She’s a prosecutor, a professor and a criminal justice reformer. She’s also an immigrant, a daughter, a wife and the mother of three girls. Tali Farhadian Weinstein is running for Manhattan D.A., the office that prosecutes violations of New York state laws and an office that – in its over 200 year history – has never been run by a woman.
Tali came to the United States in 1979 at the age of three, having fled the violence and anti-Semitism of revolutionary Iran. She went on to earn degrees from Yale College, Oxford University and Yale Law School, and was a Law Clerk for Judge Merrick B. 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. In a nut shell, she’s a political rockstar who’s looking to reform the criminal justice system and improve New York’s most serious threats, like gun violence, sex and hate crimes and violence against women. As election cycle hits full swing, we sat down with Tali to discuss New York’s most pressing issues, her plans to implement change and how she’ll never take her freedom for granted.
So what has it been like staging a full scale election campaign during Covid-19?
It was not how I envisioned a campaign for office. In the end I launched it from my apartment while my husband was in a different room on his computer. But, like everyone these days, we are both trying to get through it. I’m also trying to hold onto what might turn out better than before, what might stay with us across institutions – from courts, to schools, to businesses. Maybe it’s just a human instinct that we have to get something good out of all of this. Even with the criminal justice system. During Covid-19, the justice system had to do less because it was physically dangerous to meet, and in that period we needed to reflect on and learn from what we can actually do virtually. It was such a challenging time but perhaps we can all unlock a different way of learning and thinking.
Tell me about your professional journey so far that has led to this moment. What are some of the most inspiring moments in that journey?
I can tell you I’ve thought about Justice O’Connor very much with the recent passing of Justice Ginsberg. It hit me much harder than I thought it would. Through her loss, it took me back to how much I learned from Justice O’Connor on how to be a lawyer and the fundamental pursuit of justice, as well as how to be a woman in this profession and how to integrate all of those things.
I understand you fled Iran at the age of three. How did your childhood shape your ascension into the legal world, if at all?
I was always aware of the United States as a place of safety and opportunity. My parents sacrificed a lot to bring me here so I could have that safety and support. They didn’t take anything for granted amidst the chaos of life in Iran. I grew up admiring this country, so it led to my impulse to be a public servant. I do connect that desire to the experiences of my childhood.
What do you think are the biggest issues framing New York right now?
The issues now are the same as pre-pandemic, except that Covid-19 brought so much into sharper vision and has forced us to work harder. I want to take on gender-based violence. We knew that domestic violence was a serious crisis in New York before people were locked in with their abusers. So I think we need to double our efforts now. Before Covid-19, the police department received almost a quarter-million calls per year from abused women, and that probably wasn’t even half of the victims. Likewise with gun violence, it’s so devastating. The toll gun violence has taken in the last six months and over the summer is staggering. We’ve already surpassed the number of shootings from last year and the year isn’t over. The core mission of this office is to deliver on safety for everyone – no matter who you are and where you live, so we can all thrive and flourish and be who we want to be in the world.
We knew that domestic violence was a serious crisis in New York before people were locked in with their abusers. So I think we need to double our efforts now.
Does being a mother impact your work and your view of this role?
I’d like to think being a mother has enhanced my view of the world in every way. It’s hard to separate it from who I am and how I see everything. I was recently in a conversation with someone asking me questions about my trajectory and my career. She asked me when I had kids. I told her I had three children as a federal prosecutor. I was prosecuting murders and gang cases while eight months pregnant. She said, “Now I know you actually have the stamina to do this job.” I think as women we sometimes take for granted what it means to be balancing all of these responsibilities. Had she not asked me, I would have never thought it was so remarkable because of course people are parenting and fulfilling responsibilities everyday, but we have expected much more of women. That’s obvious of course.
I would imagine, as a mother, you bring a great deal of empathy to the justice system.
I talk about empathy a lot. I harken back to being an immigrant kid in our country. On my first night in the United States, at JFK airport, the first American we met was a law enforcement officer. He approached my family with empathy and compassion, even though we likely had fake visas and he could have easily turned us around and deported us on the spot. So I do think it’s important. I’ve prosecuted murder cases and I’ve done tough things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t approach a murder case without empathy and compassion and vulnerability. Our community does better when humanity is in full force. But I’m of two minds about the idea of empathy and how people associate that with being a mother and a woman. What I really want to say is that all of us – both men and women should be drawing on our humanity when we do this work. To say that’s a special insight that mothers have, as much as I understand it, is asking too little of everyone else.
Absolutely. So speaking of women, and seeing how we recently lost RBG, are you frightened by the potential reversals in women’s maternal health and healthcare rights in our country?
It’s disheartening that we are not on stable ground when it comes to the advancement of women’s equality. I recently saw an article in The 19th about how big the gap was in the Trump administration between men and women, and how much that gap exists across industries. I feel very much aware that being a female candidate is different. It’s just a fact that you hear things you’d never hear as a male. I’m not the first to observe that there’s never a perfect time for a woman to enter politics. She’s either too old or too young. She has too much experience or not enough. It’s always out there. Covid-19 started and I was asked, “Are you sure you should run for office? There’s so much upheaval with the kids out of school.” And I’d say, “Well we still need a D.A.” There’s actually never been a woman in this office. That is also true of other important offices throughout the country. Less than 20 percent of elected prosecutors are women.
Covid-19 started and I was asked, ‘Are you sure you should run for office? There’s so much upheaval with the kids out of school.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, we still need a D.A.’
Where do you see your career going? Where do you hope to be in 10 to 20 years?
I really want to do this job and, while I don’t think anyone is entitled to stay in this job forever, I think the work of transforming a D.A.’s office is a long term project. I’d be honored to do it for a really long time.
What are you doing when you’re not working?
Well none of us are going to the birthday parties that once filled our days, but my husband and I, our approach has been to do nothing on the weekends and not have obligations. We both work so hard during the week. Before the pandemic, we were away from our kids so much during the week. Any lessons or obligations they had were squeezed into the week. But we like to go to the park. We like to spend time with each other. I once read that the greatest way to give confidence to kids is for them to know you really like hanging out with them. It’s not about enjoying the activity or doing something productive, but that you think being on the couch together is a really great thing to do. We try to hold onto that on weekends and do very little, which of course is a huge privilege just taking that time off. The goal is to do nothing with my kids.