Cy Vance Jr. has yet to be sworn into office, and already he’s facing a gauntlet that will test his nascent political skills and define his first term. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars, the morale and reach of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and the legacy of his political maker, Bob Morgenthau. Not the easiest way to start the job.
Last week, Mayor Bloomberg all but declared war on the D.A.’s office, accusing the venerable Morgenthau of keeping “two sets of books” and using a portion of settlement fees he collects in the course of prosecutions to supplement his office’s funding. While this is a Morgenthau practice — splitting the millions of fine money between the city and state — Bloomberg now feels that the city, which supplies the lion’s share of the D.A.’s office’s funding, deserves all the money it collects from criminals.
In retaliation, Morgenthau went after Bloomberg for his “chickenshit comments” and attempt at a “failed power grab.”
So far, Vance’s response on the budget issues has been to keep quiet. Throughout the campaign, he styled himself a lawyer’s lawyer who was interested more in criminal-justice policy than in building up an army of political allies. Early on, in meetings with elected officials, Vance was such an underwhelming force that despite having a rabbi like Morgenthau burn up the phone lines for him, many politicos flocked to his opponents. Inside the D.A.’s office, many wonder if Vance can learn how to play the game.
“He will learn soon that this is very much a political job,” says Bill Lynch Sr., the Harlem consultant who advised Vance. “When something goes wrong, he’ll find out.”
As for Vance, he isn’t interested in generating headlines. “He’s not publicity driven,” says one source close to him.
But how can Vance define himself as D.A. when so many other elected officials are, and how will he handle these tensions when he takes office next month? Challenge Bloomberg in the same public way as Morgy? Or cut a quiet deal that placates everybody?
“Whatever happens will have phenomenally huge implications,” says one former prosecutor. “This is not Bloomberg pissing on the boss’s shoes — this is Bloomberg firing a warning shot. This is Bloomberg testing the mettle of the new kid.”