How does one get to arguably the second most important job in New York City? In the case of Cyrus R. Vance Jr. ’77, the obvious choice would have been to trade on his famous father’s name, as the elder Vance was Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. Instead, Vance’s path to the job of Manhattan District Attorney, an office he will assume on January 1st barring extraordinary circumstance, has been fairly unusual for that leading to a political position.
All you aspiring lawyers, listen up: you might end up working for him someday.
Of the number of prosecutors’ offices that operate under the umbrella of law enforcement in Manhattan, the District Attorney’s Office is the largest and most important, handling approximately 100,000 criminal cases per year. Vance will be the first new district attorney in 35 years, following the legendary Robert Morgenthau.
Yale friends portray him as down-to-earth, “a real, first-class guy,” said Liz Hillyer ’78. During his time here, Vance would paint houses over the summer to pay for his college tuition. Watson Blair ’77, who attended both Groton and Yale with him, emphasized Vance’s personable nature. “He’s always been high principled, well-liked, very popular.”
Friends remember him singing, just sitting down at the piano in Berkeley and playing.
Vance grew up immersed in politics. His first memory of politics is of helping on Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign as an 8-years old. “I’ve always been involved as an active citizen, in helping others on their campaigns,” he said. “But at Yale it wasn’t in my mind that I’d someday run for District Attorney.”
If anything, Vance avoided the flash of political celebrity at Yale. Yet, despite his avoidance of politics on campus, the nature of the early 70s dictated civil engagement. “We were a community of youth with a considerable amount of power,” Blair said, adding that Vance most likely attended White House dinners with his long hair.
According to Blair, who is a lawyer in Seattle, one of the most popular choices after college was law school. “The aspiration
was to do good; none of us conceived of these private practices where people make tons of money.”
With this seed of public service planted by his upbringing and watered by the times, Vance graduated from Yale in 1977 and went to work for a shipping and oil company based in Greenwich, CT, a job which took him to West Africa for a number of years. He put himself through law school with his earnings and graduated
with a degree from Georgetown Law School in 1982, unsure of his next step. He had realized early on, he said, that a career like his father’s in foreign policy was not for him.
At his father’s suggestion, Vance applied for a job as an Assistant District Attorney of Manhattan. He was chosen for a post, and soon after realized that it was exactly where he wanted to be.
“I didn’t have much of a concept of what District Attorneys did,” he recounted
when I spoke with him in June 2008, “but when I went out and talked to the office and understood that this was very much working in the courtroom all the time, working for the city, with police learning how to try cases, how to deliver your talents as a lawyer in service to the county, I thought it was great.”
Vance spent six years in the District Attorney’s office, trying everything from organized crime to white-collar crime cases. “Cyrus communicates very well with the average person,” Blair told me, “and I think he learned that skill in the DA’s office,” citing the fact that he would have New York City policemen over for dinner. He continued, “cops were as much friends of his as his Yale classmates.”
“My time in the District Attorney’s office during the early 1980s was both informative and formative,” Vance told me, saying it had been “the most powerful part of my career so far.” When he left in 1988, he said, he was determined one day to return and seek the District Attorney position.
In the meantime, wishing to break from their East-coast roots, he and his family moved to Seattle, Washington. There he furthered his law experience and co-founded the firm of McNaul, Ebel, Nawrot, and Vance. He also served, by gubernatorial appointment, as Special Assistant Attorney General and on the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Committee.
Upon his return to New York City, he joined Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer, a white-collar litigation
firm, as a Principal for four years.
The first campaign issue to be resolved was whether or not Robert Morgenthau would seek re-election for a tenth term. Although Morgenthau is 90 years old — according to an aide, a campaign slogan would have been “90 in ’09” — the legendary District Attorney gave no hint that he wanted to leave the post he has so shaped since 1975.
Vance had determined not to run against his former boss but had been fundraising since early 2008 in order to be ready to run if Mr. Morgenthau was not. The campaign essentially began with Mr. Morgenthau’s announcement in late February 2009 that he would not seek re-election.
Cy’s our guy! Cy’s our guy!” The cheers ring out with such enthusiasm
that Vance has trouble silencing the room before offering his extensive thanks to all who helped with the campaign.
It’s seven months later, the night of September 15th, and Vance has just answered a “gracious” phone call from Leslie Crocker Snyder, conceding defeat.
Vance won the Democratic primary for the election with 44% of the vote, a substantial margin over the competition. Leslie Crocker Snyder, a former judge who had challenged Morgenthau in the 2005 election and lost, came up with 30%, and Richard Aborn, a gun-control advocate, had 26%.
Although Aborn has a spot on the Working Families Party’s ballot for the November election, he has said he would support the winner of the Democratic ticket, thus practically ensuring Mr. Vance’s election in a competition without a Republican contender.
Vance had not always been the favored candidate. His campaign was “slow to pick up steam,” in his words. What worked well in the courtroom worked less well on the campaign trail. Coming from a profession based primarily on talking to others about themselves, Vance suffered the transition to becoming a politician.
When I caught up with him in late September 2009, Vance listed off the things he believes he did not do as effectively
as he could have at the beginning of his campaign. “There is certainly a learning curve, and I certainly had a steep learning curve. Having to sell [myself] in a very aggressive way was new to me, and took some time to adjust to,” he said.
This difficulty, however, lent itself to a remarkably issue-based campaign on Vance’s part. He continued, “I kept my eye on a couple of simple principles during
the course of the campaign that I really think ultimately worked; I believed that what I needed first was to build a set of policies that would guide the next generation of the DA’s office, were I to be DA.”
Vance ran on a 4-pronged platform: that everyone is entitled to the law’s full protection; that white-collar crime should be investigated and prosecuted as vigorously as street crimes; that all crimes should be prosecuted objectively; and that the Office must attract and develop attorneys,
investigators, and support staff that “reflect the full diversity of Manhattan’s communities.”
His platform is held together by the concept of “community-based justice.” That means being “not just tough, but smart on crime,” becoming more engaged out in the field, understanding what crimes are being committed in which communities
and “working hand in hand with community
organizations, police, and parole and developing a specific strategy for each community.”
One of Vance’s biggest hurdles was overcoming the image of him as the privileged, “establishment” candidate, backed by what opponent Leslie Crocker Snyder called “the old boys’ network,” namely Morgenthau himself.
The campaign’s response was to continue its focus on policy. Vance visited
neighborhood after neighborhood
in Manhattan, from Harlem to Chinatown, to talk about his vision and make it relevant to each. Instead of presenting his “Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women, Children, and Intimate Partners” at City Hall or on the Upper East Side, he unveiled it with Gloria Steinem in Harlem, where the majority of domestic violence cases are reported, and where he has proposed opening a Family Justice Center.
Erin Duggan, Vance’s press secretary, remembers Steinem’s endorsement, based solely on the prosecutor’s vision for the office, as a turning point in the campaign.
“Cy and Gloria had not met before the summer, and with a woman running in the race Gloria, weighed whether she should even be involved for some time. The Plan to Prevent Violence [Against Women] was one of Cy’s first major policy pieces, and the strong response it generated
reinforced that to win, we should keep ourselves focused on the issues and policies, and not get caught up in petty political bickering.”
By late spring, attention from the press gained momentum and added endorsement
after endorsement to Vance’s platform.
The list of these endorsements is long: The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, Amsterdam News, El Diario, Jewish Press, Crain’s New York Business, multiple labor unions including the United Federation of Teachers, community leaders, democratic
clubs, prominent members of the legal community, New York Democrats, Steinem, and New York State Senator Tom Duane, among many others.
Morgenthau also contributed his endorsement, stating his firm belief that Vance is capable to fill his shoes in the office. “He’ll change it, and he should, but he’ll also keep the core of excellence,” the District Attorney proclaimed on election night.
The morning after the election, Vance appeared on Fox 5’s “Good Day New York.” Greg Kelly, the show’s host, asked: “Did you ever imagine,at that time [as an assistant district attorney], that you were the next District Attorney of Manhattan County?”
“Well not in any realistic way,” Vance laughed, then added, a small smile on his face, “I will say this, by way of confession: I think anyone who’s worked in the District Attorney’s office probably believes that the best job in the world is Manhattan DA.”