The last time Cy Vance ran to serve as district attorney for Manhattan, he easily defeated his Republican opponent, Peter Gleason. Vance got 198,000 votes; Gleason, 37,000.
That was in 2013. Vance is up for reelection next month but, this time, doesn’t face an opponent at all. A few months ago, this made sense, given that Vance was generally well-known and had walked to victory the last time around. But then, suddenly, two reports emerged that would have been gigantic, beautifully wrapped presents for any opponent.
The first was a report from ProPublica and WNYC that Vance decided not to press charges against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in 2012 for misleading potential buyers of property in the Trump SoHo project in Lower Manhattan. Prosecutors had emails that demonstrated an intent to mislead buyers, they believed, but after meeting with Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz — who’d donated to Vance’s campaign — Vance decided against moving forward.
The second was a report in the New Yorker, published Tuesday, dealing with accusations of sexual assault and rape against film producer Harvey Weinstein. In 2015, Weinstein was accused of sexually assaulting a woman he’d just met. Despite the New York Police Department having an audio recording of Weinstein apparently admitting to that incident and others, Vance’s office declined to press charges, in part, one source claimed, because of questions about the victim’s past actions.
In both of those cases, a political opponent could argue that Vance was derelict in his duty in part out of undue deference to powerful people. In the heavily Democratic borough of the city — the only county in New York State that Donald Trump lost in the 2016 primaries — that first story about the Trump children would no doubt be particularly resonant.
But no one is running against Vance.
There’s an obvious political lesson here. American electoral politics builds in set tenures for elected office after which voters are asked to approve or reject the person’s performance. There are other means of ousting someone from office, but the system is designed to have voters select from competing candidates to determine who best comports with their interests. The lack of an opponent for Vance means, in essence, that his 2013 election will stand until 2021, during which time voters may or may not have changed their opinions of him substantially.
It bears mentioning, too, that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill political office. This is the lead prosecutor in one of the most populous counties in the United States. A district attorney in a city where just last year, another former district attorney was targeted in a corruption investigation. The stakes are unusually high.
There’s one asterisk worth mentioning. In New York City, the write-in vote is often abused, but still quite powerful.
In that 2013 election that saw Vance beat Gleason, the third-place vote-getter was a three-way tie between Leslie Snyder, Luis Tejada and Richard Aborn. Who are those people? For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. (Update: A reader notes that Snyder was a candidate for the office and judge who resigned that position to join, of all things, Marc Kasowitz’s firm.) Each got three write-in votes. In total, 116 people got write-in votes for the office, including:
- Attocus [sic] Finch
- Bill Clinton
- Cornel West
- Derek Jeter
- Fidel Castro
- Glen [sic] Greenwald
- Harvey Dent
- Hermione Granger
- Lyndon Johnson
- Miley Cyrus
- Ron Paul
Another vote-getter: former governor Eliot Spitzer. Which raises an interesting question.
What if a well-known New York Democrat suddenly mounted a write-in campaign for the seat? Neither Preet Bharara nor — just imagine! — Hillary Clinton appear to be eligible for the office because neither is registered as a voter in the borough. (The deadline to register to vote in the city has passed, and calls to the city to clarify the residency qualifications were not returned.) But Spitzer lives on the Upper East Side — as do a number of other high-profile, wealthy New York attorneys.
Earning more than 100,000 write-in votes to oust Vance is no small task, particularly given that there’s only a month in which to make it happen. Manhattan, as you may be aware, is on the more-expensive end of the advertising price range, and it’s fairly well saturated with advertising of all types. Breaking through that clutter would be difficult, to put it mildly.
This is precisely why we have regularly scheduled elections. It shouldn’t take fame and wealth to win elected office (though obviously that’s often helpful), but it does usually take being on the ballot. (There are exceptions.) The new revelations about Vance may not have doomed his reelection anyway; he hasn’t had the chance to defend his decisions to any great extent.
Without an opponent next month, there’s much less need for him to do so. More importantly, the ability of New York voters to express to Vance — and other prosecutors — any displeasure with their actions is all but eviscerated.
Update: Vance’s office released a statement about Weinstein.