Rush-hour straphangers trudged, bleary-eyed, from the I.R.T. station at 125th Street and Broadway in Harlem on the evening of Sept. 1 to find one of New York’s most storied apparitions waiting to shake their hands at the foot of a staircase.
“Hi, how are ya? Nice to see ya,” said Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau in his gruff, no-nonsense voice, heavily inflected with the sort of New York accent that has slowly softened and died out all over Manhattan during his long tenure.
Mr. Morgenthau has held his office for more than 30 years; after only 10 of those years, he had seemed to so solidly embody the position that no credible challenge to him seemed possible, or even desirable. The idea of a Morgenthau re-election campaign seemed a political oxymoron.
Then, on Aug. 30, the influential New York Times editorial page broke the spell, endorsing his challenger, attorney Leslie Crocker Snyder.
“It pains us not to be able to endorse him for re-election,” the editorial writers confessed. “But we believe that there is a limit to how long any manager can stay at one job and continue to administer with vigor and openness to new ideas. Three decades is more than enough time for any executive to accomplish his or her mission.”
In most other Democratic primaries in Manhattan, an endorsement from The New York Times can mean the difference between victory and defeat. But this is no ordinary primary, and Mr. Morgenthau is not just another candidate. He is a living legend. And thus far, the polls show that The Times’ argument against the Manhattan District Attorney isn’t making much headway as he seeks his ninth term.
Mr. Morgenthau, however, isn’t taking any chances. Days after the editorial appeared, Mr. Morgenthau’s wizened visage showed up in Harlem, where he appealed to his base as they marched down from the elevated station.
For whatever influence The Times may wield among Manhattan’s elite voters, its endorsement probably cannot touch Mr. Morgenthau in Harlem, where his legend has been forged through the crime-riddled 70’s, through the dramatic and divisive racial tensions of the 80’s, through the latest neighborhood renaissance in the 90’s.
“It certainly could be argued that [the black vote in Harlem] is an electorate much less influenced by The Times than those under 96th Street,” said Scott Levenson, a political consultant.
That certainly seemed the case during the District Attorney’s campaign swing.
“You know who this is?” a Morgenthau aide asked Robert Lucas, a tall, well-built man coming down the steps from the train.
“He saved my life and he doesn’t even remember,” Mr. Lucas, 41, responded. “I robbed a woman right here in 1982—wild, stupid kid stuff. And instead of sending me to jail for a long time, he gave me a chance to get my life together. Now I’ve been working the same job for 16 years.”
Seconds later, there was the sound of screeching bicycle brakes as Steven Armstrong, 52, caught sight of Mr. Morgenthau. “No young whippersnapper is gonna take your place!” he yelled out from the street.
The whippersnapper in question is 63-year-old Leslie Crocker Snyder, a respected former judge who has a reputation for being tough on crime, and who insists that her beef with Mr. Morgenthau is about his entrenched resistance to reform and not his age.
“It is not an issue I have raised. My issue is that he has been there too long. The office is stale and it’s time for a change. And my feeling is that he could be 66 instead of 86,” Ms. Snyder said, speaking quickly in a French Brasserie just blocks from the Times building.
Indeed, many of the issues that Ms. Snyder chose to harp on, such as domestic violence, community courts and diversity, seemed almost singularly crafted to gain favor with the newspaper’s editorial board. And while she insists that she never raised the age issue, her arguments against Mr. Morgenthau invariably are peppered with words like “stale” to describe the incumbent’s approach.
“Every institution needs new blood,” she said. “I think he has a sense of entitlement about staying as long as he wants and a sense of outrage about someone opposing him, because it’s his job and, you know, he’s like the king—a monarch.”
Mr. Morgenthau’s confidants say that such arguments are rife with code words that bring up the incumbent’s age.
“Age has two components: One is chronological numbers, and the other is state of mind. And I never thought of myself as being old,” said Mr. Morgenthau, who noted that Ms. Snyder is “constantly referring to her vigor.”
But if Ms. Snyder’s shorthand for talking about age is to make a great deal of her energy, Mr. Morgenthau makes equal fuss about his experience.
More than a half-century of memorabilia packs Mr. Morgenthau’s law office. The waiting room has pictures of him with John Kennedy, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch. One wall beside his desk is dedicated to Franklin D. Roosevelt, under whom his father served as Secretary of Treasury. Mr. Morgenthau’s grandfather served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire for Woodrow Wilson. Another wall is filled with photographs of the destroyers on which he served during World War II. There are cartoons mocking Richard Nixon, who fired Mr. Morgenthau from his position as a U.S. Attorney. “I would have quit if he had asked me to stay,” he quipped.
“I’ve been in a lot of fights in my lifetime, starting off with working four years for Uncle Sam, destroyers,” said Mr. Morgenthau, whose hearing was impaired when his ship was torpedoed in the war. “So if you can take that and survive, you can take a little sniping here and there.”
While the question of Mr. Morgenthau’s age lurks under the surface of the race, there are some real issues that separate the two candidates.
First among them is Ms. Snyder’s support of the death penalty, and her reputation among fans as tough and among critics as merciless.
Ms. Snyder tried to slake both those images, arguing that she supports the death penalty only in cases of “extraordinary heinousness such as terrorism—possibly some child-mutilator-rapist/serial-murderer kind of thing.”
Ms. Snyder has racked up the support of some Manhattan liberals who tend to vote in Democratic primaries. Former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, who is a staunch opponent of the death penalty, said she found Mr. Morgenthau too set in his ways and welcomed Ms. Snyder’s proposed innovations.
“It’s of less concern to me,” Ms. Messenger said of the death penalty.
But Mr. Morgenthau has jumped on the issue as indicative of what he considers Ms. Snyder’s harsh and strident style.
“You not only got to be fair—you have to be perceived as fair,” he said. “It is very, very important to have felons feel that they have been treated fairly. She would routinely refer to defendants as ‘skells.’”
The city’s dramatic drop in crime since Mr. Morgenthau took over in 1975 has also become a flashpoint for debate.
While Mr. Morgenthau contends that he has reduced crime in Manhattan more than it has been reduced anywhere else in the city “by far,” Ms. Snyder countered that this had little or nothing to do with him, but was due instead to the policies of the city’s Mayors and police commissioners and other sociological factors. “He virtually has nothing to do it,” she argued.
Ms. Snyder has also called for a special court to handle the most serious cases of domestic violence and a special bureau with prosecutors who will handle only domestic-violence cases, an area she was a trailblazer in. Mr. Morgenthau generally opposes specialized prosecutors and the community courts, which The Times’ editorial board hailed as innovative.
One such court in midtown was established over his objections.
“And quite frankly, that court was put there because of the pressure brought by The New York Times,” said Mr. Morgenthau, who refused to talk about the newspaper’s endorsement. “I didn’t think any institution or business group should be allowed to buy their own court.”
Ms. Snyder’s campaign chair, Mary Jo White, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, argued that too much of Mr. Morgenthau’s energy and money have been directed at white-collar fraud cases that the federal government should handle.
“The proof issues can be done easier” on a federal level, said Ms. White, adding, “I think that he—Mr. Morgenthau—thought that too when he was U.S. Attorney.”
But the District Attorney argues that if he didn’t pursue such cases, no one would.
“If New York wants to stay as the financial center of the world, which it is now, you have to protect the investing public,” said Mr. Morgenthau, who argues that financial investigations pay for themselves and are of grave importance, especially with terrorists funneling money through New York.
Yet for all the disagreements over policy, Mr. Morgenthau’s age may now trump his name recognition, his record and even his competition as the greatest determinant in the race. His decades of well-regarded service have been stacked high enough to cast a shadow over that service, and while The Times, his opponent and even Mr. Morgenthau himself have developed a lexicon of code words to pussyfoot around the issue, there was little doubt in Harlem that his age was a major factor.
The Campaign Trail
“I need your vote on Sept. 11,” Mr. Morgenthau was declaring on the Harlem street corner, before an aide whispered in his ear. “Sept. 13,” he corrected himself.
The slip betrayed Mr. Morgenthau’s difficulty in picking up the scent of the long-forgotten campaign trail, not any flaw in his mental faculties. He clearly possesses a sparkling, and seemingly evergreen, intellect. But while his mind, and all the institutional memory it stores, is undiminished, his body is not. It bears the nose and ears enlarged by cartilage, a slow and shuffling gait, blue-veined hands and wispy white hair.
One woman declared him “so cute” when she laid eyes on him, as if he were a cuddly grandfather and not the embodiment of the law. And while most of the men and women coming down the stairs approached Mr. Morgenthau with reverence, and overwhelmingly pledged to cast their votes for him, Jimmy Legree simply couldn’t believe his eyes.
“You like 90, aren’t you?” asked Mr. Legree, an elderly black man with a white beard and bifocals.
“Not quite,” said Mr. Morgenthau.
“I’m 81,” said Mr. Legree.
“You’re a young man,” the District Attorney joked.
“Give it to somebody else, man. He was D.A. when I was a kid,” said Mr. Legree, who nevertheless walked away with a Morgenthau flyer peeking out of the breast pocket of his loud Hawaiian shirt.
But as the sun set behind the red brick housing projects in Harlem, Mr. Morgenthau seemed to be regaining a taste for grassroots campaigning. He instructed his aides to get the name of a bright 14-year-old girl, his youngest daughter’s age, so that she could do an internship at the D.A.’s office next year. The girl’s mother almost wept with gratitude and promised her entire family’s votes.
“You keep running and we’ll keep voting for you,” said the mother, Maige Becerra.
“We got one more voter coming,” said Mr. Morgenthau to the aides, who were packing up their flyers and placards. “This guy coming right here.”
Finally they got him over to a black Chevy Tahoe waiting to take him home. But Mr. Morgenthau wanted to nab one last vote. It turned out to be one too many.
“I need your vote on Sept. 13,” said Mr. Morgenthau, expecting more adoration.
“You’ve had a good run, Mr. Morgenthau,” said Martin Bard, a 71-year-old psychotherapist. “We need some new blood.”
“Are you for or against the death penalty?” asked Mr. Morgenthau, visibly taken aback.
“I’m against it,” Mr. Bard answered.
“Well, she’s 100 percent for it,” Mr. Morgenthau said.
“It’s time to step down,” Mr. Bard insisted.
And with that, Mr. Morgenthau, bedrock of New York’s judicial system, shrugged, climbed slowly into the passenger seat and waved goodbye as the jeep drove west down 125th Street.
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