The Richard Aborn Experiment

If it weren’t for Richard Aborn, the Manhattan district attorney election would look a lot like it did in 2005, when Leslie Crocker Snyder challenged Robert Morganthau.

This year, it’s Crocker Snyder vs. former Morgenthau aide and protégé Cy Vance—and Aborn, who is trying hard to turn his relative obscurity into an asset.

“Well, as you know, there hasn’t been an open primary here in 35 years,” he told me recently. “No matter what framework you set up for me, there’d be no precedent because he’s [Morgenthau] been in office for so long. So, there is no historical framework.”

Unusually, he’s betting that he can win a race for a crime-fighting post not by appealing to the public’s fear of rising crime, but by focusing on traditional liberal ideas about the rehabilitation of prisoners and the root causes of criminal misconduct. He talks about the need to “break the cycle of violence” and of “rejecting those methodologies that have a high likelihood of making people into career criminals.”

For an interview in a Starbucks on the Upper West Side, Aborn—a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan—showed up wearing a dark jacket with an open collar. His hair is short and graying and his face is boyish, with no sign of wrinkles, yet.

His first order of business, he said, would be a push to change the district attorney office’s approach to fighting crime.

It needs to be about effectiveness,” he says, “not about pounding our chest and showing how tough we are.” He said that he would be “tough on nonviolent crime,” but that a necessary part of doing so would be to “rebuild families and rebuild communities.”

“[W]hen an individual is ripped out of a community, it’s not just an individual that suffers, the family suffers and the community suffers,” he said. “And to the extent that we can take nonviolent criminals and steer them away from crime, particularly in a way that maintains the family unit and the community, that’s a healthy, smart thing to do that enhances public safety. So, I reject this notion that I’m not being tough on crime.”

He is vocally opposing the death penalty, which was a big issue in the 2005 race—despite the fact that no one has been executed in New York in decades, and that capital punishment had already been ruled unconstitutional by the State Court of Appeals—mainly because Leslie Crocker Snyder, in her role as a prosecutor, supported it in some cases. She says she has since evolved on the issue and opposes it, and that Aborn’s focus on the issue is just an election tactic.

At a recent candidate forum, Aborn mocked her, saying, “This position does keep evolving.”

It’s no coincidence that this is an issue that should play well when he speaks with The New York Times‘ editorial board, whose imprimatur is massively important in down-ballot Democratic primaries in Manhattan. When The Times endorsed Snyder in 2005, the board wrote, “There are some aspects of Ms. Snyder’s record that give us pause. Unlike Mr. Morgenthau, she supports the death penalty.”

Aborn has already gained support from diverse sources. He announced an early endorsement from former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who is currently the head of the LAPD, and whom he met while on a consulting gig for the NYPD

(Following the 1996 shooting death of Amadou Diallo, Public Advocate Mark Green had Aborn, then a private attorney, lead an investigation of the police department. Aborn looked at accusations that the police were ignoring complaints from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Aborn also advised the department on improving community relations and reducing what critics said were systemic biases against minorities. Aborn did similiar work with other police agencies.)

He followed the Bratton announcement  with an endorsement from Manhattan Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, the author of the same-sex marriage legislation that passed the State Assembly in 2007. O’Donnell’s support for Aborn is based on the candidate’s call for an “independent investigation” of a series of arrests of gay men in sex shops. (Critics say the cases were entrapment.)

In between stints as a prosecutor and police consultant, Aborn worked as the head of a national advocacy group fighting for tougher gun control laws.

We stared into the eye of the  N.R.A. and said we’re going to beat you. And we did!” he says.

He is careful to say violent criminals should be locked up, but his emphasis is notably not on pursuing nonviolent criminals.

“We have to make sure we’re not in the business of prosecuting everybody that is arrested, but prosecuting only those people who are guilty,” Aborn said at a recent candidates’ forum hosted by the Stonewall Democrats. “We have to make sure we have the right folks.”

Aborn’s opponents say he is a legal lightweight, and better suited for a legislative office than a crime-fighting one. An aide to one opponent said bluntly that Aborn is simply too liberal for the job. This person suggested it was a sentiment Democratic voters may subconsiously harbor as well.

An aide to another rival complained that Aborn’s entire campaign strategy hinges on getting the New York Times endorsement. Without that, there is no way Aborn can boost his name recognition or establish his bona fides among the electorate, this person said.

The consultants Aborn hired at BerlinRosen are a reflection of his progressive politics. One of the company’s founding partners, Jonathan Rosen, works with the Working Families Party and ACORN (and City Councilman Bill de Blasio).  Aborn’s spokesman is BerlinRosen’s Blake Zeff, a Democratic operative who has worked for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

When asked for a historical precedent for his strategy, Aborn said one does not exist—not entirely suprising since Morgenthau has been in office for 35 years.

Morgenthau himself is backing Cy Vance. Vance, running as an extension of Morgenthau’s legacy, has proposed making the office more accessible to the community, but rarely distances himself from his mentor’s operating style.

Crocker Snyder, on the other hand, is quick to note what she calls mistakes by Morgenthau’s office—the 1992 murder convictions in the Palladium case, which were later overturned, and a heavy emphasis on white-collar crime. She is no shrinking violet. Often, Snyder recounts how her reputation for harsh jail sentences were so well known that local drug dealers distributed their products with an homage to Snyder on their plastic baggies.

One of Aborn’s achievements was when he was asked to investigate the NYPD in the wake of the Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima cases, in which the police were accused of acting inappropriately.

“You remember the Luima-Diallo period,” he said in the interview. “You certainly know how tense the relationships were between the cops and the community. I was brought in to do an oversight investigation of the NYPD and to see how they were responding to the CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board] complaints. And remember when that all blew up? There was that huge explosion? That was me. That was my investigation.”

The Richard Aborn Experiment