Interviews & Profiles
Lessons learned from crafting messages for Alvin Bragg and Dan Goldman
A Q&A with political strategist Richard Fife about the key decisions that led both candidates to victory.
Political strategist Richard Fife has had quite the year. After handling months of negative press as the senior adviser for external affairs for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Fife helped lead Dan Goldman to victory as the Democratic nominee in the 10th Congressional District. Fife, who has worked on behalf of former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and is also an adviser to state Sen. Robert Jackson, gave City & State an inside look at his work with Bragg and Goldman.
You’ve never had an internal government job before. What appealed to you about working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office?
I thought it was a unique opportunity, and I think I learned a lot during my six months there. I just thought I’d do better outside of government. I think my relationship with Alvin that I developed during the campaign was unique. And two, I think what he was elected to do and what he’s working to do, which is to really kind of change the DA’s office to deliver both safety and justice for all, is unique, and I think the challenges he has faced since he took office are great. I enjoy being part of trying to get it done.
Why did you decide to leave his office?
One, it was never my plan to stay a long time. Two, it became clear I could be more effective from the outside without some of the constraints that you have inside of government – constraints on what you can and can’t say. And three, there came a moment that the court-ordered redistricting came through and new districts were created, and Dan Goldman, who I had previous relationship with, was looking at this race for Congress. Robert Jackson, who I had a longtime relationship with, was drawn (into) a particularly difficult district and after talking it over with the DA, I thought I could be more effective for him, and I frankly could be happier doing some of the stuff I like to do. In the DA’s office, I was restricted from talking to and advising any campaigns, and I knew that was going to be difficult for me to keep (up) with people who I was close to running in difficult campaigns. And so I made the decision to leave.
Tell me about your strategy for Bragg’s campaign.
The first strategic decision we made was to announce early. He was the first candidate to announce at a time when (then-Manhattan District Attorney) Cy Vance still hadn’t made his decision. We did that for a number of reasons. One was that he started with no fundraising list, no social media accounts and none of the things that other people who’ve been in the political process longer had, and so having that time to build up, to meet people, to raise money was was an important part I think of eventually winning the campaign.
The second thing was to make sure we ran it true to who he is, and as someone who has experienced the criminal justice system from many different sides – someone who grew up in Harlem, has lived his whole life in Harlem and understood how the criminal justice system affects impacted communities, but also someone who also has been involved with the system as a federal prosecutor, working in the attorney general’s office.
And so while the race kind of panned out with candidates – some who came at it from a public defender, activist point of view and some who have been prosecutors, Alvin really kind of straddled that line, and we kind of embraced that positioning. So we ran on that and we built on his base uptown, but it was a campaign that really looked to and worked to attract support around the borough. We won more of the Democratic clubs’ support than anybody. We had more petition signatures than anyone.
In the first few weeks of his tenure, a Day One memo outlining charging policies many saw as too lenient caused a bit of a public relations crisis. From your perspective, why did that blow up to such a degree?
You’re kind of coming into an office, particularly this office, where we were retaining an overwhelming amount of the staff that was there, and you just didn’t really have in place all of the processes and guardrails you needed in place to release something like that.
At the same time, I think his opponents were gearing up for when he got into office for a long time. And so those who were ready to attack him were ready for Day One, but as an office, we were not ready for Day One to present the changes he’s making. Mike Tyson had a line that ‘everybody has a plan until you punch him in the face,’ and our opponents clearly thought before Alvin gets started we need to punch him in the face and beat him up.
We could have done a better job of presenting what we were doing to stakeholders, to elected officials, and a better job of explaining what our procedures were.
What was your strategy for Dan Goldman’s campaign?
The key to a campaign is running true to who the candidate is and what he’s trying to do, and I think, frankly, better than other candidates in this race, he defined that this race for him was about protecting our democracy, protecting our rights and protecting our planet itself. And I think he’s someone who came to this race uniquely qualified for the moment we’re in. At a different time, with different events happening, he may not have won, but he’s someone whose skills met the moment, and I think our job in a very short campaign, it was only a 10-week campaign from beginning to end, was to build up the apparatus to let people know who Dan is and what he wants to do.
Why was this the right moment for Dan Goldman?
You’re at a moment where Trump and his followers have assaulted our democracy. And you saw it on Jan. 6, but as the Jan. 6 hearings played out, you saw that that wasn’t the end. That was the beginning of Trump’s efforts to overturn elections, to change election laws and to take away basic rights. And for the first time, you have a Supreme Court who, in the abortion decision, took away the basic rights of people. And so all this was flying out as the campaign was developing.
He was the more moderate candidate in the race. Do you think rising crime rates and the Democratic Party’s shift away from progressive criminal justice reforms contributed to his ability to win?
No, I think when you look at our polling and the election results, Dan did very well among progressives and liberals in this race, and that’s what we were. That’s who our message was addressed to. That’s who he is. And that’s how we won the race. You can’t win in that district if you’re not a progressive.
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