“My name is Letitia James, but my friends call me Tish,” New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said during her speech Wednesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Surrounded by the likes of former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, New York City Council Members Mark Levine, Laurie Cumbo, Andy King, Justin Brannan and Alicka Ampry-Samuels and members of the Communications Workers of America 1180, the New York State Nurses Association and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, James announced plans to run for the Democratic nomination for New York State attorney general. She joins a scrum of individuals all vying to take the place of disgraced former state attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Schneiderman resigned last week amid allegations of abuse from four different women.
The public advocate reportedly filed papers with the New York State Board of Elections, and her name will be on the Democratic primary ballot, which takes place Sept. 13. She would be the first African-American state attorney general and she would be the first woman formally elected to the position if she wins.
James, a former city Council member, assistant attorney general and public defender, promised to continue the agenda that Schneiderman left behind.
“The law should be an instrument for change,” James said. “The law must be used as a vehicle to right wrongs…I will take on special interests who seek to destroy our families and our communities. I will take on ICE agents who seek to rip families apart. I will take on companies from Wall Street to Main Street who engage in unfair business practices that hurt hardworking New Yorkers.”
James joins a clan of potential candidates that include former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, New York State Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, former state gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and New York State Sen., Michael Gianaris. Many of the aforementioned candidates are being interviewed this week for the interim AG position currently occupied by Barbara Underwood.
Manhattan Democratic Party County Chair Keith Wright said that James possessed all of the characteristics to become the next state attorney general.
“Initially, what you want to do, especially on the Democrat side, is pick a candidate that can get elected on their own,” said Wright. “Tish checks all the boxes. Downstate. She’s a Black woman who’s been elected twice by voters in the City of New York. The city is the voting engine that drives statewide elections.”
During her announcement, James referred to herself as “the people’s lawyer” and told those in attendance, “I am your champion.” Bertha Lewis, president and founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition, said that James has all the attributes of a potentially successful state attorney general.
“I have known and worked with Tish for years. She has always been a progressive, always supported the community and she has never forgotten where she came from,” said Lewis in a statement. “She has an incredible work ethic and incredible moral ethics to fight for all New Yorkers. We’ve supported her in her run for City Council and public advocate, and now we are tremendously happy to support her in her run for attorney general. She is the right choice at the right time for the right job.”
But the news comes with some caveats. The New York Times recently reported that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly advised the public advocate to not run on the Working Families Party ticket because of their endorsement of Cynthia Nixon for governor.
New York Working Families Party leaders Afua Atta-Mensah, of Community Voices Heard Power; Karen Scharff, of Citizen Action of New York; Javier Valdes, of Make the Road Action; and Jonathan Westin, of New York Communities for Change, said that Cuomo wouldn’t demand this sort of action from someone who was white.
“It is nothing short of outrageous to see Andrew Cuomo demand Tish James jump through hoops that he would never ask a white man to do,” read the joint statement. “He is telling her to reject the party where she got her start, and refuse the WFP’s support, which could be critical in both the primary and general elections. Meanwhile, he is helping elect Republicans to Congress by running on the Independence Party line.”
The statement continued, “This is part of a disgraceful pattern, just like when he kept white male Republican leadership in the State Senate instead of supporting Andrea Stewart Cousin’s leadership. In King Andrew’s New York, everyone else is a political pawn.”
Cuomo’s people didn’t respond to requests for comment.
New York Working Families Party Director Bill Lipton said that Cuomo’s actions are par for the course.
“The governor has a long history of punishing organizations and candidates that didn’t follow his wishes,” said Lipton. “He let Republicans rule the State Senate, effectively sidelining Andrea Stewart-Cousins. He’s sought to defund organizations that serve working class and poor New Yorkers because they disagreed with him politically. Now, he’s asking Tish not to take a ballot line that means a lot to many New Yorkers.”
But on Twitter, former New York City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn said James has agency over her choices and that the statement from Westin and others robs her of such.
“Enough saying women candidates/electeds don’t think for themselves or make decisions for themselves,” Quinn said on Twitter. She also told the New York Working Families Party to “stop belittling the intelligence of WOMEN.”
But during the push and pull and political maneuvers that take place during this process, a group of New Yorkers whose quest for closure was interrupted by Schneiderman’s fall from grace hope that you don’t forget about them.
Last week, the Justice Committee released a joint statement featuring family members of New Yorkers killed by the police and asked that their pursuit of justice not be forgotten during the AG-decision process. This week Justice Committee Co-Director Loyda Colon said that state legislators should just appoint Underwood as the interim attorney general until the fall election.
“We are concerned that instability caused by yet another leadership transition in the AG’s Office will negatively impact the cases in which police have killed New Yorkers the office is currently handling in its capacity as special prosecutor,” said Colon in a statement. “This is not the time for a power grab, when there are so many important cases pending. Our priority is that the families who have lost loved ones to the police whose cases are being handled by the AG’s Office are afforded the transparency and respect they deserve and that their loved ones’ cases are handled swiftly, thoroughly and justly.”
As James left the media scrum post-announcement a reporter asked her what her favorite town upstate is.
“Schenectady,” James said. The public advocate has until Sept. 13 to win towns such as Schenectady over.