The DA

Meet Dan Donovan, the Prosecutor Who Let Eric Garner’s Killer Walk

To understand why NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo got off, just look at who’s laying down the law on Staten Island.

12.05.14 10:55 PM ET

New York City has one mayor, two other citywide elected officials, 10 borough-wide elected officials, 51 City Council members, several dozen state lawmakers, and a dozen members of Congress representing its 8 million people.

And nearly all have been mugging for the cameras in the hours after a grand jury declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the strangulation of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who attracted police attention for selling single cigarettes.

All that is, except for Dan Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney who failed to win the indictment, and failed too to use the opportunity to get his face before the television cameras. Donovan, a four-term DA, is in many ways the anti-Bob McCulloch, the Ferguson, Missouri, district attorney, who used a similar moment to launch a prime-time diatribe against the media, social or otherwise.

Even those who have been leading protests against the verdict have praised Donovan.

“Personally, Dan Donovan and I are friends. I try to separate the job that he has done and our friendship,” said Debi Rose, a liberal city council member from Staten Island’s urban north shore. “In this particular instance, I find that because of the DA’s relationship with the police department, that outcome wasn’t surprising.”

To understand Donovan, and to understand how the Garner grand jury could reach the verdict, it is first necessary to understand something about Staten Island. Officially a borough of New York City, although it wants to deny it, Staten Island voted Republican in the 2013 mayor’s race, though Democrat Bill de Blasio won citywide by nearly 50 points. It is a place where its lone congressional representative, Michael Grimm, faces a 20-count indictment, threatened to throw a television reporter off a balcony, and still won re-election by ever larger numbers.

Donovan’s father was a longshoreman who struggled with alcoholism, and Donovan came up under the protection of the Island’s Republican machine. A one-time close friend of the now-disgraced former Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, he was hired by longtime Island powerbroker and Borough President Guy Molinari to serve as his chief of staff, and when Molinari retired, handing the reins of the Island to protégé Jim Molinaro, Donovan stayed on, using the post to run for district attorney.

He was not, he liked to say, a legal scholar, but Donovan has proved to be a natural politician in the mold of the backslapping Irish pols of yore, easily winning re-election on Staten Island. The most controversy he has gotten into his tenure came when he recused himself from a case involving Molinaro’s grandson, a teenager who violated his probation. Molinaro was furious, taking out a full-page ad in the Staten Island Advance accusing Donovan of abdicating his responsibility and of a “miscarriage of justice.” Most Islanders, however, saw it as a prosecutor refusing to bow to political winds.

In New York, district attorneys have a tendency to grow moss-bound in their roles. Robert Morgenthau, after all, retired at age 90. Donovan has shown some further ambition, running for attorney general in 2010 on a platform that in part promised to reverse the office’s focus on Wall Street that Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer brought to it.

“My goal is not to destroy people’s lives and disrupt entire industries because there are a few people in there that are corrupt.”

Donovan however proved to be a lackluster debater and an unenthusiastic campaigner, and an even more reticent fundraiser, relying heavily on the largesse of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. At his concession speech, he told his staff to get ready to go work the next day.

Donovan had been privately concerned that running statewide would hurt his standing back home. Instead, the next year he won by 40 points.

And there are few people on Staten Island who see his presence diminishing in the wake of the Garner decision.

“He could have killed the guy himself and still would get re-elected,” said one Island Democrat. “Everybody just loves Danny. To them, the guy can do no wrong.”

There has been much talk in Island political circles that Donovan would run for Congress one day if Grimm is in fact forced to step down due to his legal troubles. Most politicos there, though, think that the way he handled the grand jury could only help him in a district with a substantial number of active or retired police officers.

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“When the dust settles, I just don’t see it hurting him,” said Rich Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island. “This is no place for unreconstructed New York liberals.”

Molinari, the Island power-broker who launched Donovan’s career, agreed.

“[Garner] is saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ but how do you interpret that? They were trying to arrest him, he was resisting, and he is a big guy, so it took quite a few cops to do that, and a tragedy occurred. It can happen any place.”