By Lily Wolfson
New York City, New York
Tali Farhadian Weinstein is running for Manhattan District Attorney. She was born in Tehran and fled to America in 1979 due to the violence and anti-Semitism of revolutionary Iran. Her family’s legal proceedings were handled by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for a decade until she and her family became American citizens.
She earned degrees from Yale College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School. Weinstein then was a law clerk for Judge Merrick Garland at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and at the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She also worked at the U.S Department of Justice as Counsel to Attorney General Eric Holder and as a federal prosecutor. Weinstein was most recently the General Counsel of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. She has taught immigration law and policy at Columbia Law School and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law at NYU Law School. Weinstein is also the mother of three girls.
What is your reaction to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election? Where do we go from here?
My reaction to the presidential election is a mix of elation, relief and a little bit of nail biting because it’s not completely over, and I’m deeply concerned that the current president and some of his supporters seem to really be undermining the democratic process in what they’ve had to say so far about the results of the election.
You were born in Iran and came to America in 1979 to flee anti-Semitism. Can you speak a bit about the time you spent living in Iran?
I was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, into a Jewish family. The Jews of Iran are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. The story of Queen Esther obviously takes place in Iran. My family in Iran came from all different parts of the country, so on the one hand, my father was from Isfahan, which is an ancient city in Iran, and grew up first in a house without electricity––really in a very modest family. His father was a cloth peddler. His parents had nine children, whereas my mother grew up in the city, and my grandmother was one of the first women in Iran to go to graduate school. They came together, and they had started this young family in Iran. My mother was working in the government in the equivalent of a health and human services ministry. She was a biostatistician, and my father was an engineer, and then everything really came apart. Now we know what the outcome was with the theocracy that is in Iran right now, but, before, there was this interim period of just chaos where lots of different groups were vying for control, and what that meant for people in their ordinary lives was just a kind of instability and violence that I think can be really hard for us to imagine here in America. My parents decided to move into my grandparents’ house in Tehran so that we could all be together, and little by little, they really just made the decision to not go outside unless absolutely necessary. I remember my maternal grandfather, who’s now deceased, telling me that whenever he and my dad would go outside to get something or to buy food, they would tape cash to their stomachs, so in case they met somebody who wanted to harm them or kidnap them or whatnot, they could pay them off. Then one day, our next door neighbors disappeared and never came back, and I think that that was particularly traumatic and sort of a call to action for my parents.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped your family become American citizens over the course of a decade. Did the lawyers at the HIAS help pique your interest in law?
I didn’t understand a whole lot of what was happening in terms of our legal proceedings in that decade, but I always heard about HIAS in our house, and I knew that they were sort of these guardian angels for us. I don’t think I knew what pro bono was or all of the other vocabulary that I can give it now, but certainly I grew up with an idea of a good lawyer who was taking time to make somebody else’s life better, to secure fundamental rights for us, and they really saw us through our asylum claim, which went on for a very long time until we got amnesty in the late ’80s.
While combating crime, how will you hold members of law enforcement accountable when necessary?
This is a very basic concept. It’s integral to our democracy, and it’s integral to our trust in law enforcement––this concept that we are all equal under the law. I think that law enforcement accountability can take different forms. I started the Law Enforcement Accountability Bureau in Brooklyn, which was part of DA Eric Gonzalez’s vision for criminal justice reform, which he called “justice 2020.” We made this a stand alone bureau that investigated and prosecuted police officers when they committed crimes and also did a second thing where we kept track of the credibility of police officers and reasons why we might not think a certain person, regardless of the fact that he wore the uniform, could be a credible witness for us in court. One thing that I think is worth saying because it doesn’t get the attention that it should: we’ve been very focused as a country on violence by police officers, which is an important thing to think about, but I also think that we need to think about when police officers lie under oath and make false statements and commit what seem like small crimes but are crimes against the system. It’s actually incredibly consequential because it degrades people’s trust in law enforcement. So, I think a full picture of accountability also has to really include saying that “we’re not going to tolerate that either.”
Describe why you are running to be Manhattan’s District Attorney.
I’ve really spent my whole life, with some exceptions, in public service. I think now also our city is obviously really traumatized. The virus is hard on the whole country, but we really bore the brunt of it for a while here in New York City. While I was thinking of running for Manhattan DA before, I now feel even more that number one: people have to step up and lead if we’re going to get through this. It’s really not an option, in my mind, to sit on the sideline if you feel like there’s something that you can do in your own way to help us through this. Second, I think that now more than ever it feels really important to have able leaders with proven records in the right spots, not just in this spot, but throughout city government to help us at this inflection point. There are many other important things to do to make sure that we recover from the traumas of the virus, but surely safety and fairness are a part of it, a part of making New York even better than it was before.
Discuss any obstacles you’ve encountered.
I have tried to think about obstacles as fuel in the tank. There are still a lot of professions where the leadership of them is really male and especially as you climb up the ladder. In law school right now, there are more women than men, and yet, that is not reflected in the partnership of law firms, elected district attorneys around the country and in law enforcement. Being a woman in this world is going to come with obstacles, and when they happen to me, I’ve tried to say, “that’s fuel in the tank.” When someone thinks that I can’t do something or I’m not tough enough, that makes me more determined to do my part to change what leadership means in people’s minds and to model something different. I got to work for Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, and one of the things that she always used to say was, “it’s great to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last.” It was just a privilege to be around her and to see her brand of feminism.
What is your take on the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court?
I clerked for Merrick Garland before I was a law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, and I am to this day horrified and ashamed that our country treated his nomination in the way that it did in the Senate and that he was not given the hearing that he deserved, and I think he would have been a spectacular Supreme Court justice. I think that the circumstances of Justice Barrett’s confirmation were deeply problematic. It’s not that it was happening on the brink of an election; it was happening during an election. The election was well underway when she was confirmed, and the election bore out that the people really did want to see a change in the presidency, and I think that’s uncomfortable and problematic for the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as an institution. There are rules, and there are norms, and both of those things are very important, and this was a very parsimonious, technical reading of what the rules allow and wildly inconsistent with norms that are pro-democracy.
In the last year, crime in New York City has increased exponentially. Why are you the person to combat this?
The most concerning statistic to me in the rise in crime is the shocking increase in shootings. We’ve already had twice as many shootings this year as last year, and that includes the months of the pandemic when people were not supposed to even go outside. I think that we need to have a district attorney who says, “that is my first priority”––to take on gun violence. I think that for me, I need to draw on a lot of my experiences over time in different American legal institutions in order to get that right. I would start by taking on gun trafficking, which requires long-term investigations and working with the federal prosecutors and federal agents across jurisdictions. We live in a blue city in a blue state, so if a gun is here, it’s probably here illegally. I think it makes sense that you have to think about stemming the flow, and the flow is coming into the port authority, and it’s coming in cars up from the Southern states. You’re going to want a DA who knows how to do that. There are other statutes that I think that we need to be enforcing with vigor. For example, we know that sales of ghost guns have gone up in the pandemic all around the country, so these are guns that you can buy in parts, so the federal agency that regulates guns does not consider them to be guns. That’s really scary that these are untraceable, unregulated firearms. I think that we need to strictly enforce the laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Then I think we need to bring all our learning from other areas of criminal justice reform to also do different things that will advance public safety better than old-fashioned prosecution. One thing that I think about a lot that I’d like to bring to Manhattan is this program that was in the Brooklyn DA’s office, where I was just the General Counsel, for young people where if they were in possession of a gun, and it was their first offense, and they just possessed it––they didn’t brandish it or shoot it––the office offered them a program that was run by social workers that said if you agree to go through this rigorous tailor-made program that gives you what you need––mental health treatment, job training––then at the end, the charges against you will be dismissed.
What’s next for your campaign, and how are you dealing with campaigning in a pandemic?
A campaign is fundamentally about introducing yourself to voters, so they know who you are and so you know who they are and so you can listen to what they have to say what their ambitions are for this office because one of the amazing things about being the DA is the only people you answer to are the people, to the voters in shaping your agenda. We have to work really hard now to overcome the separation and the isolation. One of the things that I’m trying is that I have a podcast; I believe it’s the first of its kind for any campaign, and I think it would have been something really interesting to do anyway––to use this new medium to show who you are, how you think, who I keep counsel with, what are the questions that I find that are hard, do I know how to answer and ask the right questions, but I think especially now, I’m really interested to see if this is a successful way to get inside people’s ears and demonstrate really who I am and what my platform is about. It’s called “Hearing.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.