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Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau

If there’s a case to be made against Morgenthau, it isn’t about incompetence or dementia. It’s about grandstanding, inertia, and a stubborn lack of innovation. First, there’s Wall Street overkill. The banking cases where Morgenthau made his name leave some people cold. Only 80 of the office’s 460 attorneys work on white-collar crime, but they use a third of the entire office’s budget. The prosecutions against Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, which ended in mistrial, and last week’s acquittal on all counts of Tyco counsel Mark Belnick, ate up months and thousands of dollars in investigative work. And like many of Morgenthau’s banking cases, critics believe they didn’t belong in a local court in the first place. “I guess they were challenging Kozlowski’s compensation as excessive,” says Roger Stavis, a prominent defense attorney who handles terrorism cases. “And that was six months of trial time. What resources do you spend on that—and how does it affect New York?”

Then there’s the Morgenthau-as-empty-suit argument: Observers say Morgenthau spends more time than he used to on the eighth floor of 1 Hogan Place and less time visiting the trial bureaus, and his inner circle is given more liberty than ever to run the place, sometimes with disastrous results. Trial Division chief Nancy Ryan’s power struggles with Chief Assistant D.A. James Kindler are legendary; her firearms-trafficking unit and his homicide-investigations unit fight over cases constantly. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of who screams the longest,” says one assistant D.A.

There’s also the stuck-in-the-seventies argument. In Brooklyn, D.A. Charles Hynes has a policy of handing over all discovery materials immediately without filing motions, so the courts won’t be clogged. In Manhattan, many lawyers say cases percolate for months before defense attorneys get everything. Just last week, defense lawyers in the 1990 Palladium homicide case filed an explosive brief accusing Morgenthau’s office of withholding key information that could have exonerated two convicted murderers.

Finally, even some admirers say that Morgenthau should bow out for political reasons. If he doesn’t finish out his term, the argument goes, George Pataki gets to appoint someone to replace him.

“Bullshit,” Morgenthau says. “I mean, they’re ignoring the fact that the governor can put somebody in, but then there has to be a special election. When Hogan died, Governor Wilson appointed Dick Kuh, and he served for nine months.”

This Morgenthau knows from personal experience: He soundly beat Kuh in the special election in 1974 and has kept the job ever since.

In 1972, Manny Celler, an 84-year-old New York congressman who had been in office for 49 years, got his clock cleaned by Liz Holtzman in a primary. In 1980, an upstart named Al D’Amato ended 76-year-old Jacob Javits’s 24-year career in the Senate. So there’s a precedent for a deeply entrenched incumbent getting bounced. But how do you do it without seeming like you’re picking on an old guy?

In the past few D.A. races, the pattern has been for people to allow their names to be floated in hopes that Morgenthau wouldn’t run. They’ve all been disappointed. This time around, State Senator Eric Schneiderman and former Corrections chief Catherine Abate are said to have expressed interest, as has former Giuliani deputy Randy Mastro. But one perennial candidate isn’t waiting.

Leslie Crocker Snyder won’t formally announce until next year, but the operative word there is formally. She’s already raised a half-million dollars in campaign funds (Morgenthau has collected $850,000), and she speaks almost as if she’s entitled to the job. “Frankly, I’ve devoted my whole life to law enforcement and criminal justice,” she says. “I believe I’m the best person qualified.”

The 62-year-old criminal-court judge began her career as a prosecutor, co-authoring the state’s rape-shield law and starting the D.A.’s sex-crimes office a few months before Morgenthau arrived. As a judge, she oversaw a special division that handled the city’s most dangerous criminals and gangs, and endured death threats while presiding over the Wild Cowboys trial. Last year, she left the bench for private practice and signed on as a legal analyst for NBC News.

If Morgenthau is the dean of white-collar fraud, Snyder is positioning herself as a street-crime fighter. She wrote a tough-on-crime memoir called 25 to Life, and in her office she has a posterboard mock-up of a campaign ad in which she stands defiantly next to blurbs from the newspapers praising her courage. She’s not afraid to make an issue of Morgenthau’s refusal to retire. “I don’t know what’s so great about staying in office for life,” she says. “I was joking with a friend of mine that I could have a campaign button saying i will resign by 79.” Yet she knows better than to attack the age question directly. Instead, she speaks in thinly veiled code about time passing Morgenthau by. “Things have changed so much since 9/11,” she says. “They’re so different now from when Richard Nixon was in office. There’s the Internet, identity theft, child porn. The main thing is, this is the 21st century. We need new ideas.”