When Thomas Dewey, arguably the most nationally prominent Manhattan district attorney before Alvin Bragg, was running for the post in 1937, he made it clear that he was prepared to go after political wrongdoers. A young special prosecutor who had made a name for himself taking on gangsters, Dewey announced his candidacy on the Republican Party line because, he said, he believed it was necessary to go after Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that once dominated the politics of New York City. He said, “[I]t has become clear to me that there is an alliance between crime and certain elements of Tammany Hall. For twenty years Tammany Hall has controlled criminal prosecutions and for twenty years the power of the criminal underworld has grown. This alliance must be broken.”
Dewey got plenty of blowback from Democratic politicians, who charged that he planned to politicize the DA’s office. US Representative Martin Kennedy, a Tammany defender, attacked Dewey as “cowardly and contemptible” and suggested that the Republican was prepared to waste taxpayer dollars on “investigating everything from City Hall to the White House.” Yet, come November, the overwhelmingly Democratic borough of Manhattan (New York County) elected Dewey by a landslide. The Tammany crowd continued to attack the new DA, as he kept his promises to follow the facts wherever they led him. But it didn’t do Dewey any harm; he was eventually elected as governor of New York and twice nominated as his party’s candidate for the presidency.
Fast-forward 86 years, and another Manhattan DA is under fierce assault for supposedly wasting resources on “a political persecution” that his critics claim has distracted one of the nation’s leading law enforcement offices.
On Monday, House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) swept into New York City to conduct a hearing that attacked District Attorney Bragg, whose office has secured indictments against Jordan’s political ally, former president Donald Trump, on 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. During the course of a bombastic hearing that peddled the line that Manhattan’s first Black district attorney was soft on crime and overly tough on Trump, Jordan claimed that the DA’s office had “lost its way when it comes to fighting crime and upholding the law.” “Here in Manhattan, the scales of justice are weighed down by politics,” Jordan raged. “For the district attorney justice isn’t blind—it’s about advancing opportunities to promote a political agenda—a radical political agenda.”
Just as the critics of Thomas Dewey failed to gain traction in the New York City of the 1930s, however, Jordan’s line of attack bogged down in the New York City of the 2020s. Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, rebuked the Judiciary Committee chair on the day of the hearing, saying, “It is really troubling that American taxpayers’ dollars are being used to come here on this junket to do an examination of the safest big city in America instead of focusing on the real over-proliferation of guns that we have witnessed.” Representative Dan Goldman, a Manhattan Democrat, dismissed the hearing as a “charade.” And Former House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, also a Manhattan Democrat, announced in his opening statement to the hearing, “Let me be very clear: We are here today in Lower Manhattan for one reason and one reason only—the chairman is doing the bidding of Donald Trump.”
Crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside the session to protest against Jordan’s stunt, with many of them demanding that the chairman “let the public in” to the hearing that featured testimony from a handful of New Yorkers but failed to invite the mayor or other local officials.
Bragg pushed back just as loudly.
The DA sued Jordan for interfering with the effort to prosecute Trump by launching “an unprecedentedly brazen and unconstitutional attack” on the prosecutor’s office. Countering Jordan’s over-the-top claims about crime in the city, the DA’s office pointed to fresh New York Police Department data that shows murders in Manhattan are down 14 percent from a year ago, while shootings are down 17 percent, burglaries are down 21 percent, and robberies are down 18 percent. The office also observed, “In D.A. Bragg’s first year in office, New York City had one of the lowest murder rates of major cities in the United States (5.2)—nearly three times lower than Columbus, Ohio (15.4),” referring to Jordan’s home state. “If the chairman truly cared about public safety, he could take a short drive to Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron or Toledo…rather than using taxpayer dollars to travel hundreds of miles out of his way.”
There’s plenty of honest debate in legal and political circles about whether the Manhattan DA’s office should be taking the lead in holding Trump to account, and about whether so sweeping an indictment for corporate crime violations is the right approach. But there is little doubt that Bragg’s decision to go ahead with the prosecution has unsettled Trump’s most ardent defenders, including Jordan and the right-wing pundits who were cheering him on Monday. They have made Bragg, a former chief deputy attorney general of New York and assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, the target of vitriolic attacks that may play well in red states but aren’t likely to do the DA much damage in Manhattan.
Bragg was nominated with relative ease in 2021 over a crowded field of Democratic primary contenders for the powerful district attorney post, and then won in November with almost 84 percent of the vote. He did so as a candidate who made it clear that he was prepared to initiate criminal justice reforms, as did many of his rivals in that 2021 Democratic field. And he made it equally clear that, if the facts made a case for prosecuting Trump, he would pursue that case.
There was no mystery with regard to the course Bragg intended to chart as district attorney, and since taking office he has done what the voters elected him to do.
Jordan imagines that he is doing damage to Bragg by “exposing” the DA as a politicized prosecutor, just as the Tammany Hall hacks of the 1930s thought they were exposing and damaging Dewey.
There are plenty of differences between Bragg and Dewey, and even more differences between the times in which each man took office. But the notion that a congressman from a rival party is going to convince New Yorkers that there is something wrong with a prosecutor’s keeping a campaign promise—especially when it’s a promise to hold the politically powerful to account—remains as far-fetched today as it was all those decades ago.