Cyrus Vance Jr.: From Seattle to Trump Legal Tormentor

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One of the key national figures in the coming year will be Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney whose office has been investigating Trump business dealings for years. New President Joe Biden is likely to avoid bringing federal charges against Trump & Co., in keeping with his theme of “healing.”

Depending on Trump’s pardons, the legal action against Trump might be at the federal level, where the legal paths are smoother. But most likely the legal fireworks in bringing Trump to justice will be at the city level (Vance’s office) or with New York State Attorney General Letitia James.

As it happens, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, son of Jimmy Carter’s dovish Secretary of State, had a prolonged Seattle connection, moving here in 1988 from his native New York City and decamping back to Manhattan in 2004, where he was elected DA in 2009. In Seattle, lawyer Vance raised his family, did a lot of snowboarding, founded a law firm (McNaul Ebel Nawrot Helgren & Vance) specializing in white collar cases, taught at Seattle U. School of Law, impressed friends with his formidable energy, directness, fine clothes, and thorough mastery of complex cases. 

Vance is “tough as nails,” says one attorney who worked with him and opposed him on big cases here. He compiled a long record of dealing with complicated white-collar cases with his trademark blend of charm, clarity, and meticulous preparation. Those who know Vance well from his Seattle years consider him ideally prepared to take on Trump in the complex litigation his DA office may bring (likely focused on tax fraud, insurance fraud, and money laundering issues).

But there’s a hitch. Vance, 66, is still undecided about running for a new term in 2021, has already drawn some opponents and has raised very little money for a reelection campaign. The betting is he won’t seek a new term, and even if he ran again there are some significant liabilities stemming from his controversial decisions not to press charges in some high-visibility sex-abuse cases involving Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Vance came to Seattle to establish himself, independent of his famous father. The senior Vance was strongly opposed to the Seattle move. “As we packed the car outside our apartment to head west,” Vance recalled in written responses to me, his father “pulled me aside and said, ‘Cy, you are raising the white flag on your career.’  Not exactly a warm embrace before departing!”

Even so, Vance found his Seattle years an ideal way to raise his family, develop a strong legal practice in complex litigation, and move in social circles, particularly by becoming co-chair of the Symphony Board at a delicate time. “In truth, moving to Seattle was a wonderful and life-broadening experience for me personally and professionally,” Vance observed.  “I am quite sure that were it not for the breadth of experiences I had in my 16 years in Seattle, I would never have developed the specific goals I had in criminal justice that enabled me to be a successful candidate for district attorney when I returned to New York.”

I asked Vance if he had considered entering political life here, which seems like a missed opportunity for the region. He says he applied to be U.S. Attorney, which went nowhere fast with the Bush 43 administration (Vance is a lifelong Democrat). The kind of legal work he undertook was exhausting, and so he cut a lesser public figure than might be expected.  

Vance wrote: “I loved the Seattle work culture! I loved the ability I had in Seattle to work hard with a great group of lawyers in a fun practice and be able to be home in the evenings with our kids and to take them to school in the morning. And I loved regular weekend trips to snowboard at Mount Baker with my son, Simon. Had I remained in New York City as an associate fighting my way to partnership, I’m sure I would not have had that time with our kids, which meant a great deal to me.”

His one high-profile assignment was serving as co-chair of the Seattle Symphony board, after longtime board member Alexandra Brookshire, also an attorney, asked Vance to share the duties of chair. It turned out to be a hot seat.

The previous Symphony co-chairs, Jerry Grinstein and Henry James, had opened sticky succession negotiations with conductor and music director Gerard Schwarz, who had served in that post since 1985, rather long for many musicians’ taste. The managing director at the time was an ambitious and very forthright rising star named Deborah Card [now Deborah Rutter], who had arrived in 1992 from running the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The forceful Card determined to catapult the Seattle Symphony to major status and wanted a different conductor.  Board co-chair Grinstein says he made some progress and had a shaky understanding of succession plans, but never a firm deal, given the sour relations between Card and Schwarz.

That dicey situation was inherited by Vance and Brookshire, who tried and failed to resolve the matter. The board, anxious because of Schwarz’s formidable ability to raise funds but eager to respond to the musicians’ desire for new leadership, was split. The situation, recalls Brookshire, became “kinda nuclear,” a classic instance of how nonprofit boards edge up to and then shy away from risky change. Card, frustrated at the impasse, decamped to a prestigious position as president of the Chicago Symphony (2003-14), and is now president of the Kennedy Center in D.C..  Schwarz stepped down in 2011, after having been the orchestra’s conductor for 26 years and raising the money to build Benaroya Hall. The long leadership irresolution was costly to the Symphony in financial, artistic, and morale terms, that wouldn’t be healed until after Leslie Chihuly became a highly effective board chair, 2009-19.

For Brookshire, the whole episode was “agonizing,” and the co-chairs declined to seek a second two-year term. Vance was and remains much less ruffled by the power struggle, and continues to socialize a bit with the Schwarzes in New York and to praise Schwarz as a talented conductor and “prodigious fundraiser.” Vance says, “Gerry helped put the Seattle Symphony on the world map.” 

Since Vance left town shortly after his Symphony board service, I asked if he decided to move back to Manhattan in part because of that experience. Apparently not — the main incentive for the move, he says, was to  honor his wife Peg’s desire to be closer to her many East Coast relatives. “It was indeed time to return ‘home,’ not only because of Peg, but because my father had passed away recently, and my mother and one sister were in poor health.  It was ‘a time to gather stones together,’ as it said somewhere in the scriptures.”

Vance has enjoyed considerable success as the Manhattan DA, a hugely sensitive position and now likely even more so because of possible Trump litigation. Vance proved himself a powerful fundraiser and attractive candidate. In 2009, Vance succeeded the legendary Robert Morganthau in the high-profile post. Vance had worked in Morganthau’s shop shortly after graduating from Georgetown Law; other distinguished graduates of the Morganthau DA office include Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

If Vance chooses not to run again for Manhattan DA, what might lie ahead for this highly effective lawyer and public servant? Back to Seattle, maybe? “I will always want to keep my relationships with lawyers in Seattle, with whom I shared a close professional and often personal relationship, in the hope that down the road we’ll be working on something again together.  I doubt I will move back to Seattle, but I could certainly see partnering with them from here in New York,” he says.

Seattle has definitely become a talent magnet since the days when Vance’s father thought it folly for his son to move here. But Vance is also one that got away.

1 COMMENT

  1. Cyrus Vance Jr. sounds like he has the right background to run for Washington State Attorney General or King County Prosecutor. Do you know why he DIDN’T press charges in sex-abuse cases involving Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

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