The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue

Unlikely Sparks in Brooklyn D.A.’s Race

It hasn’t been an easy year for Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes. It seems like nearly every week brings a new scandal involving some combination of prosecutorial misconduct (often resulting in a wrongful conviction) and conspicuous negligence (allowing actual criminals to go free).

This past week alone saw two glaring examples of the office’s dysfunction, both found in the Post. On Monday, the paper revealed that an assistant D.A. who was calling hookers from his office phone (!) was transferred rather than fired, most likely because of his family’s influence in the Orthodox community.  Thursday’s edition delivered the disturbing news that a judge reluctantly released a gang member with a long record of violent attacks on cops, solely because Hynes’s office failed to bring him to trial in the required 90-day timeframe.

Despite the relentless stream of damaging stories, until recently the 78-year-old Hynes still appeared to be comfortably sailing toward winning his 7th term as D.A. That’s because it seemed that two challengers would split the vote against him. But when Abe George suddenly dropped out of the race on July 25, Ken Thompson instantly became a viable contender.

One factor in George’s exit was no doubt the surprising show of support for Thompson declared earlier that same week by 1199, the health care workers union. Although an established force in city politics, 1199 hasn’t been an active player in recent races for D.A. In the 2009 Manhattan campaign, for example, the union waited until just before the primary to endorse Cy Vance. Even so, that was an open seat, whereas 1199 is now casting its lot behind a first-time candidate running against a dynastic incumbent. Yet given that the union’s membership includes more than 36,000 registered Democrats in Brooklyn, Thompson now has a real shot at toppling Hynes. 

The wave of hospital closings in Brooklyn is the union’s main concern at the moment, but a district attorney can’t do much other than provide a bully pulpit on such matters.  As Kevin Finnegan, 1199’s political director, explains it, the union’s leadership views Thompson as a “role model” for its largely black members, many of whom share the candidate’s views about the need to rein in stop and frisk and improve relations between minority communities and the police.

Thompson’s mother was an NYPD officer for 21 years. After growing up in Harlem and Co-Op City (in the Bronx), the Clinton Hill resident moved to Brooklyn when he became a federal prosecutor in the mid-1990s. In that capacity he helped convict Justin Volpe, the officer who sodomized Abner Louima (with a broom handle) in a precinct bathroom.  In his current private practice, Thompson represented Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid involved in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case; he reached a settlement with Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers on behalf of his client in late 2012. Thompson “was bold and brave in defending Diallo,” says Finnegan, who’s certain that many 1199 members would concur.

Emboldened by his support from 1199 (as well as from Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind), Thompson has started to turn up the volume of his criticisms against Hynes. “As a father raising a son in Brooklyn, I feel very strongly that stop and frisk is used excessively,” he says. “But Joe Hynes has been utterly silent, acting as though it’s only a police matter.” If elected, Thompson says, on day one he would convene his assistant district attorneys and let them know that all cases involving stop and frisk arrests that don’t meet the grounds for “reasonable suspicion” must be thrown out. And his office would help implement the training for NYPD officers in what constitutes an appropriate stop that federal judge Schira Scheindlin has deemed necessary.

Without such reforms, Thompson maintains, “tens of thousands will continue to be unfairly brought into the criminal justice system each year.” His office also would not prosecute most minor marijuana violations, in accordance with the state law that decriminalizes possession of under an ounce. As Thompson notes, among the potential consequences for those mostly young black and Latino males brought into the system on such charges are a loss of public housing, student loans, and job opportunities. For those Brooklynites already working in the low-wage workforce, Thompson’s office also will introduce a labor law division aimed at curbing employer abuses.

While the match between 1199, a union active in the police reform campaign, and a candidate taking a strong stance on these issues seems like a natural fit, that still doesn’t fully explain why the former decided to get involved in a down-ballot race. Like all local unions, 1199’s primary concern is who becomes the mayor—which brings Bill de Blasio into the story. Back in May, the union endorsed de Blasio, who has since moved to the forefront of the fight to save Brooklyn hospitals. 

In order to win the mayor’s race, Finnegan says, de Blasio needs votes in Central Brooklyn, which is heavily black. While Finnegan insists that “It was not part of our strategic calculation” to back Thompson in order to help de Blasio, he does freely acknowledge that “we’re going to tie the two of them together” while knocking on the doors of 1199’s Brooklyn residents. Thompson, Finnegan says, can help build de Blasio’s appeal in Central Brooklyn, whereas the reverse will be true in Brownstone Brooklyn.

If anyone should respect this sort of political horse-trading in a district attorney’s race, it’s Joe Hynes, who’s stayed in power for nearly a quarter-century by building strong power bases (e.g. with the borough’s ultra-Orthodox communities, or with Vito Lopez and the Brooklyn machine). Whereas Hynes is often accused of shielding his friends and targeting his enemies, Ken Thompson promises to deliver “equal justice to all.” In doing so, he says, it will be “a new day in Brooklyn.” Indeed.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues