The Brooklyn Reform Coalition hosted a Brooklyn District Attorney Candidates Forum at the First Unitarian Church at 119 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights Monday evening.
The event was moderated by Esmeralda Simmons, Executive Director of the Center for Law & Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, and Susan Herman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the President of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Kings County District Attorney race is a competitive one with seven democratic candidates running for the post, hoping to succeed Ken Thompson, the first Black District Attorney of Brooklyn and supporter of criminal justice reform. Thompson died of colon cancer at the age of 50 in October 2016.
The candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the September primary are largely progressive and committed to continuing Thompson’s reform efforts, including removing wrongful convictions from the courts; ending cash bail on low-level, non-violent crimes; using prosecutorial discretion to dismiss misdemeanor cases (i.e. marijuana charges, jumping turnstiles); treating immigrant victims/witnesses/defendants fairly in the criminal justice system; and holding officials and police officers accountable for corruption within the system.
The seven candidates include:
Eric Gonzalez – He has been serving as the Acting Brooklyn District Attorney since Thompson’s death. Gonzalez referenced Thompson numerous times during the event. He has been working in criminal law for 20 years and served as Thompson’s counsel, then as his Chief Assistant. Gonzalez noted that he has helped vacate 22 wrongful convictions from the system and has changed the ethos of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. He also pointed out that 2016 “ended as the safest year in Brooklyn history in terms of violent crime.”
Ama Dwimoh – A prosecutor for 21 years, Dwimoh created a bureau for crimes against children under Charles J. Hynes (Thompson’s predecessor). Dwimoh currently works as a special counsel to Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams.
She said, “I have a three-point plan for justice. I want to restore the trust. Prevent to protect. And advocate for the vulnerable.”
Marc Fliedner – A veteran Brooklyn homicide prosecutor who fought for Police Officer Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction in the killing of an unarmed black man in a housing project stairwell in 2014.
“It’s time for something new. What does new look like?” Fliedner asked. “I’m what new looks like because I happen to be the first openly gay man to ever run for DA’s office in our nation,” he answered.
“And new means you create new things, that you’re innovative, like when I created a new Hate Crimes Bureau and created a new Civil Rights Bureau handling all these police misconduct cases,” he continued, “but most importantly, new means creating a system where we completely reinvent the way we do business because it’s broken…”
John Gangemi – A 78-year-old lawyer from Bay Ridge, Gangemi has practiced law for 48 years and appeared to be the candidate most resistant to system change and reform. He served as a City Councilman in the 1970s and ran for Brooklyn Borough President in 2013.
“I’m sitting here and I’m listening to low-level crimes, high-level crimes… let me tell you that there are crimes on the books that are legislated and we must follow the law and the rule, and what makes us follow the law and the rule is the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “These laws were enacted by the legislature and when the DA or the Assistant DA takes office, he swears to the Constitution and he swears to uphold the law.”
“I’ve never head of a low-level law. I’ve heard of Class A, Class B, felonies, and violations,” he continued. “I think these laws should be defined for the DA, not only here in Brooklyn, throughout the United States, before they start reducing laws.”
Patricia Gatling – A former First Assistant DA for Charles Hynes, Gatling also served 13 years as NYC’s Human Rights Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She said, “I’m running because I want to restore legitimacy to the criminal justice system and when I say that, that means fairness, integrity, transparency, and equity.”
When questioned by an audience member if her recent move back to Brooklyn in December was solely for her DA campaign, Gatling shot back, “I was in Brooklyn in 1983 and I’ve worked in Brooklyn since 1983…I was here when it was one of the 5th worst cities to live and I worked with law enforcement and with the community to make it better.”
“I was the only woman in the country who was doing narcotics cases. I was working in the community and I was the most highly visible person and I received some threats so I moved to make myself safe…. I’ve been in this borough. I have not left this borough…. You don’t know me. You don’t know my history. Google me, that’s what I say.”
Vincent J. Gentile – New York City Council Member (District 43) who represents neighborhoods including Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, and Dyker Heights.
“The theme of my campaign is to keep Brooklyn safe and give Brooklyn hope,” he said. “My experience shows that I can keep Brooklyn safe. Although a lifelong Brooklynite, I spent 11 years at the Queens DA office.” Gentile worked in the Special Victims Bureau as well as the Narcotics Investigation Unit “intercepting drugs coming in from the Queens airports,” he said.
“My experience as an elected official will allow me to know the stakeholders in Albany and New York City,” he insisted. “I know everybody in the city council, I’ve been there 14 years. I’ve spent six years as State Senator, 20 years as an elected official.”
Anne Swern – Also a former Hynes’ aide, Swern serves as a Manager for Brooklyn Defender Services (which represents thousands who cannot afford a lawyer in criminal, civil, and housing cases). She was an Assistant DA for 33 years and advocates for alternative prosecution and alternative sentencing.
“I love Brooklyn and I want what’s best for Brooklyn and I know you want that too,” she told the crowd. “The reason I believe I’m best for Brooklyn is because of my unique qualifications. I believe that we share the same values and we care about the same issues. I care about the issues of incarceration, immigration, and disproportionate contact of communities of color with the criminal justice system.”
In summing up his fellow candidates, Gangemi said, “They’re learned, they’re talented, and they come from Brooklyn. Anybody from Brooklyn is good.”
The Reform Clubs that make up the Brooklyn Reform Coalition include: the Bay Ridge Democrats, Brooklyn Young Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Civic Activism of #GOBK, Ernest Skinner Political Association, Independent Neighborhood Democrats, LAMBDA Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, Muslim Democratic Club of New York, New Kings Democrats, North Brooklyn Progressive Democrats, Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform, Southern Brooklyn Democrats, Sunset Park Latino Democrats, and the 57th A.D. Democratic Organization.