Betrayal, backstabbing, enduring salacious gossip, exchanging nasty barbs with older colleagues and working through bitter tribal infighting are nothing new to Eliza Orlins. And no, she’s never served in Albany. She learned how to stay focused while enduring a constant onslaught from all sides while locked on Vanuatu – still bubbling volcanic islands located in the South Pacific – back in 2004 when she was 21-years-old and competing in front of millions on “Survivor.” Now 17 years wiser, she’s deploying those skills in her bid to become the top cop of New York City’s most powerful borough.
To win the Democratic primary, in the coming weeks Orlins has to overcome the money, attacks and ambitions of the three men in the race, along with the five female candidates also vying to claim the title of Manhattan’s first female district attorney in history. Things are heating up in the race on this cosmopolitan island that’s 15 times smaller than the one she was plopped on nearly two decades ago. But she likes, or maybe thrives in the pressure cooker. So to her political opponents and their powerful allies who don’t want this progressive to win, she says, “Bring it on.”
Politics is treated as a game by many in today’s political class of wannabe reality TV and perpetually fading Twitter stars, but Orlins isn’t a politician. Or at least she wasn’t until she ditched her power suits (well, most of ’em) for blue jeans and perfectly bright pink shirts emblazoned with her name since she launched her bid to challenge the powerful interests who run and manipulate New York. Heads aren’t turning just because of her campaign’s vibrant colors. As a public defender, she’s lived in back of the highly airbrushed veil city leaders have meticulously unfurled over the city throughout its storied 400+ year history. Unlike past and present power brokers, Orlins is firmly a red pill kinda gal – almost a pusher, of sorts, as she can’t help but feed those eye-opening pills to any and every audience she addresses — even an audience of one.
“It’s not that the system is broken; it’s that the system is working as designed,” the now 38-year-old tells me within the first few minutes of our extended and exclusive interview.
She speaks with the surety of someone who has seen the light, even if the light was dark. For generations now, the city has been iconic for the image its leaders sold the world – from its funky fashion and fine-to-fatty food scenes to its trend-setting entertainment and iconic finance sectors. But there’s another New York not used in the city’s branding campaigns — one cloaked in law and order, even as victims are jailed while many abusive officers have been granted immunity from their alleged crimes against the citizens they swore oaths to protect, let alone serve. While many NYPD officers are heroic, many others in its ranks have been accused of being the real criminals — something the city’s top brass has enabled for years now.
That’s why this DA race is pivotal. Political leaders have used the city’s DA offices — spread across its five boroughs, though Manhattans is the most powerful and wide-reaching — to cover for much of the brutish, at times even thuggish and racist, tactics some of the city’s police officers have used to harass, abuse, drive through, beat, sodomize, target, rape and even kill unarmed residents, like when the department fired former officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner, even if no charges were ever brought.
Bad police are one problem. Poor prosecutors doing the bidding of those bad cops is quite another. Working and living inside of the system for years either makes you cynical, burned out or more impassioned and driven to change it than you ever thought imaginable.
“The heartbreak and anger and frustration at the way the system has always operated built up to a point where I was like, ‘OK, I have to do something,’” Orlins tells The News Station.
She’s been a dutiful, behind-the-scenes operator in this perpetually unfolding tragedy through her more than a decade working with the Legal Aid Society. There’s only so much an overworked and underpaid public defender can do, and Orlins has ambitious goals.
“I felt extremely frustrated about the ways in which, you know, the prosecutor’s office operated,” Orlins says, adding that’s especially because prosecutors, of all people, should know where they’re sending convicts. “Prisons and jails right now are inhumane and dehumanizing and really violent institutions – I mean, just inherently punitive and terrible.”
Beyond the Bright Lights
Times Square is almost a smokescreen, and those who live in the projects, or who work in the trenches, see through it. They inhabit the real, gritty New York — the one just beyond the bright lights and vacuous, if enticing, promises filling those famous flashing screens. While 337,000 New Yorkers have previously served time, the state’s prison population is currently comprised of more than 40,000 people; a lopsided 75% of whom are people of color, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
While New York is better than many states, it’s incarceration rate outpaces every nation on Earth except Cuba – yeah, the one infamous for arbitrarily imprisoning, brutally beating, horrifically torturing and detaining protestors before they even protest at the will or whims of its heavy-handed leaders and the security forces they control, according to Human Rights Watch.
As a public defender who’s been the only lawyer, advocate and, sometimes, counselor available to more than 3,000 low-income New Yorkers over the years, Orlins has reels of stories from the trenches. Still, there’s one incident that’s almost become a part of her, perfectly encapsulating what she’s promising to do if elected DA.
Earlier in her career she represented a 50-year-old Black man who, after some 25 years, worked his way up to assistant manager at the Gristedes grocery store in lower Manhattan, as Orlins tells it. One evening he purchased two bags of groceries with his employee discount before bringing the food to his family. He closed up the shop around 11pm and headed to the subway and boarded an uncrowded A train headed uptown. He then plopped his two grocery bags on the empty seat next to him and settled in for his usual, lonely and long trek home.
At the 125th St. stop two uniformed NYPD officers boarded the train car, grabbed his family’s groceries, dumped them on the disgusting floor and then arrested him on charges of taking up two seats on the mostly empty subway car, Orlins passionately recounts. He was booked and forced to spend the night in jail before Orlins secured his release the following day.
As much as Orlins burns with righteous anger at those officers, incidents like this are fueling her bid to upend the Manhattan DA’s office for not just being filled with enablers of injustices but also co-conspirators, of sorts, alongside many of the worst apples in the NYPD.
“The prosecutor has this absolutely unchecked power to make these decisions as to what crimes get prosecuted, what sentences get sought, whether someone gets held in jail pretrial — while they are presumed innocent on a bail that they’re too poor to afford to buy their freedom,” Orlins says.
Sadly, it’s not a one-off story: It’s daily life for too many in New York City.
“The anger and heartbreak and frustration about cases just like his — of which tens of thousands per year come through our criminal courts — it’s overwhelming and unbearable,” Orlins says.
Forget trickle down economics – she’s focused on trickle down injustice. She contends much of it is flowing from the criminal justice system itself, especially the DA’s office.
“These decisions that prosecutors make have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people,” Orlins contends. “These decisions that prosecutors make have a huge impact on the lives of, you know, millions of people, because it’s not just the person who’s charged with a crime. It’s their family members, you know, their loved ones. It’s their children who then maybe end up in foster care, or some lose their everything.”
The current Manhattan DA, Cy Vance, Jr., set up a Conviction Integrity Unit. Orlins laughs it off as “in name only,” something done to appease the many piranhas in the New York City press corps.
“It was bullshit. It just didn’t even begin to, like, really acknowledge and rectify the past wrongs,” Orlins bemoans.
That’s why she isn’t promising to fix a few broken windows. She’s vowing to destroy the system itself. But she’s tidy, so the other half of her pitch is to then work to rehabilitate the system, infusing it with the same warmth she — along with so many other public defenders across the nation — has shown to thousands of downtrodden clients.
She’s been dubbed as “radical” by some when it comes to drug policy. But she flips the script and argues, if anything, the current system is what’s truly insane and out of step with citizens.
In the last 40 years America’s anti-drug and anti-addict laws have given prosecutors license to rack up a 500% increase in the number of people imprisoned in the US, according to the Sentencing Project. With two million of our neighbors locked behind cold, unforgiving steel bars, we’ve earned the dubious title of global leader when it comes to locking up our own citizens, which we do more than any other nation. Orlins says it’s madness and nonsensical.
“When we lock people up for possessing drugs, we actually make our city less safe,” Orlins unashamedly argues. “If you just look at the data, it shows that in fact when you make sure people have services and help and treatment and all these things, like, then they’re less likely to re-offend or be involved with the criminal legal system again.”
The math is broken, especially knowing more than 760,000 people have died of an overdose since 1990, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The stigma stemming from the ‘war on drugs,’ Orlins argues, is costing American lives.
“People are dying from overdoses because we don’t have the normalization of these things,” Orlins says. “We need to make sure that people are safe. Education is important. Incarceration is never going to help. Decriminalization is the right way to go.”
Besides better education, as opposed to the scare tactics the government has employed for half a century now, Orlins wants to make test strips for fentanyl readily available to all who want them, while also establishing syringe exchanges to protect addicts who currently use any dirty needle they can find.
As for the oldest occupation known to (Wo)man? It’s a job, Orlins is proud to tell audiences. So proud, she even eagerly does a call and response proclaiming the dignity of the profession.
“Sex work,” Orlins starts.
“Is work,” the crowd replies.
“Sex work,” Orlins shouts louder, revving up the audience which includes the trans sex worker who introduced her.
“Is work!” the increasingly enthusiastic crowd chants at Washington Square Park.
As for reforming the NYPD? She doesn’t go as far as NWA, but Orlins is eager to be the prosecuting attorney who puts as many NYPD officers in cages as needed.
“Prosecute bad cops. The cops are, you know, systemically racist and they’re beating people up and assault people,” is something Orlins says she’s “been talking about forever.”
She’s progressive, not partisan. That means even some in her own party are fair game, and she names names. Rallying around US Attorney Preet Bharara after he was fired for investigating former-President Trump is one thing, but Orlins says no Democrat should idolize him because of the totality of his record.
“He’s like mass-incarcerator-in-chief. This is a person who has prosecuted people using racist gang conspiracy laws that disproportionately impact Black and Brown people,” Orlins argues. “And folks herald Preet as this resistance hero, and I’m like, ‘Is this the person you want to be idolizing? Really? Really?’”
Survival Pack: Twitter, check. Instagram, check. Smile, check.
The New York native has a lot of fight in her, but tearing down many of the most sacred cows in politics, namely police and members of her own party, can easily backfire. Orlins has found some of the same skills she fine-tuned surviving island living in the South Pacific, while also becoming a fan favorite, are proving handy in this latest fight.
Orlins didn’t spend all her college days enduring physical and metaphorical earthquakes on “Survivor” while rocking bikinis, even if those images are still some of the first to pop up when you Google her (along with a live MySpace page – Yeah, guess they’re still around. Who knew? — but her campaign says it’s not hers).
Back then, Orlins was also racking up impressive academic accolades, like making the Dean’s List each semester at Syracuse University before graduating summa cum laude in 2005. And, of course, she double majored in international relations and political science, while also minoring in Chinese. She also stood out at the Fordham University School of Law, graduating cum laude in 2008.
The public defender — the only job she ever really wanted — is more than her enviable brain and body, though. She also has insane reserves of energy, reminiscent of her political idol, Elizabeth Warren. When told this, the candidate — a self-proclaimed Warren Democrat — genuinely gushes.
“Awwwww, that’s like one of the best compliments ever. I love that,” Orlins says as her smile is felt through the phone, “The way she would run on to every stage — that would totally be me. You know, like, just running around taking selfies with everyone!”
Orlins’ energy, ultimately, seems fueled by her seemingly endless reserves of optimism. While it’s largely wasted on cynical veteran reporters, it’s been magnetic for her grassroots campaign to upend business as usual in NYC. That’s helped her attract swarms of volunteers.
“One of the quotes we use on the campaign is, ‘Enthusiasm is a force multiplier,’” Orlins enthusiastically says, “and I really feel like it’s true. You know, I’m very enthusiastic, obviously, and so are the members of my team, and so are our volunteers. And it just magnifies, and that’s why we’ve got this grassroots army.”
It’s working. She’s highly accessible and strategic on social media, where she’s amassed more than 120k followers on Twitter and another 28.7k followers on Instagram – an account she runs herself. I found this out some five minutes after following her. Her account followed me back, so I tested it with a simple message.
“How many people run this account? Impressed with how quickly the follow back was,” I cynically messaged, expecting a volunteer to respond.
“Me! Just me,” Orlins replied a few minutes later with her signature pep!
The infectiousness of her genuine heart, relatable message (at least to average New Yorkers, not so much the possees who run Wall Street, city hall and the police union, to name but a few) and tangible charisma helped her rake in more than $1 million from more than 10,000 individual contributors.
Reality TV living and being accessible and open on social media come with their own risks, as Orlins has learned over the years.
“That kind of opened up a world of being scrutinized and in the spotlight, publicly criticized and having to withstand public pressure and online hate and death threats and, you know, rape threats and all of the things that I’ve gone through over the last 17 years,” Orlins admits, before her optimism rears its happy, if fearless, head. “I’m uniquely situated to be like, ‘Yeah, who am I afraid of? I’m fearless. I will stand up to anyone. Bring it on.’”
When Reality and TV Collide
No one could have known it at the time, especially not a young college student, but the success of “Survivor” put its producer, Mark Burnett, on the map. That gave him the perch to create and produce another hit show, “The Apprentice.”
As you know, the show’s former host eventually moved to Washington, where he (with the help of the conservative and alt-right media machines, spineless aides, conspiracy theorists, rejuvenated neo-nazis, worthless enablers, GOP leaders and the party’s unprincipled rank and file alike) transformed millions of American minds. Think “alternative facts,” which sadly now is a real thing because the memes have now moved beyond our screens and into our streets and even the nation’s majestic Capitol building. In its wake, the nation’s current political class, both federally and at the state level, now behave more like cast members on a shitty reality show than like the serious thinkers who preceded them.
“You were young, but, like, do you have any regrets about being a part of the reality-TV-ization of the American mind?” I ask. “And it’s a hard question — I’m a jackass.”
“I don’t regret having been on the show,” Orlins says without hesitation. “The show I was on was for entertainment…it’s not like I was doing a news show from Vanuatu. This is something very different than this current landscape of the way in which they’ve enabled certain people to infiltrate people’s minds.”
“It’s not that the system is broken; it’s that the system is working as designed.”Eliza Orlins
More so, Orlins is proud she stayed true to herself in spite of the often addictive lights and cameras.
“It never derailed my plans to become a public defender,” Orlins says with pride, “I have absolutely used my platform for good. It’s very different than, like, someone who’s gone from slumlord to “Apprentice” to whatever.”
She doesn’t say it, but she seems to wish us damn reporters would ask fewer questions about that portion of her resume and more on the diverse array of clients she’s devoted her adult life to serving.
“I spent far more of my life and my time in the courthouse — you know, in the trenches, fighting for people in front of judges — than I ever spent on TV,” Orlins says — a good line she’s used with other pesky reporters, “That was like a little tiny blip.”
Orlins isn’t one to dwell on the past, unless it’s America’s racist past, which she argues continues to taint everything — including foundational pillars of every American community, like our criminal justice, education, economic and health care systems.
In true Elizabeth Warren fashion, she’s doing everything at a brisk pace in these final days of the primary.
“I feel exhausted, but also the stakes are so high — people’s lives are, like, hanging in the balance,” Orlins tells The News Station. “This election means so much that I don’t have a choice. Like, I have to stay focused and use my moral outrage to motivate me to keep going forward.”
One thing is undeniable: With Orlins fueled by moral outrage, win or lose she’s not going anywhere, because New York City is home to enough tragedy, injustice and mass incarceration to keep this fighter punching above her weight for decades to come.