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How Eric Adams outmaneuvered Manhattan’s progressive district attorney

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg were elected to their respective positions in November after running on radically different messages about policing.

Adams, the former NYPD captain, argued police officers should resume enforcing quality of life crimes such as graffiti and pushed a tough-on-crime message that helped him connect with voters in the outer boroughs. In Manhattan, home to progressive elites, Bragg vowed to pull back on prosecutions — even reducing some felony charges, including commercial robberies.

A month into their terms, the moderate Democratic mayor has received bipartisan praise for his handling of the city’s spiraling crime crisis while Bragg, the former chief deputy attorney general of New York, drew blame for his progressive policies — from conservatives, some Democrats and even the widow of a slain NYPD officer.

Bragg, pressured by Adams in public and private, has now walked back some of his most controversial campaign plans.

The dynamic reflects a continued shift in the national Democratic Party away from the “defund the police” movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and toward increased support of law enforcement. Even in liberal New York, a birthplace of the modern progressive movement, rising violent crime has virtually erased any discussions of cutting police funding and made it palatable for the new mayor to bring back one of the NYPD’s most controversial units.

Some local leaders say it also suggests a political naivete by Bragg and a shrewd political savvy by Adams, already a rising star in national politics who just drew President Joe Biden to New York last week.

“If you want these attacks to die down, you’ve got to stand in front of an audience with people who are unhappy about the decisions you’re making or the stands you’re taking,” former New York Gov. David Paterson said in an interview. “If you go some place where they cheer you on, you compound the problem.”

Paterson, who endorsed both Adams and Bragg, was referring to a Jan. 8 speech the DA gave to Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network after his Day 1 memo outlining plans not to prosecute low-level crimes leaked to the press. The document caused Republicans to call on Gov. Kathy Hochul, another centrist Democrat, to remove Bragg from office for failing to uphold the law.

Instead of addressing critics, Bragg sought refuge at Sharpton’s headquarters, where members generally approve of his policies as a way of reducing bias in the criminal justice system and sending fewer Black and brown New Yorkers to jail. Bragg, like Adams, is a Black man — the first to be elected Manhattan DA.

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Color of Change pledged $1 million to Bragg’s campaign as part of a yearslong push to elect progressive district attorneys across the county. But the backlash against Bragg — and deep blue New York electing a retired NYPD captain as mayor — suggests that voters are more concerned about public safety than criminal justice reform. It’s a trend that’s playing out nationally as Democratic governors up for reelection are heeding voters’ concerns about crime by promising to boost resources for law enforcement. Republicans have seized on those fears to attack the opposing party.

Last month, the New York Post published a front page declaring “HAPPY 2022, CRIMINALS!” above a photograph of Bragg and a story detailing his plans to keep low-level offenders who commit drug misdemeanors, resist arrest and fare-hop out of jail.

But as the top prosecutor stumbled, Adams was careful to not criticize him publicly.

“I believe that DA Bragg is going to be a partner to keep our cities safe,” Adams said Jan. 9 when asked about a New York Post article alleging the Manhattan district attorney underplayed a shoplifting arrest.

“We’re going to go through any disagreement or lack of understanding of any policy in that office to come to a solution together, and I don’t want it to play out in the media. It must play out when we all sit down together and make this a safe city. I ran on that, I believe it, and I’m not going to compromise the safety of the people of this city,” the mayor said.

Maya Wiley, an MSNBC legal analyst and progressive mayoral primary opponent of Adams, defended Adams and Bragg.

“What Eric has announced is what he ran on. And what Alvin is doing is what he ran on,” she said in an interview. “What’s really happening is the politics of a powerful and well-resourced conservative paper, coupled with the fact that people are really concerned and fearful.”

Privately, though, Adams has been unhappy with Bragg’s early approach.

“The mayor is pissed over the memo, specifically because he’s going to make a very big push on guns, and there’s been a lot of misunderstanding of what that big push on guns looks like. You can’t be tough on guns in New York City and then turn around and spit [those arrested for gun possession] back on the streets,” said one local Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about internal City Hall conversations.

Instead, Adams’ police commissioner Keechant Sewell blasted the DA’s policies in an internal email to her department, saying she feared for her officers’ safety. The message landed Sewell a one-on-one meeting with Bragg four days later. After the sit down, he clarified some of the positions in his memo that hadn’t explicitly addressed firearm possession, saying, “If you’re walking around Manhattan with a gun, you’re going to be prosecuted and we’re going to hold you accountable.” He also signed on to Adams’ blueprint for gun safety and appointed veteran prosecutor Peter Pope to exclusively focus on gun violence.

As The Post and Fox News continued blaming Bragg for crime that spiked nearly 40 percent in January compared to the same period last year, the DA hired a high-profile crisis management expert and consulted with Preet Bharara, the former high-profile U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

“He thinks he’s showing contrition, it’s sort of a legal argument. He’s laying out the case for what he’s trying to do,” Paterson explained about Bragg’s pivot.

But Bragg continued to draw ire. At the Jan. 28 funeral for slain NYPD member Jason Rivera, the officer’s widow said she hoped the “new DA was listening” as she blamed him for putting police in harm’s way. Bragg heard the message. He was sitting in the pews of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the service.

Supporters of the DA’s statements following his meeting with Sewell said he was giving greater context to a poorly written memo while detractors insist it proves he’s backtracking on his progressive vision. But both sides agree Bragg has struggled to explain his intentions of creating a fairer system, while Adams has politically outsmarted the district attorney.

For example, on a recent appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall, Bragg said the memo wasn’t intended for public dissemination — an unlikely concept to a more seasoned politician.

Adams, who was first elected to public office as a state senator in 2007, has years more experience controlling messaging around his policies. The night two NYPD officers were shot, Adams spoke at Harlem Hospital flanked by both Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive who is running for governor this year. The public advocate was a vocal critic of some of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approaches to crime. After the cops were shot, Williams used a hopeful tone about Adams.

“With a new mayor in New York City … we have a new opportunity to embrace and invest in strategies which have too often been treated as second tier, and reduce gun violence while strengthening the communities most affected,” Williams said referring to the mayor’s promise to invest in grassroots crisis response teams in addition to the NYPD.

Adams, who is the second Black person to serve as mayor in New York, also needs buy-in from Bragg to make good on his campaign promise of driving down crime.

“You need three people on the same page to actually fight violent crime: One’s the mayor, one’s the chief of police, and one’s the district attorney,” Tom Hogan, former district attorney of Chester County, Pa., said at a Jan. 27 virtual forum for a right-leaning think tank. “If any one of those three are going to buck the other two, you’re going to have chaos and mayhem.”

The local Democrat strategist, who is well connected to law enforcement, said Adams is “not interested in getting into a pissing contest with the DA. He’s pretty pragmatic about how he wants to go about resolving this.”

Observers in both men’s orbits noted that Bragg and Adams, who are two of the state’s highest profile Black leaders, do not have radically different objectives.

Christina Greer, author of “Black Ethnics” and co-host of a podcast about New York, said they share the same goals if not the same approach on how to get there.

“Both of them really want the safest city possible and are willing to make sure the other is successful in doing so,” Greer said. “Both of them care deeply about New York City, and both of them care deeply about Black people.”

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for Bragg, said the DA “is focused on getting guns off our streets, protecting our small businesses, and making our homes and subways safer for all. He looks forward to working with the Mayor, NYPD and all involved to make that happen.”

City Hall press secretary Fabien Levy echoed Filson’s message.

“Mayor Adams has been clear that public safety is his number one priority, and he is willing to work with anyone and everyone to keep New Yorkers safe,” Levy said in a statement. “This week, the mayor and the police commissioner sat down with all five of New York City’s district attorneys and had a productive conversation about how they can work together to get guns off our streets. Everyone in that room agreed that safety and justice are not mutually exclusive and must go hand in hand.”

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