2021 elections

‘It’s Not Enough to Be Progressive. You Have to Have Been There.’

Tahanie Aboushi wants to be Manhattan DA after her own family was prosecuted.

Photo: Poupay Jutharat
Photo: Poupay Jutharat

The first time Manhattan district attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi stepped into a courtroom, her parents were on trial. Immigrants from Palestine, they owned a small grocery store in Sunset Park where they were arrested on charges that involved the sale of untaxed cigarettes. Her father would go on to serve 20 years in federal prison, leaving Aboushi, 14, and her nine siblings to face an uncertain future with her mother. “What drew me to become an attorney is seeing the power and the decisions and the authority present in that courtroom,” she told me this week in Harlem, where the 35-year-old lives. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to both of my parents,” she remembered. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and my siblings. The judge finally asked that question of the prosecutor. He interrupted the proceedings and said, ‘What are you going to do with all these kids?’ Pointing to us in the courtroom.”

The prosecutor was dismissive. “She was like, Oh, they’re not my problem. She kept it moving,” Aboushi said. Though she’s one of three DA candidates to have no experience prosecuting a case, she believes the powerful office could use an outsider. “Look, we’ve only ever had people with experience prosecuting cases in this office,” she pointed out during a walk through Marcus Garvey Park, hours before Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. “The role of the district attorney is beyond the easy function of prosecuting and incarcerating. You have to understand what the ripple effects are, because your decision goes far beyond the four corners of your office, and it impacts every single aspect of life.”

“For me, having been on the other end of a decision a prosecutor has made, I know what that’s like,” she added. People have to understand, she said, that “before it becomes about criminal conduct, there’s a series of instabilities that we’ve missed, that we’ve neglected.” She paused, briefly, as a neighborhood man called a greeting to her. “How are you?” she asked. “Good to see you.” We walked on and Aboushi continued, not missing a beat, “The hard thing to do is to make sure that we are addressing those instabilities, focusing on rehabilitation and preventative measures.”

A systematic approach to criminal justice is key to Aboushi’s pitch. She’s a proponent of decarceration and has said she backs the decriminalization of sex work and that she’d never seek cash bail, as it penalizes poverty. She’d also decline to prosecute recreational drug use and possession, among other charges that amount to “crimes of poverty, mental illness, sex work, and substance use disorder,” her website says. That platform recently earned her the dubious attention of Fox News, which observed dolefully that Aboushi had pledged “not to prosecute [a] long list of crimes.” In a video posted to her campaign’s Twitter account, Aboushi shrugged and said, “Where’s the lie, though?”

“I think Fox News evinces an opinion about a prosecutor that I think a lot of people have understood, which is that somebody does something bad and you prosecute them,” she told me. “There was harm done. You do extra harm to that person. And that’s what we think is accountability.” Aboushi believes there’s another way, that for too long there’s been one version of the law for the rich and another for everyone else.

She isn’t alone. Aboushi is one of eight Democratic candidates running to replace outgoing DA Cy Vance, who has decided not to seek a fourth term in office. Famous among liberals for his ongoing investigation into Donald Trump’s finances, Vance is also a controversial figure: He failed on several high-profile occasions to prosecute the wealthy and the powerful. His office passed on charging Harvey Weinstein for groping Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in 2015. Several years earlier, he’d reportedly dropped a fraud investigation into Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. In 2011, his office argued for Jeffrey Epstein to be atypically registered as a low-level sex offender. Whoever replaces Vance will take over the Trump investigation, one of the most consequential cases in the history of the office. They’ll also have an opportunity to transform the office and its relationship to power.

Several candidates, including Aboushi, are running significantly to Vance’s left. Aboushi recently won endorsements from Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman and the Working Families Party. Zephyr Teachout, the progressive former gubernatorial candidate, has endorsed Alvin Bragg, the former chief deputy attorney general for New York. A report from the Five Boro Defenders, a coalition of city-based public defenders, ranked Eliza Orlins and Dan Quart as the candidates who “would do the least amount of harm” as Manhattan’s next DA. The report is not an endorsement, but it does reflect a complicated reality for Aboushi and other left-leaning candidates. In such a crowded race, it’s hard for any single person to become the candidate of the left. “I think it’s not enough to be progressive any more. You have to have been there and walked in the shoes of those impacted by this office,” Aboushi said.

Aboushi knows she isn’t the only progressive candidate in the race. She stands out because of her experiences, she said, as well her record. Her family encouraged education, she said, knowing “it was that rope in not becoming a statistic.” She became an attorney, as did her older siblings. In 2010, she founded her own full-service law firm, where two of her siblings and a sister-in-law now work. (Her brother, Oday, is an offensive guard for the Los Angeles Chargers, and in 2013, was the subject of Islamophobic attacks from the right wing that were so egregious the Anti-Defamation League got involved on his behalf.) Aboushi represented Dounya Zayer, who was violently shoved to the ground and injured by a police officer during protests over the murder of George Floyd. She won a class-action settlement in 2018 on behalf of Muslim women forced by the NYPD to remove their hijabs for mug shots. The settlement changed the NYPD patrol guide to allow people in custody to wear their religious head coverings unless the item is somehow relevant to a crime. When Trump’s Muslim ban came into effect in 2017, Aboushi went to work, co-leading a team of lawyers that spent four days filing habeas petitions to liberate people suddenly detained by Customs and Border Protection.

Aboushi herself is Muslim and wears a hijab, and she believes Islamophobia can influence certain criticisms of her platform. Fox, she observed, also “came for Ilhan, and they came for Rashida. Anybody that that stands up and shows Islam or Muslims in a positive light, in a leadership role.” Combine that with progressive policies, she added, and it’s “the perfect bait for a place like Fox News.” But Aboushi is undeterred. She believes her experiences, including her brushes with prejudice, allow her to connect more deeply with constituents. “When I talk to people and they hear about my father’s circumstances and the adversity that I’ve navigated, there’s an automatic trust there,” she said. “They think, Okay, she’s one of us. We don’t have to convince her of our humanity. And that’s what’s been missing from this office for a long time — you have to understand that these are families that you are making decisions for.”

Recent polling from Tulchin Research suggests that Aboushi’s approach has a constituency. Though most voters remain undecided, Tulchin shows Aboushi leading the crowd in a dead heat with Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who has amassed a massive fundraising lead, much of it from hedge funds. Aboushi, again, isn’t fazed by the apparent obstacle of Weinstein’s war chest. Nor is she intimidated by the scale of the task she’s set for herself.

Even if she wins, she’ll have to transform the culture of the DA’s office, and that, as other progressive reformers have learned, is not easy. Larry Krasner had also never prosecuted a case before becoming Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017. Within his first week on the job, Krasner had fired 31 prosecutors in order to hire reform-minded replacements; several prosecutors later sued him, alleging race and age discrimination. More than 150 former prosecutors recently signed a letter endorsing Krasner’s primary opponent. Vance’s current roster may present a challenge for any reform candidate, whether it’s Aboushi or one of her opponents. Reform also invites a war with the NYPD, the very department the DA’s office relies on to prosecute crimes.

Aboushi said she knows it’ll be difficult to reform the DA’s office, too. “But that’s the whole point of running. We’re not here to tweak,” she told me as we walked one final lap through the park. “I didn’t jump in this race because it’s a stepping stone in my career. I jumped into this race because we’re having this historic national conversation about police accountability and systemic racism without actually talking about changing our policies. And we are in the moment to do it.”

‘It’s Not Enough to Be Progressive’