good deal older than the undercovers they supposedly tried to sell sexual favors to, these are widely seen as false arrests, a perception the NYPD and the DA have been at a loss to challenge; Morgenthau’s office is investigating and now seems to be allowing the clock to run out on the permissible period to prosecute the charges.
Vance, like the other two candidates, has made clear he sees the prosecutions as symptomatic of a systemic problem in the DA’s office, the sort that can be prevented, he said, if the office is reorganized so that teams of lawyers are responsible for specific geographic zones within the borough.
“Once you see five or six of these come in in a three-week period or a two-week period, the DAs are going to know that we are having arrests of 54-year-old men like Cy Vance who’ve never been arrested for prostitution, have no prior criminal record, and the cops are saying that Cy is soliciting a young undercover,” Vance explained. “These cases would be flagged because we would be keeping our ear to the ground and understand what’s going on in the arrests… I would say to the cop, ‘Okay, next time I want you to wear a wire.’ They don’t have to do it, but if I’m not satisfied with the response, I pick up the phone and call the sergeant, or call all the patrol commander and say, ‘Look I’ve got three cases here, Commander, and I’m having trouble believing that Cy at 54 is beginning to turn tricks, so Commander if you want me to prosecute these cases, I need evidence and I need evidence on a wire.’”
The prostitution arrests, he argued, are “almost a classic case” of how reorganizing the office along geographic lines would improve the system. “We could have nipped this in the bud,” Vance said.
While emphasizing the importance of managing attorneys, Vance also spoke extensively about the importance of community outreach and crime prevention approaches. Morgenthau’s creation of a community affairs bureau, which the candidate said may have been the first such effort anywhere in the nation, was “a signature achievement.”
With the number of lawyers up from 400 when he served as an ADA in the ’80s to 500 today, and with crime down significantly in the intervening years, the question “right now,” Vance said, is: “What are the aggressive, thoughtful, performance-based steps we can make to effect crime reduction.”
This is where the job becomes less about managing trial lawyers. That task must be supplemented, he said, by “a robust group of non-lawyer community affairs folks who are out in the communities,” also organized along geographic lines. A small, probably centralized, bias crimes unit, reflecting Vance’s belief in the importance of taking on hate-motivated violence, would also be part of the picture.
“My door would be open, and I think that we’ve seen ways in which the DA can be closer to the community without sacrificing efficacy,” Vance said.