New York State Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James is the first Black woman to hold statewide office and the first woman to be elected to the position. She is busy running for reelection this Nov. 8 and granted the Amsterdam News a short Q&A.
AmNews: As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and was a public defender, did you see a career for yourself in politics? Was that transition difficult or natural?
James: I always knew that I would do something to give back to the people and communities who raised me. The entire arc of my career has been about serving others, protecting our most fragile rights, advocating for effective policies, and standing up for what’s right. And as the attorney general that is what I get to do every day: fight for ordinary New Yorkers from Brooklyn to Buffalo.
AmNews: As a Black woman in a commanding position, you’ve taken on these larger than life white male political figures, such as former President Trump and former Gov. Cuomo, as well as the ‘radical right’ on numerous issues. Does that role ever frighten you? Are you ever worried for your safety in today’s political climate?
James: I am not frightened by individuals who think they can follow a different set of rules than the rest of us and cause harm along the way. Our political climate has become more polarized and fraught, there is no doubt about that. But that does not stop me from wanting to fight for everyday New Yorkers. It gives me courage to stand up for New Yorkers and hold truth to power.
AmNews: I imagine there’s a particular clout and pressure that comes along with being the first woman of color to hold a statewide office and the first state AG. Do you think your time in office has been praised or vilified because of your gender and race?
James: Like any job, being the first Black woman attorney general of New York comes with its share of praise and criticism. But I am not concerned with what the naysayers have to say. I am more focused on delivering for New Yorkers, defending our common-sense gun laws, getting guns off our streets, keeping tenants in their homes, and holding predatory companies accountable. I am focused on doing the job I was elected to do to the best of my ability.
AmNews: I think many people characterize your run for governor as being too ambitious, or at least ambitious for a Black woman. Would you say that’s accurate? Why or why not?
James: Let me emphasize something for your readers, especially young Black girls: there is no role too ambitious for a Black woman. If someone ever dares to tell you otherwise, they are intimidated by your potential because they know you are capable of extraordinary success. At different points in my career, I have been told to wait my turn or was discouraged from pursuing certain roles and issues, but I didn’t let them stop me.
I had unfinished business as attorney general and I needed to honor that commitment first and foremost. New Yorkers deserve loyalty and transparency from their elected officials and that is the standard I hold myself to.
AmNews: Would you consider another run for governor of New York, or perhaps another state/federal office in the future?
James: Right now, I am committed to serving the people of New York as attorney general. There are many critical issues my office is working on, and I am determined to see them through. My office is working every day to make good on the promise to serve and protect New Yorkers.
AmNews: October 1 marked Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Many women in politics in the city have spoken out about their own experiences with domestic violence, and according to studies, over 40% of Black women experience physical violence with an intimate partner. Would you like to speak to your own experiences with domestic violence, if any, and how your office can best address intimate partner abuse that affects Black women and Black men at disproportionately high rates?
James: Domestic violence is unfortunately a far too prevalent issue, especially for women of color. Things got worse especially during the early months of the pandemic. Stay-at-home mandates and social isolation turned homes into torture chambers for many women. It is important to understand that gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue. It is a societal issue. Addressing domestic violence requires a holistic approach, from education to counseling to privacy rights to housing and to legislation.
My office is working to support robust programs to inform New Yorkers of their rights and resources. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked to direct domestic violence victims towards critical resources, such as 24-hour help hotlines and domestic violence shelters. At the onset of the pandemic, my office called for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women.
The Act was reauthorized and signed into law earlier this year. It expands jurisdiction to include protections for women in tribal communities, increases funding to legal services for victims, supports programs that help survivors. Survivors deserve to be believed, deserve to be respected, and deserve to have the opportunity to tell their stories no matter where or how they are experiencing violence.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1