Local prosecutors tend not to be the targets of attack ads from gubernatorial candidates, especially Republicans running as a tough-on-crime friends of law enforcement. But that’s exactly what Lee Zeldin, the GOP nominee for New York governor, did by coming for Manhattan district attorney in the closing weeks of Zeldin’s campaign to become New York State’s top elected official. Zeldin tried to paint Bragg, the first Black elected D.A. ever in Manhattan, as weak on gun violence in a series of ads reminiscent of the racist Willie Horton ad from the 1990s. It didn’t work—Zeldin lost to incumbent Kathy Hochul—but days after the final votes were tallied, Bragg talked to the Root about how a campaign he was never in shed light on the work of having the toughest job in the most crowded borough in the country.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Root: Why did Lee Zeldin come at you so hard ?
Alvin Bragg: I think he ran an anti-democrati, authoritarian, race-baiting campaign. He put me in a commercial where I was the only Black face where he’s talking about crime. We’d all like to think that the Willie Horton era of politicking is gone, but it’s not.
TR: Public safety, especially gun violence, was a huge issue for voters across the country. So why do you think his message was rejected?
AB: I can only speak on Manhattan voters, who I’ve ben talking to all year about what we’re doing to target violent crime. We have more hate crime prosecutions. Our gun prosecutions are up. And I think then you pair that with the data that homicides and shootings are down, and in Manhattan, they’re down further than citywide numbers. I think people know the reality as opposed to the picture he tried to paint.
TR: Why do you think crime in general was made such a big national issue in the midterms when the data shows that violent crime is still relatively low compared with the ‘90s and early 2000s?
AB: A lot of it is the juxtaposition of where we were right before the pandemic and now in the aftermath. In New York we had declining incarceration and crime, then we had a once in a hundred years phenomenon of the pandemic, so you saw the dislocation of civic life and safety nets. There’s an acute mental health crisis going on—I don’t want to equate the two, but we certainly have a population that has mental health issues that are ending up in criminal court, so we have to work on that support structure.
TR: I just re-watched Nelson George’s Netflix documentary about the crack era. You grew up in Harlem, so when you talk about making mental health a focus on the criminal justice system, I think of how that wasn’t a thing back then.
AB: I grew up during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. I stepped over and on crack vials to get to school so I know the very human toll that drug had and I’ve been engaged on that issue for awhile. When I was in leadership at the New York State Attorney General’s Office, I helped start a series of cases against large pharmaceutical companies for their marketing of opioids. We’ve got to continue to use sort of a public health approach and be mindful of the disparities in treatment and incarceration.