NEW YORK — Republicans have a new obsession: The case of Daniel Penny, the former Marine charged with fatally choking Jordan Neely on a Manhattan subway this month.
New York prosecutors say Penny committed manslaughter when he killed Neely. But leading voices in the GOP are casting him as the victim — one of many Americans subjected to out-of-control crime in major Democratic cities.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) dubbed Penny a hero on Twitter within days of the May 1 encounter. Fox News host Sean Hannity depicted Neely as a public menace who was “subdued” by a brave veteran.
And now Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking up the cause, encouraging his Twitter followers on Friday to contribute to Penny’s legal defense fund and “take back the streets for law abiding citizens.” That plea fueled a surge in donations that brought the former Marine’s haul from $280,000 to over $2 million in a matter of days.
The new messaging by Republicans — and blaming of Democratic leaders — extends a tough-on-crime political strategy that helped the GOP secure several House seats last year in the suburbs outside of deep-blue New York City. Penny’s case has quickly become their latest cudgel heading into the 2024 elections.
“This individual case is emblematic of what Republicans see as the collapse of the policing system and law-and-order in major cities across America,” said Dave Urban, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Donald Trump.
The case has sparked local and national outrage among many on the left who’ve called Penny a vigilante. Neely, who was on the city’s “Top 50” list of homeless people at risk, was recorded screaming that he was hungry, “fed up” and “ready to die” before he was put in the chokehold that would end his life.
Many progressive Democrats pushed early on for charges against Penny, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) stating that Neely was “murdered” and his death representative of a larger failing to invest in mental health and homelessness services.
Jumaane Williams, the city’s progressive public advocate, said Republicans like DeSantis are using “fear” to get a response from voters. Williams, who had been critical that charges weren’t brought sooner against Penny, said the former Marine deserves his day in court.
“Their [Republicans’] narrative is not trying to solve problems. It’s always trying to sow as much division as possible,” Williams said.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on Friday charged Penny with second-degree manslaughter. Penny has not entered a plea but his lawyers have said he acted in self-defense.
Republicans have also seized on the case as another line of attack against Bragg, a darling of progressive Democrats for his pledge to reduce the number of bail-eligible crimes.
In April, House Republicans held a so-called “field hearing” in New York City that was billed as an evaluation of how Bragg’s “pro-crime” policies had threatened public safety. It came after Bragg charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records for his alleged role in a hush money scheme. Trump has pleaded not guilty.
DeSantis, a likely Republican presidential contender, said “we must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs” in calling for people to donate to Penny’s defense — a common right-wing talking point to tie Bragg to liberal billionaire George Soros, who helped fund a political action committee that was part of a nationwide effort to elect progressive district attorneys.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) also took a shot at Bragg in pledging financial support for Penny.
“These soft-on-crime policies, like we see in New York, kill,” he said.
A spokesperson for Bragg referred POLITICO to a past statement about the charges. It reads, in part: “As this case proceeds, we will be constrained from speaking outside the courtroom to ensure this remains a fair and impartial matter.”
Money for Penny’s legal defense was raised through GiveSendGo, a crowdfunding site that also secured support for the legal defense of Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate, also gave $10,000.
Penny retained Steven Raiser and Thomas Kenniff — the latter ran against Bragg in 2021 as a Republican — and released a statement through them last week stating he was defending himself and did not mean to harm Neely. Lawyers for Neely have called on Bragg to step up the charges.