New York’s Working Families Party is wading into the first competitive race for Manhattan district attorney in more than a decade. The group is backing Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney based in Harlem, in a field of eight Democratic contenders, almost all of whom are trying to position themselves as the “progressive” choice in the race.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York state Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, and Citizen Action New York, a grassroots membership organization focused on justice issues, are also endorsing Aboushi’s campaign.
Aboushi, who launched her campaign last year on a promise to end mass incarceration, modeled her platform on her own experience with the criminal justice system in New York City. Her parents, who immigrated to the city from Palestine before she was born, were arrested when she was 14 for conspiracy charges related to selling untaxed cigarettes at their neighborhood store. Her father served just under two decades in federal prison and was released when he was 63 years old; her mother was acquitted of all charges. Now, Aboushi says, she is “focusing on decarceration at every opportunity.”
The endorsement comes as eight candidates are vying to replace District Attorney Cy Vance, who has held the position since 2010. Vance has faced criticism for his office’s handling of sexual assault cases and was called on to resign last January by a group of survivors who said he went easy on well-connected predators. Vance originally declined to bring charges against Harvey Weinstein in 2015, only doing so after attention to the case had taken off with the #MeToo movement. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office holds particular significance, with the jurisdiction to go after special interests of importance to groups on the left, such as Wall Street, Manhattan real estate moguls and landlords, and even the Trump empire, as Vance paved the way for last year.
The WFP endorsement sets Aboushi apart from the remaining seven candidates in the field; it is one of the more important endorsements in a race where the differences between candidates are not always clear-cut. “There were a lot of strong progressive candidates who were really clearly running to undo the years of harm that the Vance administration had perpetuated,” Nnaemeka said. Aboushi, however, had the clearest commitment to reducing the size and the scope of the DA’s office “and anchored her candidacy in a really strong divest, invest frame, which is central to a lot of the work the party centers. How do we divest from the things that cause harms in our community and in invest in what actually leads to real safety and transformation?”
It also sets a precedent for how other local progressive groups, including New York Communities for Change and Community Voices Heard Power, may weigh in on the race. New York City’s branch of Democratic Socialists of America held a forum with candidates who applied for their endorsement in November, but the organization ultimately decided to stay out of the race. An endorsement from WFP helped propel the campaign of former Queens DA candidate Tiffany Cabán in 2019, leading to national coverage and an endorsement from the New York Times.
Other leading progressive contenders in the race are public defender Eliza Orlins, state Assembly Member Dan Quart, and former federal prosecutor and former New York state Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg. The field also includes several candidates with previous ties to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, like former prosecutors Diana Florence, Lucy Lang, and Liz Crotty. Tali Weinstein, who worked in the Department of Justice under Barack Obama and as counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, is also in the race and is the top fundraiser so far.
Crotty is the only candidate who has not styled herself as a “progressive,” and the other seven candidates have only small differences in their platforms. Weinstein is the only candidate who says she opposes decriminalizing sex work. On the issue of whether candidates would support defunding the police, as discussed during a forum hosted by Color of Change in January, Aboushi, Quart, and Lang answered “yes”; Orlins said she would support cuts of 50 percent of the budget; Bragg agreed to $1 billion in cuts; Weinstein and Crotty said “no”; and Florence said she could not answer and did not believe in the word “defund.”
New York’s primary election takes place on June 22; the candidate who wins is expected to take office in January, as the borough leans heavily blue. No Republicans are currently running for Manhattan district attorney.
If elected, Aboushi plans to decline as many charges as possible to change the culture of the DA’s office: move the focus away from securing convictions and instead address the root causes of crime and invest in community groups to ensure that people have access to housing, health care, income, food, transportation, and utilities. Aboushi is also running on ending cash bail and decriminalizing poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse, and sex work.
“You can’t incarcerate out of poverty, you can’t incarcerate out of substance abuse, you can’t incarcerate out of the gun violence.”
She currently practices law at the Aboushi Law Firm, which she and her siblings founded in 2010. Last January, Aboushi and her partner won a federal discrimination case brought by Black firefighters in New York in 2018 challenging a departmental policy forcing them to shave their beards or be placed on light duty, arguing that the policy was discriminatory and ignored a skin condition that affects 45 to 85 percent of Black men. Aboushi also represented a woman who won an $85,000 lawsuit in 2018 against the New York Police Department for forcibly removing her hijab after she was taken into custody.
“You can incarcerate people. But you’re never going to incarcerate your way out of these problems,” Aboushi told The Intercept during a December interview. “You can’t incarcerate out of poverty, you can’t incarcerate out of substance abuse, you can’t incarcerate out of the gun violence. It’s just not going to happen. Because that’s the state that we are in now. … We are doing everything the opponents of transformation want us to do. It’s happening right now. And you’re still telling me crime is rising. So let’s step back and talk about the root causes. Let’s step back and prioritize our families, and prioritize the stability and safety of our families, instead of conditioning one constituent’s safety on the incarceration and destabilization of other constituents.”
Aboushi’s campaign has endorsements from Real Justice PAC; Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib; former WFP gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon; activist Linda Sarsour; Akeem Browder, whose brother Kalief was detained for three years on Rikers Island without a trial and eventually killed himself; leaders from seven New York City Housing Authority developments; Incarcerated Nation Network, Inc., a network of formerly incarcerated people working to end mass incarceration; and Coalition for a District Alternative, a progressive group mobilizing residents, activists, and neighborhood groups in the Lower East Side.