A surprise endorsement has injected a sudden dose of suspense into a feisty campaign that could spell the end of one of New York City’s most storied political careers.
The race pits challenger Leslie Crocker Snyder, 63, a tough-on-crime former state judge and prosecutor, against incumbent Robert Morgenthau, 86, Manhattan’s longtime district attorney and heir to a Jewish political dynasty that stretches to the beginning of the 20th century.
Until this week, political insiders were predicting that Morgenthau, despite his advanced age, would coast to victory against Snyder in the September 13 Democratic primary. Then, on Tuesday, The New York Times — which can make or break a candidate in Manhattan — endorsed Snyder, blowing the race wide open.
“Now, she’s got a real shot,” said New York political consultant Jerry Skurnik. “I would still bet on him, but now it’s a real race.”
Running for his ninth term, Morgenthau surely qualifies as the “institution” and “icon” he often is dubbed in the press. The district attorney, an intimate of President Kennedy, hasn’t faced a challenger since 1985. He has held his position since 1974 and successfully prosecuted some of the highest-profile crimes in the nation.
Snyder is a bigfoot in her own right. She was the first woman to work in the district attorney’s office on murders and sex crimes. Appointed to the bench by then-Mayor Ed Koch in 1983, she made her reputation as a tough-as-nails jurist who threw the book at the mayhem creators of notorious drug gangs such as the Young Talented Children and the Natural Born Killers. She was so identified with stiff sentences that one gang named a brand of heroin — “25 to Life” — after her and adorned its packages with her likeness. (She proudly appropriated the moniker for the title of her 2002 memoir.) Her dangerous work took a toll on her family life: For many years, her children needed police protection.
In Jewish terms, the Morgenthau-Snyder rivalry represents something of a battle for ethnic succession, even if it is one taking place at a time when such considerations have lost much of their significance.
A scion of an august German-Jewish New York family, Morgenthau ranks as American Jewish royalty. His father, Henry Jr., was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s treasury secretary, the only secretary to serve through all four of FDR’s terms and only the second Jew ever to serve in a presidential Cabinet. He was a pivotal figure in the Holocaust rescue debate, the man who pressured Roosevelt to set up the War Refugee Board and the Nuremberg Tribunals. He served as national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal during the critical postwar years, when concentration camp survivors needed to be cared for and Zionists in Palestine were fighting to establish a Jewish state.
Morgenthau’s grandfather, Henry Sr., was a founder of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish Committee. He served as President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey during World War I, and he played a pivotal role in rescuing the Zionist settlements from destruction when the Turks decided in 1915 to eliminate their non-Muslim minorities in Armenia and Palestine.
Morgenthau himself has played a role in Jewish philanthropy locally, spearheading, along with longtime pal and political ally Koch, the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s Battery Park. The prosecutor can point to long friendships with such Israeli figures as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the late Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who kidnapped Adolph Eichmann. In an interview last week, prompted by the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he waxed on about a trip in the late 1970s to Yamit in the Sinai –— before it was returned to Egypt.
Snyder’s family, by contrast, came from Eastern Europe; her father grew up on Manhattan’s West End Avenue and changed his name from Krakower, according to New York magazine. He was a professor of French Enlightenment philosophy and literature, schooling his daughter in European manners and the good life. She freely acknowledges she has almost no Jewish background or involvement.
A media-savvy talking head who cuts a glamorous figure, Snyder advises the television show “Law & Order,” and has provided on-air analysis of the O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson murder trials, among others. She appeared for an interview at her lower Manhattan campaign office on a muggy day last week looking impeccably crisp.
Snyder painted Morgenthau as too old, saying that his office has grown “stale” and “out of touch” with the latest prosecutorial methodologies. The eight-term incumbent, she said, “is the opposite of a reformer.”
Snyder faulted Morgenthau for what she described as a lack of focus on domestic violence cases, hogging white-collar criminal cases that could be prosecuted better by federal authorities and a paucity of minority attorneys in top positions in his office — all criticisms he parries with an array of arguments and statistics.
In her interview with the Forward, Snyder added a new twist that seems designed to appeal to Jewish voters — who can constitute up to a quarter of the Democratic electorate in Manhattan. She said that Morgenthau “has blown several opportunities to do a lot more about terrorism.”
For example, she criticized the way Morgenthau’s office handled the prosecution of El-Sayyid Nosair for allegedly assassinating former Jewish Defense League leader Rabbi Meir Kahane. Nossair was acquitted of murder in 1991 but remains in prison on terrorism and weapons charges.
“Morgenthau decided that he, alone, deserved jurisdiction of the case, seized the 16 boxes of evidence, never bothered to have them translated, prosecuted the case as a straight murder instead of a conspiracy,” Snyder said. “When those boxes were translated… three years later, they contained all sorts of exhortations to topple tall buildings, maps of the World Trade Center, how to build bombs.”
While Snyder said that “in retrospect, it’d be too easy to say that maybe the [first World Trade Center] bombing could have been prevented,” she blasted Morgenthau for what she said was his lack of cooperation with federal prosecutors.
She continued, stating that four years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, “Morgenthau still has not instituted an anti-terrorism bureau. I would do that immediately.”
Morgenthau vigorously defended his record on terrorism prosecutions, and his decision to prosecute some cases that might have come under the jurisdiction of federal authorities.
“The federal government often will not prosecute cases for political reasons,” he said. “We don’t have that problem.”
He described two cases involving unlicensed money transmitters and legitimate New York banks that were laundering money for Middle Eastern terrorists, including some who were operating out of the South American Tri-Border Area. “Those are things the federal government I don’t think was aware of and certainly wasn’t going to do anything about,” he said.
“I don’t aspire to prosecute Bin Laden and his top henchmen, but terrorism requires money,” he said. “What we’re doing is trying to cut off the money supply…. We’re not taking [these prosecutions] away from the federal government. We’re doing it because it needs to be done.”
Morgenthau, who sat for an hour-and-a-half interview last week with the Forward in his office in the grungy Art Deco pile that is the New York County Criminal Court, looks his age. He’s hard of hearing, and his trim physique and birdlike features display the depredations of gravity. But as most reports — and the Times editorial that boosted his challenger — have noted, he’s as sharp and energetic as ever, still able to show off the encyclopedic command of facts and figures that impressed the presidents and dignitaries whose photos line his office’s walls.
In the interview with the Forward, he brushed off the age question. “I’m working as hard now as when I came, and I’m a lot smarter,” he said.
He took aim at Snyder for her support of the death penalty — a liability in liberal Manhattan. Morgenthau staunchly opposes capital punishment as a “feel-good statute” that does nothing to reduce crime. Noting that in her memoir, Snyder wrote that she personally wanted to give the lethal injection in one case, he said, “Is that the kind of D.A. with good judgment?”
Snyder allowed that the remark was “intemperate,” but said she was merely responding “as a mother, a citizen and a judge” to the heinousness of the crime in question: a rape and murder.
While backed by some leading lights, such as former United States Attorney for the Southern District Mary Jo White, Snyder seemingly had gained little traction. She provoked the ire of at least one newspaper editorial board recently when it became public that starting in the 1990s, she steered $1.1 million in court fees for outside legal work to the law firm she subsequently joined, Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. While she claimed that the fees were appropriate, critics said the awarding of the fees showed favoritism.
On the other side, Morgenthau has been endorsed by a host of officials, including New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who called him the gold standard of prosecutors. The 500 attorneys in Morgenthau’s office constitute a veritable machine, and a good part of the New York legal establishment either has worked for him or does not want to cross him. For all these reasons, one defense attorney, who declined to speak on the record, called Morgenthau “the most powerful man in New York State.”
Not to mention, crime in Manhattan has dropped precipitously during his tenure.
Observers said that Morgenthau, who hitherto has avoided debating Snyder, would likely have to do so and “go negative” against his opponent, following the decision by the Times to endorse her.
“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,” the Times declared in its endorsement of Snyder. “Three decades is more than enough time for any executive to accomplish his or her mission.… With due respect for the incumbent’s legendary tenure, it is time for a change.”
The endorsement surprised many political observers following the race.
“Ten years ago, the idea that Robert Morgenthau wouldn’t get The Times endorsement would be ridiculous,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant. “The outcome [of the election] will be an indication of the cultural shifts in this city.”