Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn’s DA race has been about reform and progressive credentials

September 5, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
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National and citywide elections get the most attention, but the race that will impact the lives of Brooklynites the most could be the one for district attorney where six Democratic candidates are vying to replace the late Ken Thompson in a primary election set for next Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Eric Gonzalez, who served as Ken Thompson’s chief assistant district attorney, and as acting District Attorney since his death, is running against Councilmember Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Patricia Gatling, Marc Fliedner and Anne Swern. All have served as assistant district attorneys in Brooklyn except Gentile, who was an ADA in Queens more than 20 years ago.

There is a lot at stake in the race — the winner will manage an office that has more than 500 attorneys and 1,200 employees. It will be their job to set policy in the borough in regards to criminal law, hire new employees and set the culture of the office.

This race is about reform, though. The six candidates met for the third time at a forum at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Tuesday last week where they all tried to lay out their progressive credentials.

With just a couple of weeks to go before the primary election, which will effectively decide the race with no Republican candidates running, the six Dems have become fairly consistent with their talking points.

Dwimoh’s main goal is for system accountability. She has routinely called for an independent commission to review the 23 wrongful convictions that Thompson’s conviction review unit overturned in order to hold prosecutors accountable.

She has also talked up crime prevention through treatment programs and has proudly pointed out her 22 years of experience with the DA’s Office including her time as head of the Crimes Against Children Bureau, which she plans on bringing back.

Fliedner calls himself the “true progressive” of the group. He has taken firm stances against cash bail and ending so called “broken windows” practices which he says criminalizes the poor and he refers to low-level crimes, such as turnstile jumping, as “survival crimes.”

Fliedner often plays up his experience as a civil rights attorney and as head of the Civil Rights Bureau during his time as an ADA. He helped lead the prosecution against police officer Peter Liang, who killed Akai Gurley in 2014.

Gatling began Tuesday’s forum by pointing out that there are more people of color in jail, in prison, on parole or on probation than there were slaves by in 1861. She called for “tearing the system down” that she claims is purposefully meant to oppress minorities.

Gatling often discusses programs and policies that have worked in other jurisdictions as models for how Brooklyn can become more progressive. She was a prosecutor in the ’90s and after that went to work for the Human Rights Commission for 14 years. She helped start a re-entry program during her time in the DA’s Office and says that the best way to reduce crime is to focus on working with alternative programs, social workers and the community to reduce recidivism.

Gentile often plays up his role as a lawmaker and says it will give him an advantage when advocating for changes in the law. The most important one he focuses on is changing the law to ensure that judges will know the financial status of a defendant before setting bail.

Gentile also talks up alternative treatment programs and says that they need more funding. He also wants programs, like the gun buyback program, to be expanded so that social workers can have more contact with the community through such programs.

He also likes to point out that he is similar to Thompson in that, like Thompson, Gentile would be entering the DA’s Office as an outsider. It is true that he has no connection to the Brooklyn DA, but Gentile endorsed Thompson’s opponent Charles Hynes in the 2013 DA race.

Like the others, Swern has experience within the Brooklyn DA’s Office, but she points out that she is the only one of the group who has worked as a defense attorney, as she was the managing counsel for Brooklyn Defender Services. She also played a major role in the creation of Brooklyn’s many treatment courts.

As part of her four-point plan, which she brags she will implement on her first day, she would set real charges on defendants, eliminate cash bail on low-level offenses, implement discovery reform and promote alternative programs.

Finally, there is Gonzalez who has served as acting DA for approximately 11 months since Thompson’s death. Gonzalez has played a role in many of the major changes to the office since Charles Hynes was voted out including the conviction review unit that freed 23 people who were wrongly convicted.

On top of his work with the conviction review unit, Gonzalez touts his decision to hire immigration attorneys to help immigrants avoid unintended consequences like deportation for low-level crimes. He also recently dismissed 143,000 summonses older than 10 years, and has been outspoken against the Trump administration — he wrote an editorial calling out Jeff Sessions and the “war on drugs,” which he says should be treated like a health problem, and called for ICE to stay out of the local courthouses.

Gonzalez has stopped short of calling for an end of cash bail, has argued for more prosecutorial discretion and has taken criticism for accepting, and later returning, money from the bail industry. He has worked to change the culture of the office, he says, from one that focused on convictions to one that is concerned for justice. Opponents have accused him of not doing enough and there are regular reports of people being charged high amounts of bail for low-level crimes despite changes he’s implemented.

Gonzalez, at this point, has an advantage as he has raised more than $1.6 million for the campaign, which is more than either Thompson or Hynes raised in the 2013 election cycle. He also has the backing of many of the major local politicians including all four of the Democratic members of congress and the public advocate. Critics have blasted him because he was recently endorsed by the Police Benevolence Association, and have claimed it’s a sign that he is not a true progressive.

The primary election will take place on Sept. 12 and with no Republicans running, that election could decide who the next Kings County DA will be. 

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