The Next Major Reform Prosecutor Could Well Be a 'Survivor'

The Next Major Reform Prosecutor Could Well Be a 'Survivor'

By Joshua Eferighe


Because to beat the system you have to know the system.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • Eliza Orlins, a 37-year-old public defender, is running in a crowded field to become the Manhattan District Attorney.
  • Aside from her background advocating for poor defendants, Orlins’ side career as a reality TV star makes her stand out.

John was done for the night. An assistant manager at the Manhattan grocery store where he’d worked for 25 years, he closed up shop for the night. Toting a couple of bags of groceries that he’d bought for his family with his employee discount, he walked to the subway and boarded the uncrowded train to go home. 

After getting settled with his groceries on the seat next to him, John, who is Black, saw two uniformed police officers enter his car at 125th Street. The officers then proceeded to grab his groceries, dump them to the ground, put him in handcuffs and take him to jail, where he’d spend the night for the crime of occupying multiple seats on a transit facility. 

A young Eliza Orlins was John’s public defender that night, and she was able to get his case dismissed, but it stuck with her.

For more than a decade, Orlins, 37, has seen case after case much like John’s, where minority mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers get arrested for tiny infractions like taking up two seats on the subway. “I just saw a system that was designed to systematically disenfranchise people who are Black and brown,” she tells me. “And for years, I went and fought this in the courtroom and fought this for individuals, and I realized that I would never be able to change the system from that position, and the only way to change the system was to be the district attorney.” And so she took a leave from her job at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society to join a crowded Democratic primary field to be Manhattan District Attorney, ahead of the 2021 election.

Thinking about the criminalization of things after the fact creates a future penalty but is not undoing underlying racism and hate.

Eliza Orlins

As passionate as she is about these issues, Orlins — who has appeared twice on the reality TV show Survivor — understands her place of privilege as a Jewish white woman and credits her global world view to her upbringing. Raised in a military household, Orlins split her formative years between New York and Beijing before settling in Washington, D.C. More importantly, her family adopted a Chinese girl when Eliza was 3 years old. This not only resulted in her family talking about race — a rarity in many Caucasian households — but also forced her to reckon with her own identity. “Even when we were in elementary school and kids would make fun of [my adopted sister] on the playground and pull their eyes to the side, I recognized very early on that I understood my privilege as a white person,” she says. 

Eliza Orlins / Photo: Mikiodo

As the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed and countless others seem to be compounded together for traumatic consumption all at once, there is an outcry like never before for the reforms Orlins has long championed. And she’s joined the protests in New York herself. While policymakers have responded in some cases — like proposals in New York and San Francisco to make some racially provocative false reports hate crimes, New York’s new chokehold ban and President Donald Trump’s executive order encouraging better police practices — Orlins says they’re reactionary, not bearers of systemic change. “Chokeholds were already banned and they were doing all sorts of reform in Minneapolis, and that did not save George Floyd’s life,” she says. “Thinking about the criminalization of things after the fact creates a future penalty but is not undoing underlying racism and hate.”

Orlins, far right, on Survivor: Vanuatu — Islands of Fire, in 2004

Orlins hopes to join a nationwide movement of reform DAs — from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Jackson, Mississippi — by pushing restorative initiatives after serving time. Rather than issue a supportive tweet, she wants companies to hire those with criminal records, remove AI-driven hiring discrimination and more. 

Incumbent District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., a Democrat, has been in the job for a decade and has not yet announced whether he’ll run again. But Orlins is hardly the only reformer seeking to take him down, as she is also facing a crowded field of at least five candidates who lean on the progressive side as well. “The Manhattan DA’s office has historically been one of the leading prosecutorial offices in the country,” says Laurie Robinson, a criminology professor at George Mason University and high-ranking Justice Department official during the Obama and Clinton administrations. “It has to be led by someone who understands that this is not just about having a strong arm of government pursuing people. It also has to ensure there is balance in approach to make sure we’re not pursuing people who are innocent.” In this race, Robinson is backing the reform-minded Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office and an Iranian immigrant whose campaign is focused on gender-based violence and immigrant protection.

What could make Orlins stand out in this crowded field is her side career as a reality TV star, with two appearances on Survivor and one on The Amazing Race. She has used the platform and notoriety to advocate on behalf of social justice causes, but the games also reveal a feisty, competitive attitude. “I’m not afraid to change things if I think it’s going to get me farther in this game,” she says in one Survivor episode, as she contemplates ditching an alliance. Some good preparation for bare-knuckle New York City politics.