Ken Thompson Forges an Upset Victory in Brooklyn

Ken Thompson's campaign kickoff. (Photo:

Ken Thompson’s campaign kickoff. (Photo:

“It’s the end of the era.”

A NY1 reporter on the scene put it bluntly as she detailed Charles Hynes’s stunning loss in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. After 24 years in office, he came up short in his bid for a seventh term. No incumbent Brooklyn district attorney had suffered such a defeat in a century.

“The Democratic voters of the county today reviewed that record,” a crestfallen and white-haired Mr. Hynes, 78, told reporters gathered in a Brooklyn Heights café for his election night party. Brooklyn Democrats simply preferred his opponent, Ken Thompson, the 47-year-old prosecutor who gained national fame representing a hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape.

The mood was quite different at Mr. Thompson’s party, held in a studio space in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Clinton Hill. “I’m standing before you and deeply humbled and deeply grateful,” declared Mr. Thompson, resplendent in a crisp black suit as his supporters cheered. “Today, the people of Brooklyn have spoken.”

The starkly divergent scenes represented the changing of the guard in the office as Mr. Thompson celebrated a 10-point victory—the biggest election night upset in a town where incumbents rarely lose. The first-time candidate will be the first African-American district attorney in the borough’s history.

Mr. Thompson faced significant obstacles. Besides battling the advantages of his opponent’s incumbency, Mr. Thompson needed to grab attention when most of the media was distracted by the circus-like mayoral race. In the city’s most populous borough, Mr. Thompson could not simply knock on every voter’s door and say “hello.” “Millions of people live in Brooklyn,” Mr. Thompson told Politicker in a recent interview. “There were so many other races going on at the same time. To get people to really focus on the D.A.’s race was a challenge.”

Aiding Mr. Thompson’s bid were several factors. As a connected attorney, he could raise money. His 37,000-member mega church, the Christian Cultural Center in East New York, provided a base of volunteers. He had a compelling life story, having grown up in public housing and been raised by his mom, one of the first female police officers to patrol the city. His well-run campaign promised to rein in illegal stop-and-frisks, a relatable issue in the African-American neighborhoods where he would rack up large margins among primary-voting Democrats. And then there were the seemingly never-ending series of scandals surrounding Mr. Hynes’s office. Even in the context of mean things campaigns say against one another, the allegations against Mr. Hynes were shocking.

Notably, Mr. Hynes’s office took the unusual step of not disclosing the names of Orthodox Jews accused of sexually abusing children. Mr. Hynes said it was to protect the identities of the abused, whom he said would be shunned in their insular communities and thus be afraid to come forward. But critics accused Mr. Hynes of pandering for votes at the expense of child safety, and The New York Times repeatedly delved into the issue.

The troubles for Mr. Hynes didn’t stop there. And Mr. Thompson’s campaign—led by newly formed Metropolitan Public Strategies, a consulting firm headed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s former chief of staff and union organizer, Neal Kwatra—made sure the city’s two big tabloids were regularly stocked with such stories.

Whether it was a “cop shooter” being freed over a delayed trial, a prosecutor calling prostitutes from a work phone or “running a private jail system” for witnesses in Queens hotel rooms, the barrage against Mr. Hynes was endless.

“You couldn’t even make them up,” one Thompson campaign aide told Politicker, estimating about half of their research never saw the light of day. “A lot of the more outlandish stories we didn’t even need to go there, because it’s almost too negative,” said Matthew Rey, a Red Horse Strategies consultant who worked on the Thompson campaign. “What’s out there, in terms of wrongful convictions and putting politics over justice in general, is much more believable.”

“Let’s keep it real. Let’s be honest here. You abuse your power,” Mr. Thompson charged in one particularly heated debate, accusing Mr. Hynes of prosecuting his political enemies. “People who run against you, or want to run against you, sort of end up dead, broke or indicted.”

Defenders of Mr. Hynes, who goes by Joe, argue that in such a large office isolated incidents and allegations are inevitable. “There was a barrage, for like a year, of negative articles about a handful of cases,” Councilman Lew Fidler, a staunch Hynes supporter, said. “And I don’t know that voters actually read them, but they just knew it was just another article saying something bad about Joe Hynes.”

Mr. Thompson also had to weather criticism. The Daily News editorial board called the choice between Mr. Hynes and Mr. Thompson “distressing.” “No headhunter would propose hiring him to lead a 500-attorney office responsible for administering justice in the city’s biggest borough,” the publication complained. “Thompson’s five years as a federal prosecutor provided criminal justice experience but entailed no supervisory positions and only six trials. His work at a large firm was run-of-the-mill for an early-career attorney.” Still, the board ultimately found the Hynes record unsupportable and entitled their editorial “Dump Hynes.”

But negative stories alone can’t topple an entrenched incumbent supported by the borough’s powerful Democratic establishment.



Ken Thompson with his family.

On a chilly February day on the steps of Borough Hall, Mr. Hynes kicked off his campaign with a vast array of endorsements and cheering fans, arguing that the diversity and passion of his supporters spoke for itself. Mr. Thompson, by contrast, rolled out just three endorsements at his own campaign launch in June: a former Democratic club president, a City Council candidate and the Republican reverend of Mr. Thompson’s own church.

Mr. Thompson needed campaign credibility and fast.

That support conveniently arrived two weeks later with the endorsements of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, the borough’s two African-American representatives in Washington (Mr. Jeffries is a longtime Thompson friend). Soon, two more federal lawmakers joined them: Nydia Velázquez and Jerry Nadler. “The four congressional members … gave the campaign tremendous legitimacy,” argued Nathan Smith, a Red Horse operative who helped run Mr. Thompson’s field and mail operations. “‘Who is this guy Ken Thompson?’ Well, ‘Here’s his story, and here are four people that you respect tremendously that believe in this story, that believe in Ken.’”

Also giving Mr. Thompson a boost was SEIU 1999, the powerful health care workers’ union that was instrumental in Bill de Blasio’s campaign for mayor. The union knocked on 33,000 doors and made 6,000 phone calls on Mr. Thompson’s behalf—an unusual move for the group. “We stay out of D.A. races as much as possible,” Kevin Finnegan, the union’s political director, said, but noted that Mr. Thompson’s vow to curtail stop-and-frisk abuses resonated with his members.

Still complicating Mr. Thompson’s path, however, was the presence of a second challenger, Abe George, a former federal prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Mr. George was raising money at a decent clip and earning endorsements from Mr. Hynes’s foes. In 2005, Mr. Hynes faced multiple opponents and won re-election with just 41 percent of the vote thanks to a split field. There was fear this exact movie would play out again.

“Abe was very committed to this race months before Thompson,” John O’Hara, a George supporter and attorney with his own history with Mr. Hynes.  “Abe was committed to getting Hynes out of office … When Thompson got in, it became a competition between each other. It seemed that Thompson was ahead and someone had to pull out or we’d be stuck with another four years of this guy.” At the end of July, Mr. George dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Thompson.


It wasn’t just good fortune and good strategy that propelled Mr. Thompson. Mr. Hynes made mistakes, too. Mr. Fidler, who managed Mr. Hynes’s first campaign for office, said he could have more effectively touted his storied career, which includes once politically risky programs designed to reduce recidivism, such as drug treatment alternatives. “I mean, Joe Hynes made it possible to be progressive and tough on crime,” Mr. Fidler said. “Before Joe Hynes … if you weren’t boiling people in oil, you were a liberal pussy. Joe Hynes was the most progressive prosecutor; across the country people are replicating his programs.”

Mr. Hynes’s legacy also includes successfully prosecuting 1986’s infamous Howard Beach incident, in which white youths killed one black teen and beat another. “The campaign did not do enough to remind African-American voters of just how courageous that was at the time,” Mr. Fidler said.

The Hynes campaign did not return requests for comment, staying out of the spotlight since the loss. “What did Hynes say?” a grinning Senator Chuck Schumer asked Mr. Thompson at the buzzing Atlantic Antic street festival last Sunday, several weeks after the loss. Replied Mr. Thompson, “I haven’t spoken to him yet.” Mr. Hynes’s supporters urged him to continue campaigning in the general election on the Republican and Conservative party lines, but the 78-year-old pol decided to hang up his spurs instead.

When Mr. Hynes was asked, after his concession speech, what the No. 1 factor was in his loss, he didn’t hesitate.

“I think change,” he answered. “Change is something I can accept.”

Ken Thompson Forges an Upset Victory in Brooklyn