Person of The Year: Letitia James
Cyril Josh Barker | 12/27/2018, midnight
Attorney General-elect Letitia “Tish” James was a teenager when she saw her brother unjustly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Her mother took her to criminal court where James witnessed how unfair the criminal justice system is. The experience inspired her to become a public servant.
“Everyone in the courtroom, except for the defendants, did not look like me, and that was shocking,” she said during an interview with the AmNews. “I vowed at that time that I would focus on my education and consider a career in law.”
The year 2018 was a monumental year for James, which marked her second and final term as the city’s public advocate. From shielding the Big Apple from President Donald Trump’s policies, to calling out city agencies on wage disparities to recently placing NYCHA as the city’s worst landlord, James is poised for the next chapter of her life—to serve as New York State’s attorney general.
Her new role will keep her in the city, for the most part, but she will also be in Albany and traveling to the 13 regional offices of the attorney general across the state.
“I had the privilege to know and watch Tish James in her professional career and found her to be an extraordinary public servant,” said NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes. “I’m sure in this position, which is much needed that oversees many of the areas that concern New Yorkers, she will be a superb attorney general.”
As with most politicians, James’ journey from concerned citizen to elected official is a story about what’s made her beyond qualified to be the Empire State’s strongest legal arm.
Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, James is one of eight children. She attended Fort Hamilton High School. She graduated from Lehman College in the Bronx, where she majored in liberal arts with an emphasis on social work.
But it was the book “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality” by Richard Kluger that pushed her to attend law school at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“That book shaped my life,” James said. “I was fascinated with the story of a small group of attorneys taking on the nation and dismantling legal segregation, and I thought that was powerful.”
James joins a list of legal legends who have graduated from Howard University law school, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan and Charlotte E. Ray, the first African-American female lawyer.
After graduating from law school she took on many positions, including as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society, where she dove head first into the legal system.
“I learned that the law is really a powerful tool that can be used as both a sword and a shield for individuals who are at their lowest, and that the Constitution applies to all of us, even to those accused of a crime,” she said.
After working for the Legal Aid Society, James worked for several politicians, including New York Governor Mario Cuomo, former Assemblyman Roger L. Green as chief of staff and Eliot Spitzer when he was the state’s attorney general. She also worked as assistant attorney general in the Brooklyn regional office.
However, it was her work with former Brooklyn City Council Member Al Vann that paved the way for her career, she said. She joined Vann’s staff and served as his counsel. Vann was instrumental in bringing in more diverse teachers to Central Brooklyn, which attracted her attention.
“I was a student of Al Vann, one of many,” she said. “He was all about institutional building and he coined the phrase ‘community empowerment.’ I basically stalked him because I wanted to work for him. Ultimately, he relented and I was his counsel for 10 years.”
James had a front row seat to Vann’s many achievements and saw several of the city’s issues firsthand, including housing, racism, unfair policing and social justice. Working with Vann encouraged her to begin her own political career.
She first ran in 2001 to represent the 35th District of the City Council but lost to the late James E. Davis. After his assassination in 2003, James ran to replace him running on the Working Families Party line. Brooklyn Democrats nominated Davis’ brother, Geoffrey. She won the election, becoming the first third-party candidate to be elected to the City Council in more than 25 years.
During her tenure in the City Council, James worked on several issues, including Brooklyn’s ongoing gentrification, affordable housing and stop and frisk, and she funded community-based cultural institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts.
The Atlantic Yards project took up most of her nearly 10 years in the City Council. The project stands today as the Barclays Center. James fought against eminent domain and pushed for community benefits from the project that transformed Downtown Brooklyn. The project was handed to her during her first week in office.
“My first challenge and the first test of my leadership was the Atlantic Yards project,” she said. “We had to immediately organize and raise awareness to the size of the project and how out of scale the project was and would be in a low-rise community. That dominated my life for almost 10 years. A lot of the community benefits that were promised were not realized.”
In 2013, James ran for public advocate as a Democrat. She was one of five candidates seeking the nomination. The primary election resulted in a runoff between James and then-State Sen. Daniel Squadron. She won, becoming the first Black woman in New York City history elected to citywide office.
“I decided to run because we never had a woman of color break that ceiling, and why not?” she said. “Being part of history is important, but the question is what do you do with the position that has been handed to you?”
James focused on several issues while serving as public advocate, including wage inequity, the foster care system, criminal justice, education disparities and the environment. In total, her office has handled cases of 32,000 constituents. Her office has introduced more legislation than all of the previously public advocates combined.
“As public advocate, Tish James worked tirelessly to stand up for New York’s underserved communities,” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said.” As State attorney general, I know that Tish will continue that fight, and will ensure that all New Yorkers’ rights are protected. As incoming Senate majority leader, I look forward to working with Attorney General Tish James to pass progressive legislation and finally give New Yorkers the progressive, responsive government they deserve.” With plans to originally run for mayor, James decided to set her sights on being the state’s attorney general after her predecessor, Eric Schneiderman, resigned when reports surfaced that he abused several women. James said the current political climate under President Trump was also a factor in her decision.
She won the Democratic primary, beating three other candidates and won the general election in a landslide against Republican Keith H. Wofford.
“At this in time we face some real crisis,” she said. “A national security crisis and a constitutional crisis. There was a calling. I decided to run so that I could use my love for the law to stand up on behalf of communities who have been targeted.”
As her inauguration day is on the horizon, James said she supports the legalization of marijuana, cashless bail and criminal defense law. She also wants to focus on sex trafficking and violent gangs. Bringing her fight to improve NYCHA to the office, James wants to explore what actions she can take as attorney general to address conditions in public housing throughout the state.
James said she will continue to investigate the administration, foundation and business transactions of President Trump. Current acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a lawsuit against Trump’s nonprofit arm this year, resulting in the organization’s shut down.
“I don’t think President Trump’s faced anyone quite like our New York State Attorney General-elect,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “When our state finally passes double jeopardy reform, Tish will be fully empowered to fight for justice as only a Brooklynite can.” With 15 years under her belt as an elected official, James is now taking on her biggest job yet. She plans to use her office to even the playing field of the state’s legal system, making it fair for everyone.
“I’m ready to put my hand to the Bible and take my oath of office and assume the responsibility of the chief legal officer for the State of New York,” she said. “The best is yet to come.”