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In Brooklyn, a Prosecutor Finds Losing Ultra-Orthodox Support Might Cost His Job

Joe Hynes faces an unprecedented electoral defeat after longtime Jewish supporters leave his side

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Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes appears at a press conference in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008, where he spoke about three New York police officers charged with participating in a sexual assault on a subway platform in October. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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It was in his defense of Kol Tzedek that Hynes managed to alienate the Orthodox community. ”I haven’t seen this kind of intimidation in organized crime cases or police corruption,” Hynes said in one interview, explaining why Kol Tzedek was necessary. Hynes claimed that as soon as a defendant’s name came up, community leaders “would engage this community in a relentless search for the victims,” Hynes said in another. “And they’re very, very good at identifying the victims. And then the victims would be intimidated and threatened, and the case would fall apart.”

Last year, Hynes made comments during and after the trial of Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed counselor and spiritual mentor who was convicted of 59 counts of sexual abuse and sentenced to 103 years in prison, that particularly rankled members of the community. The week of Weberman’s sentencing, Hynes wrote an op-ed in the Daily News comparing the intimidation of abuse victims in Orthodox communities to “the Mafia, but at least in Mafia cases we can offer victims witness protection. That does not work in these insular communities, where it is more difficult to leave behind friends and family and go into hiding.” The language Hynes chose reinforced the idea that he was, in a sense, putting the community on trial. “Hynes used the Hasidic way of life to secure a conviction,” said one community member who now supports Thompson. “He started going crazy on the community. He goes out there and uses radioactive terms. He really pissed off a lot of people. It’s the way you prosecute that is the sticking point.”

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Thompson, 48, is best known for representing the Hotel Sofitel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician and former IMF chief, of sexually assaulting her at the hotel. His campaign has been predicated on a vision of “fairness and equality for all.” When we spoke last week, Thompson cited as an example of a lack of fairness the revelation that Hynes’ office had wrongfully convicted a man of murder, prompting the review of 50 cases.

In the primary, Thompson attracted the backing of Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic congressman who represents a swath of Brooklyn that includes both Borough Park and newly gentrified Red Hook—which may have helped Thompson secure support in secular Jewish precincts. “The Democrats in the borough have changed in many ways,” said Fidler. “A good portion of the African Americans are not aware of the heroic things Joe did before he became D.A., and they aren’t aware of the progressive measures he took as a prosecutor.”

Hynes did himself no favors by agreeing to appear in a CBS reality show about his office, Brooklyn D.A. Aside from drawing objections from the Thompson campaign, which argued that it amounted to free campaign advertising, the show brought further attention to the wrongful convictions in his office. (The Hynes campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Thompson also won the support of Dov Hikind, the state assemblyman and Orthodox kingmaker, who very publicly endorsed Hynes’ challenger, leading him around Borough Park and encouraging people to vote for him. (Hikind did not respond to requests for comment.) Hikind’s district nevertheless went to Hynes by about four to one, but voting was down citywide, including in Brooklyn, according to the veteran political consultant Jerry Skurnick.

Yet, since his primary loss, Hynes has lost the support of even his closest Orthodox allies. Fidler, his longtime friend, switched his endorsement to Thompson, his fellow Democrat, after Hynes initially indicated he wouldn’t make a run as a Republican. “I honor my commitments,” Fidler said.

Similarly, both Satmar sects have endorsed Thompson, though Hynes attracted the support of the Ahrony sect of the Satmar community during the primary. Hynes continues to shed leaders of the Orthodox community. Next Monday, Leon Goldenberg and Abe Biderman—leaders of the Agudath Israel—will host a breakfast for Thompson.

Nevertheless, Hynes continues to make personal appeals to his former allies. Recently, the D.A. was quoted as saying in response to the Satmar endorsement of Thompson, “There’s no religious mandate that would prevent you from rethinking your endorsement.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the breakfast leaders of the Agudath Israel are hosting for Thompson will take place on Monday, Oct. 28. It has not already been held.

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In Brooklyn, a Prosecutor Finds Losing Ultra-Orthodox Support Might Cost His Job

Joe Hynes faces an unprecedented electoral defeat after longtime Jewish supporters leave his side

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