This is how Manhattan’s top prosecutor introduces himself: “Alvin Bragg, Manhattan district attorney, lifelong Manhattan resident, Knicks fan.”

A progressive Democrat and the first African American to hold the Manhattan post, Bragg became a frequent target of Republicans across New York this election season led in large part by the party’s candidate for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin. The Long Island congressman pledged he would fire Bragg “on day one” over how his office opted to prosecute certain criminal offenses, objecting at times that Bragg’s office was both too lenient and too aggressive.

Last Thursday, the same day Manhattan prosecutors were set to deliver the closing arguments in a trial alleging tax crimes against the Trump Organization, Bragg sat down for a one-on-one conversation with WNYC’s Brigid Bergin about his tumultuous first year in office, including how he became central to the governor’s race, his assessment of what he needs to improve after his first year and how he plans to change his approach in year two.

Hear WNYC senior politics reporter Brigid Bergin's interview with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability

Brigid Bergin: Why do you think you became Zeldin’s target?

Alvin Bragg: I'm not going to purport to speak for Lee Zeldin but to me it was quite unfortunate. We have real public safety challenges that require real discussion about facts, about data, about people's experiences. That's what I do professionally. To have very serious issues reduced to, many times, kind of false facts, it was very sobering — taking us back to sort of a Willie Horton era of politics. I just thought it was a disservice to the voters.

Let's talk about mental health. Let's talk about the fact that in Manhattan, shootings are down, and down further than the citywide dip. And that homicides are down. Let's talk about that, and then let's also talk about how there's more work to do.

Our gun prosecutions are up, our hate crime prosecutions are up -- that was nowhere in the conversation. So I think it was discouraging as a voter, as someone who cares deeply about our body politic, and then particularly when you place it into the national conversation of January 6th, it is discouraging and you see how it could discourage voters.

But thankfully I'm in Manhattan, and Manhattan voters are astute. I won about 83% of the vote last year and Gov. [Kathy] Hochul's Manhattan percentage was about that.

You're not the only progressive prosecutor that Republicans across the country have gone after. Certainly, we saw it happen with the recall in San Francisco, what's going on right now in Philadelphia with Larry Krasner and the impeachment trial. I'm wondering what you think it says about the ongoing threats to democratically elected officials across the country?

Voting matters. Voting should matter. Democracy matters. Our institutions, local elections matter. Voters should not be disregarded.

We've got to hold people in power accountable. But this notion of removing people because they disagree with us; like let's get back to the real conversations. You have a policy disagreement? Bring your policy positions, bring your data, bring the folks who would testify at a hearing, and let's talk. Let's have a robust exchange of ideas.

You wrote after the election that the public was sending a message to elected officials that people have serious concerns about crime and public safety. Is there anything that you feel like you should have done differently over the past year to address those issues, those concerns?

So, look, there is no doubt. I didn't need the electoral governor campaign for that because I talk to my neighbors. I talk to those who I go to church with, I am in and out of all of our neighborhoods in Manhattan and I'm hearing directly about concerns.

...[T]his notion of removing people because they disagree with us; like let's get back to the real conversations. You have a policy disagreement? Bring your policy positions, bring your data, bring the folks who would testify at a hearing, and let's talk.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

One of the reasons I'm speaking to you, I think something I need to do more is: I'm a lawyer by training, I love practicing. I love working on our cases but I think I need to be doing more of what we're doing today, which is speaking directly to constituents through you of what we are doing so people know what we're doing.

That is an essential part of the job. As a first-time elected, I think I may have undervalued that in the beginning part of the year and come very much from the career public servant model of like, ‘I'm gonna do the work and the work's gonna speak for itself.’ So that's something that we're trying to change.

You did come under fire earlier this year for what was characterized as kind of a pulling back on your office's investigation of former President Donald Trump, especially after two of your prosecutors resigned. But your office did pursue the Trump Organization. Closing arguments in that case are today (Dec. 1). There have been so many cases related to the former president and his business dealings. Can you talk about what's specifically at issue in this case?

Sure. Well, one I like the way you said characterization of a pullback. I mentioned earlier that one of the constraints of this role is we can't talk about everything we're doing. It would not be appropriate. It could prejudice a case if brought. So we put out a statement in April saying that the work continues, the investigation's ongoing. So we've been working. I can talk about what is in the public domain generally in this space.

We indicted Mr. [Steve] Bannon earlier this year on fraud and money laundering charges. The Trump Organization trial, which is on schedule for the closing statements today, it’s a tax case. It's a tax case against two Trump corporations, which we collectively refer to as the Trump Organization about, we allege, benefits that were received by executives that were not properly reported and we allege, for the benefit of the Trump Organization.

Will you be there for the closing statements today?

I will be there, as I have been at other points in the trial. I mean, I love the courtroom, I'm a trial lawyer. I love trying cases myself. I love watching others. We talk about democracy. Another engine of our democracy is the jury system. I'll spare you the speech I give to my friends about the importance of their jury service when they get their summonses, but it's a core part of our democracy.

Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg.

Your relationship with Mayor Eric Adams. I know you've had an interesting dynamic in the past, but as of October, you were together making an announcement related to gun enforcement legislation. What do you think are some of the opportunities to work together going forward?

One area that we've worked on consistently, and really I would say it’s with the NYPD, but obviously they're under the mayor's watch, is our gun interdiction. The gun violence strategic partnership that President [Joe] Biden visited earlier this year, literally federal, state, local partners sitting around a table talking about the drivers of violence and going kind of person by person. What do we do? What do you know about this person? What do you know? What can we do? So that's an area where I think we will continue to work closely.

Obviously we work closely with the NYPD everyday on a bunch of issues. We did some training recently with NYPD on hate crimes and that's an issue that we want to continue to work closely. That was the last time I was physically together with the mayor and the police commissioner, talking about the arrest and the prosecution we're now handling of the two men who were arrested in Penn Station, one of whom we allege did a tweet or post, we allege about shooting up a synagogue. So that type of work is day in and day out. We collaborate through our teams on that.

What is your reaction to his announcement about forcibly hospitalizing people experiencing mental illness? Was your office consulted in any way?

So not consulted on that announcement.

Mental health is such an important issue in the criminal justice system. I tell folks if they want to kind of see the shortcomings of our mental health infrastructure, come on down to criminal court. You'll see the manifestations of a system that hasn't provided care at earlier stages.

It's been something that we've been focused on here within the four corners of our system. We started a division called Pathways to Public Safety. The core thesis is developing lawyers who have expertise in mental health and substance use disorder, diversion and getting them integrated into sort of the case workflow at the earliest possible time to determine if there's an appropriate way to resolve the case, connecting people to treatment.

So many of the people who have responded to Adams’ new program have raised concerns about the risks that it could pose to both individuals and to law enforcement who are going to be taking people to emergency rooms. We have a limited number of beds. We're talking about a large population. I'm wondering what your concerns are about the risks this could pose that could be felt by your office?

As I understand the proposal, and I don't know it chapter and verse, it is a civil commitment. So there's not a direct overlay with our criminal enforcement.

Obviously, if there's direct harm to someone, that's when — you know, a threat to public safety — that's when we're engaged. So in terms of, I think the interplay is more kind of what you put your finger on in terms of capacity. The interplay is if we don't have robust mental health service that is effective, efficacious, then the results of that can sometimes be that they end up in Manhattan Criminal Court or another criminal court.

Things that we've done in the past as an office and things that we're sort of looking at, we had a program in East Harlem where we connected people who are in mental health distress with community-based navigators. That had some real positive feedback. As you know, the office has over time used some forfeiture money to address issues, and we're exploring using funds to do something like that in more than one neighborhood. That's on the prevention end. So that's before it reaches us. But I think that's important for us to be a part of to address that, address public safety, address recidivism, and also thinking about how we can make our service delivery for someone who is charged for crime more robust.

But your question, the thread talked about capacity of the system. I think that that's the number one issue. As we started to scale up our mental health diversion here, one thing I learned early on was our capacity by contract for our Mental Health Courts, which is for serious mental illness, is 50 matters at a time. Think about Manhattan and what 50 means.

When we started increasing connections of people to mental health services, we rightfully heard from those who provide those services, ‘Well, hey look, our contracts are at a certain level.’

To even take a step back further, we have a kind of a social worker shortage. So we certainly need to invest.

You started off this year with “the memo” which then you re-contextualized. How do you want to start this upcoming year? What's going to define success for your office? You're not up for a reelection until 2025, but what do you want people to be thinking about your office differently going forward?

I think there are a number of key issues. We've talked about them. We are gonna continue to press on gun violence. I view that still as the number one issue, trending in the right direction, that's gonna continue to be a significant priority. We spent some time talking about mental health. I do think if we can really help with some key investments and flag that is an issue that affects the system A to Z and address that, that will address recidivism and get us to some really enduring public safety benefits.

We started a Housing and Tenant Protection Unit. We had someone specifically focusing on gun interdiction. We created a freestanding special victims division to give more resources to domestic violence, sex crimes, elder abuse and child abuse and human trafficking.

So we now have a lot of the people in place, focused on the work we think is important. We've gotten additional funding streams for that, for example, on hate crimes, $1.7 million from the City Council.

To use a kind of sports analogy, it's like we've done the recruiting, we know everyone's positions. We started to sort of execute the plays, and we're seeing some encouraging trends. But we're in the first quarter, right? We want the second quarter to be better than the first quarter.

[I]t's like we've done the recruiting, we know everyone's positions. We started to sort of execute the plays, and we're seeing some encouraging trends. But we're in the first quarter, right?
Manhattan District Attorney’s Alvin Bragg

We're going to continue to do that and to continue to listen. To go back to what I talked about, kind of real conversations. I think it's important to know that we've got great lawyers here, great public servants, great social workers. But we're also out in the community listening all the time. I think that's part of the job, too.

Note: A day after this interview, a state Supreme Court justice dismissed the case against Tracy McCarter, a woman accused of murder in the stabbing death of her estranged husband. Bragg had requested the dismissal. But state Supreme Court Justice Diane Kiesel also admonished the prosecutor for not taking the case to trial and said she would not seal the case for 60 days so prosecutors could determine whether McCarter should face other charges. A spokesperson for Bragg said the office is reviewing the court’s decision.