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Tish James makes her move
As James launches her campaign for Governor, her political past can provide a preview of what the future holds
“To understand Tish, you need to know there’s a certain common thread behind her — she’s not motivated by ideology, she’s not motivated by strategic politics, she’s willing to reinvent herself. She’s successfully reinvented herself multiple times in her career.” (Politico)
Two weeks ago, amidst the fanfare of GOTV weekend leading up to this year’s November 3rd election day, Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James, confirmed what had been on the minds of politicos and insiders across the city and state for months: she would run for Governor in next June’s Democratic Primary.
James, who has made history each time she has held elected office, is one of New York’s most compelling politicians. Her electoral coalitions throughout the five boroughs bear a startling resemblance to those of future-Mayor Eric Adams, yet, she is embraced by many of the non-profit left organizations that are inherently skeptical of Adams.
By all accounts, James was a firebrand during her time on the City Council, but has developed a more cautious streak over the past decade.
James, more so than maybe any politician I have previously written about, is a test of one’s confirmation bias. If you have a favorable opinion of her, her history and actions are not only explainable, but easily justified. Yet, if you remain skeptical of James, you will quickly find fodder throughout her career to further such a notion.
So who actually is Tish James?
To find out, we must rewind.
James, like many of today’s Democratic leaders, was born and bred in Brooklyn.
One of eight children raised by two maintenance workers in Park Slope, James attended Fort Hamilton High School before graduating from CUNY’s Lehman College in the Bronx.
“Some of my brothers and sisters made it and some didn’t.”
James recalls sitting alongside her mother in criminal court as both looked on while her brother was charged for a crime he did not commit. The incident left an indelible mark on James: “Everyone in the courtroom, except for the defendants, did not look like me, and that was shocking.”
Her lived experience, coupled with Richard Kluger’s book, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, which James says “shaped her life,” inspired her to attend Howard Law School, where she received her J.D.
Upon graduating, James returned to New York City, where she was admitted to the State Bar in 1989. After joining the Legal Aid Society as a public defender, James quickly landed herself in the realm of local politics, working for both Mario Cuomo and Elliot Spitzer before serving as counsel to Al Vann, a State Assemblyman who represented parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Vann, a longtime fixture of the Central Brooklyn community, held significant influence throughout the neighborhood, especially on issues of education, housing, and police violence. James’ credits her work with Vann as the catalyst for her own political career: “I was a student of Al Vann, one of many.”
Opportunity came calling in the fall of 2001, as incumbent City Council member Mary Pinkett, who represented the 35th Council district, was term limited. The district, which includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, was largely ungentrified at the time - 63% Black and 17% White - both figures that have significantly changed over the last two decades.
After Errol Louis (yes, you read that correctly), dropped out of the running upon the urging of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, many pundits saw the contest as a three horse race between James, Peter Williams, the director of housing for the National Urban League, and James Davis, a former cop turned minister/district leader - despite having seven candidates on the ballot.
Davis, known for his annual “Stop the Violence” march in Crown Heights, had drawn the ire of the Brooklyn Democratic Party after primarying County Boss Clarence Norman for his assembly seat. While Davis lost, he successfully seized Norman’s district leader post, which, given the time, was quite a rare feat. Instinctively, county leaders began plotting revenge on Davis - who made himself an easy target. Davis’s nonprofit, Love Yourself/Stop the Violence, had drawn legal attention for all the wrong reasons, as many critics charged that it was solely a means for Davis to embezzle funds into his campaign account.
Congressman Major Owens, a pillar of Central Brooklyn politics, was deeply skeptical of Davis, charging that he developed a “cult of personality” while “recklessly” using his nonprofit tax status to promote his campaign: “James Davis is a liar. He is a loose cannon. I never talk to James Davis. I’m afraid of James Davis.”
While Owens had previously endorsed another candidate in the race, Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Clarence Norman, who had firmly positioned his organization behind James, convinced Owens to switch allegiances to James in their collective bid to stop Davis: “we'll pull out all the stops to see that she'll win.”
The political establishment attempted to clear the field for James. While Norman succeeded in convincing Errol Louis to drop out of the race, swaying him with the prospect of a job with State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, the efforts of Major Owens and his political allies to encourage Davis to run instead in the neighboring 40th district, fell flat. Davis resisted their incessant urging and stayed in the race, ensuring the primary remained competitive. James herself challenged the petitions of all candidates not backed by the party machine, culminating in two candidates getting kicked off the ballot. This action led the New York Times to label James a “Democratic Party operative” in a 2003 piece.
Both Owens and Norman eagerly boosted James to the press, lauding her for being a “brilliant lawyer” who was the “most qualified” candidate in the field: “Tish James has done a much better job of organizing, getting money, and building support,” remarked Owens.
Headlined by Owens and Norman, along with the proverbial muscle of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, much of organized labor folded neatly behind James, who even adding an increasingly rare endorsement from The New York Times:
“Letitia James, a former assistant attorney general for Brooklyn, is the Democratic organization's candidate in this race. But Ms. James, who has compiled a fine record as a legislative counsel in Albany, seems to have the strength of character to chart an independent course.”
The Times endorsement neglected to even mention Davis throughout the entirety of their write-up. Not even labeling him a serious contender, an honor bestowed to Peter Williams, who ultimately finished with a mere 10%.
But when the September 25th primary came and went, James’ impressive coalition was not enough, as she narrowly lost to Davis, 37.37% to 32.09% - with Davis netting 6,691 votes to James’ 5,746, a winning margin of 945.
Given there were seven candidates on the ballot, and in a pre-ranked choice voting age, one could surmise that a more condensed field would have benefitted James, as Davis would not have been able to coast on a narrow plurality.
However, that theory was tested during the November 6th General election, where Davis ran on the Democratic Party ballot line, with James on the upstart Working Families Party line, which had been founded only three years prior.
Yet, Davis’ margin actually increased, as he won an outright majority in a higher turnout race, besting James by a margin of 13,129 votes (55.63%) to 9,762 votes (41.36%). Davis was poised to enter City Hall come January 2002.
Dejected but undeterred, James joined Assemblymember Roger Green, becoming his Chief of Staff, a familiar role which afforded her proximity to the political world that still intrigued her.
But, amidst one of the most shocking episodes in City history, James would be once more thrusted from the shadows into the spotlight.
Through the sweltering summer heat of July 23rd, 2003, Councilmember James Davis personally escorted a past political rival, Othniel Askew, past the City Hall metal detectors and into the Council chamber. At the time, in spite of the heightened security that gripped the City during the post-9/11 era, Council members and their guests were still afforded the liberty to bypass security. To Davis, bringing a past rival to City Hall was simply a good-faith gesture of unity: “This is the guy who was once against me, but now he’s with me.”
What Davis did not disclose to his colleagues, and what he himself severely underestimated, was Askew’s troubled history - particularly his propensity to resort to violence if he failed to get his way. At the time, Askew had multiple active restraining orders against him, which stemmed from a series of crimes, ranging from harassment to assaulting his partner with a hammer. In a series of events eerily reminiscent of Charles Guiteau’s fixation with President James Garfield over a century ago, Askew stalked Davis relentlessly, interrupting his meetings in an attempt to pressure Davis into signing a letter that would name Askew his successor if he ever left office. In an attempt to quell the chaos, Davis extended a parlay to Askew, seeking to tame his hungry foe with a truce. The gambit proved disastrous.
Upon entering the Council chamber, Davis and Askew encountered the legend himself, Charles Barron.
Barron, a good friend of Davis and former Black Panther, is nearly impossible to intimidate, let alone faze. But Barron sensed something amiss with Askew, who gave him a glaring look and “rough” handshake, prompting Davis to reassure Barron with some chilling words: “Don’t worry, Charles. He’s a military guy. He’ll calm down soon.”
As both men settled into the upstairs balcony, Davis fatefully turned his back to Askew, prompting Askew to draw his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and fire two fatal shots into Davis’ back, continuing to shoot even after Davis had crumpled to the floor.
Amidst the terror and pandemonium, Richard Burt, bodyguard of Council Speaker Gifford Miller, drew his weapon and fired at Askew from the council floor, striking Askew repeatedly in the chest, killing him.
Suddenly and tragically, the District 35 Council seat was open again, and someone had to fill the void.
The 2003 Council Election for District 35 was poised to be another matchup between James and Davis.
Yet this time, there were two key distinctions: James would be facing Geoffrey Davis, the brother of the slain councilmember; and she would be doing so solely on the Working Families Party ballot line, as Davis held the Democratic line.
While today, James’ 2003 candidacy is framed as an insurgent victory, because of her lone status on the WFP line, such an underdog narrative is debatable when more scrutiny and context are applied.
James still enjoyed the backing of organized labor, as well as the county machine, which had encouraged her to run once more. She retained her previous support from establishment politicians, like Major Owens, Al Vann and Roger Green, while adding endorsements from David Dinkins, Ed Koch, H. Carl McCall and Alan Hevesi - all evidence that she was “still bound tightly to the Democratic Party.” James’ even won favor with the Crown Heights Political Action Committee, a Hasidic-based political group, central to the whiter, more conservative area of the district.
Per a Gotham Gazette piece from 2003, there was nearly a surprise entrance into the race from none other than New York City’s future Mayor:
“After briefly considering entering the race, activist Eric Adams, longtime leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, decided not to run for the council seat from the 35th District. Adams has condemned Geoffrey Davis for not paying child support, but he did not explicitly endorse Working Families Party candidate Letitia James.”
While James Davis had alienated many influential folks during the 2001 race, he remained a talented and charismatic politician capable of appealing to a diverse constituency. However, the same could not be said for his brother, Geoffrey.
In the wake of his brother’s slaying, Davis failed to build any substantial momentum, squandered most of the public’s goodwill in the process. Davis' support slipped after his criminal history was unearthed, which included past convictions for soliciting a prostitute and refusing to pay child support. Furthermore, he alienated voters with his bad temper, going so far as to threaten James’ volunteers on a subway platform, yelling “I should fuck you up right here.”
“Davis’s mother, who was present at the time, allegedly told her son to stop menacing volunteers, to which he reportedly replied, ‘Shut the fuck up. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of my business?’” (The Village Voice)
In hindsight, the writing was on the wall from the start, as James, armed with 400 volunteers on election day and the blessing of City’s most influential unions, elected officials, and Democratic organizations, cruised to victory - winning 14,166 votes (76.68%) to Davis’ 3,392 votes (18.36%). James became the first person ever elected exclusively on the Working Families Party ballot line, and the first third party candidate to win a council seat since 1977. However, she soon rejoined the Democratic Party.
Upon entering the council, James was eager to distinguish herself as a frequent critic of the Bloomberg administration, as she quickly cultivated a reputation as one of the body’s most outspoken members. During her first week in office, James inherited the Atlantic Yards development project, a.k.a. the Barclays Center, which consumed the lionshare of her work over the next decade. James emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the project, vowing to fight eminent domain tooth and nail in court. However, the case was rejected at both the trial and appellate court levels, while the Supreme Court refused to even hear it, a dead-end for James’ efforts. Yet in recent years, James’ once steadfast opposition to Atlantic Yards has appeared to soften.
Editor’s Note: James tried repeatedly to rename the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, where Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video was filmed, after the King of Pop. The MTA would not budge, even declining James’ less invasive efforts, like a commemorative plaque or a Jackson-themed art contest.
James was a force in council hearings, helping peel back layers of corruption. She notably exposed cost overtures and financial irregularities in Bloomberg’s heavily touted CityTime payroll system, which led to multiple indictments of the project’s consultants and contractors. Alongside Bill Thompson, Charles Barron, and Bill de Blasio (among 22 other plaintiffs), James helped spearhead a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Mayor Bloomberg’s term limit extension. Bloomberg, alongside help from Speaker Christine Quinn, ignored two referendums (1993 and 1996) that established term limits, opting instead to install an extension with a council vote, which passed 29-to-22. Despite their best efforts, Bloomberg and Quinn’s power grab was upheld, which kept James in the council another four years.
The municipal government elections of 2013 resembled musical chairs, as James, termed out of the City Council, was forced to seek office elsewhere. She set her sights on the Public Advocate’s office, a largely toothless “watchdog” over City government, left vacant by the incumbent, Bill de Blasio, who was running for Mayor.
Despite the office lacking power, a citywide coalition is required to win, which gives the position credibility in the media. Strategically, it remains as important as ever, often acting as a springboard to higher office. As Public Advocate, the occupant is able to further build their name recognition, distance themselves from the Mayor’s unpopular policies, almost entirely dodge most serious responsibility, all while maintaining a six-figure salary and the ability to extend their prospects for up to eight years - patiently lying in wait for the perfect electoral opportunity, either within the city, or at the state level. Journalist Ross Barkan sums it up nicely, “it’s like a glorified congressional seat: all prestige, little tangible power.”
James was primarily pitted against Manhattan State Senator Daniel Squadron, who was endorsed by Senator Chuck Shumer, as well as Betsy Gotbaum and Mark Green, who both formerly held the position. Despite the might of organized labor behind her, James struggled to effectively raise money, finishing a paltry third in fundraising, behind both Squadron and Reshma Saujani - a problem that has consistently plagued her campaigns.
As the primary date drew close, the campaign increasingly took on a bitter tone. Squadron hit James on a myriad of issues - from failing to timely disclose her tax returns to voting with the Mayor 98% of the time in the Council to opposing Bloomberg’s soda cap while taking campaign contributions from Coca-Cola.
The charges were effective… to an extent, as James could not exceed 40% in the five way primary, which forced her into a runoff with Squadron in two weeks, who trailed her 36.11% (191,347 votes) to 33.62% (178,151 votes).
The public advocate runoff generated some of the worst turnout in City history, with just over 200,000 voters making it to the polls out of the nearly 3 million registered Democrats. Almost as many people voted for James during the primary as those who voted at all in the runoff election. Amidst this paltry turnout, James widened her margins - handily defeating Squadron 119,604 votes (59.02%) to 83,043 (40.98%).
In both the primary and the runoff, James performed strongest with the City’s working class Black and Latino voters, dominating Squadron in Central Brooklyn, Harlem, Southeast Queens, and almost the entirety of the Bronx. While she bled support throughout Manhattan’s liberal enclaves and in Brooklyn and Queens’ conservative white ethnic neighborhoods, James’ commanding margins with Black voters across the five boroughs cemented her victory.
In the runoff, James captured greater than 90% of the vote in EIGHT Assembly Districts, all of which were majority Black, either in Central Brooklyn or Southeast Queens.
Amongst her political base, James thoroughly crushed the competition, becoming the first Black woman to ever win a Citywide election.
Past Public Advocates, all of whom were Democrats (the office was created in 1993) relished the opportunity to make a name for themselves by attacking the City’s Republican Mayor, whether it be Rudy Guliani or Michael Bloomberg. But when James took office, she was flanked by Bill de Blasio, the first Democrat to hold the Mayoralty in two decades. Thus, James took on a more cautious tone, rarely bucking the Mayor, or even the imperial Governor, Andrew Cuomo, instead opting to tactfully shore up support behind the scenes with the City’s various power brokers, unions, and interest groups - in anticipation of her next move.
While James attempted to turn the Public Advocate’s office “into a law firm,” filing numerous class action suits on issues ranging from tenant’s rights to accessibility, most were dismissed outright, as her office lacked even the legal authority to sue the City in most cases. Her most reliable means for creating change ran through a familiar channel, the City Council, where she passed ten bills into law during her time as Public Advocate, including “a measure to ban employers from asking about a worker’s salary history, a bill to create a charter review commission and a bill to create a publicly accessible landlord database.”
Her cautious approach and aversion to divisive and controversial issues was hailed as shrewd politics by some, but rankled activists and progressives: “People thought she’d be a strong voice on a whole range of social justice issues, and that hasn’t really played out.”
When Eric Garner was killed by the chokehold of an NYPD officer in Staten Island, James turned heads by refusing to comment on whether race played a role in Garner’s death.
“She’s waged few memorable public campaigns against the mayor or Cuomo. In fact, many observers would be hard-pressed to recall when James, as public advocate, has taken a particularly controversial stance on anything.” (Politico)
Like de Blasio, James was looking to ascend to even higher office, and the role of Public Advocate served as the perfect perch to survey the vast landscape of opportunities. It was open secret during those years that James had great ambitions, with many insiders and pundits penciling her in as one of the early frontrunners for the 2021 Mayoral campaign, alongside Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr.
James had what every politician craves: options - she was also rumored to be a candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney, a Lieutenant Governor replacement for Kathy Hochul on Cuomo’s 2018 ticket, or even a candidate for Governor herself in 2022.
She was ready. The domino’s just had to fall.
On May 7th, 2018, New York’s political world was rocked.
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whom many considered as a potential future Governor, abruptly resigned following a devastating report from the New Yorker that detailed Schneiderman’s violent history of physically and psychologically abusing women.
With Schneiderman’s shocking collapse, the highly coveted New York State AG position was suddenly vacated.
Traditionally, the State Assembly and Senate convene a joint session and pick a permanent replacement, as was the case with current State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who was pushed through by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2007, despite an expert review panel finding him unqualified for the job. DiNapoli has held the office ever since and has never faced a primary.
James did try and play this Albany insider’s game with the hopes of an easier route to incumbency, but to no avail, ultimately garnering the public’s skepticism for merely attempting such a maneuver.
Editor’s Note: In an interesting twist of fate, Governor Cuomo sought to have the joint assembly name Kathy Hochul as the replacement AG, allowing him to jettison her from his 2018 ticket in the process. However, with the state budget negotiations already wrapped up, Cuomo lacked the necessary leverage to force his will upon the assembly.
Determined to not repeat this undemocratic malfeasance, The New York Times and New York Daily News both penned editorials raising alarm about the process. Cuomo reluctantly agreed to forego the dealmaking, as did Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leaving State Solicitor General Barbara Underwood to serve out the remainder of Schneiderman’s term until the end of the calendar year, as she had declined to permanently seek the position.
With Underwood serving only as an interim AG, the future of the office belonged to the victor of September’s Democratic Primary.
Having been a lawyer for nearly thirty years, Attorney General was a more natural fit for James than being the Public Advocate, as her office could actually wield considerable legal power. Moreover, AG is often considered a stepping stone to the Governor’s mansion.
Without looking back, James swiftly began locking down support from many of the state’s biggest unions, framing her bid as both “acceptable to the capital’s warring factions that line up behind either Governor Andrew Cuomo or the progressives that make up the Working Families Party and other lefty outfits.” The media viewed the nature of James’ historic candidacy - if she won, she would be the first Black woman elected statewide - as an antidote to the stain that Schneiderman had brought, not only to the office, but the state.
Speculation was rampant about who else would join James in the race, as big names like former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, Cuomo administration lawyer Alphonso David, and MSNBC analyst/civil-rights attorney Maya Wiley were rumored to be interested.
While none of those aforementioned contenders ultimately entered the race, James still faced formidable opposition.
Fordham Law Professor and Corruption Czar Zephyr Teachout, who received 34% during her 2014 Gubernatorial challenge to Andrew Cuomo, firmly positioned herself to the left of James. As both a lawyer and activist, Teachout remains a central figure integral to the revival of New York City’s political left over the past decade. Given the nearly nonexistent spending caps for state races, Teachout drew praise for being the only candidate to swear off donations from Corporate PACs and LLCs, highlighting her desire for both independence and transparency.
James also faced centrist opposition in the form of Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who’s campaign coffers were filled to the brim with real estate money. Maloney straddled between the Attorney General’s race and retaining his own competitive house seat.
Many progressives viewed Maloney, a sitting house member in a purple district, as a Teachout spoiler, not entirely serious about winning, but more concerned with kneecapping the left, especially upstate - a notion that was only solidified as the campaign wore on.
Despite the strengths of Teachout and Maloney, many pundits saw the race as a coronation of James, who had won the backing of Governor Andrew Cuomo - and all the donors, unions and special interests that came along with him. To do so, James had to spurn a longtime ally, the Working Families Party, an archnemesis of Cuomo, by publicly refusing their support.
Ryan Grim of The Intercept outlined the false choice before James:
“Accepting Cuomo’s offer was the most likely route to winning the election, but it would come with accusations that she had traded in her trademark independence and social justice values. Rejecting it could cost her the election and make Cuomo into a fatal enemy.”
In what was construed by detractors as a deal with the devil, James obliged Cuomo’s request.
Almost the entirety of the state’s political class uniformly backed James, from Congressman like Joe Crowley, Adriano Espaillat, and Gregory Meeks to members of the City Council like Corey Johnson, Laurie Cumbo and Justin Brannan. Other notable figures like Speaker Carl Heastie, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, and Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, also threw their weight behind her. Early on, James’ strategy of courting the establishment appeared sound, as the first polls showed her enjoying a double digit advantage over both Teachout and Maloney.
But the Summer of 2018 unleashed an insurgent energy onto New York politics that had previously been untapped. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory opened the floodgates, followed by a series of State Senate challenges to IDC incumbents. Suddenly, the political winds had shifted in a profound way, and they were blowing towards Teachout’s anti-establishment campaign.
In an interview with David Freelander of NY Mag, James lamented the fickle nature of the The Narrative Wars:
“In May, I was the progressive darling, and now I am the Establishment. It is a case study about how the narrative has shifted about Tish James, about who she is and what she stands for.”
James was right, she was merely playing by the rules she knew. But the game was changing.
Suddenly, James found herself defending flawed institutions, and Albany, at a time when the political zeitgeist indicated she do the opposite: “You have to understand that not everyone in Albany is corrupt,” she told Teachout during a debate.
“There are a lot of individuals who want to tear down the system. I want to reform the system. The system has done a lot for me and countless Americans and New Yorkers. I am not listening to the noise.”
As August crested into September, Teachout had seized the momentum, drawing national attention from progressives across the nation, landing her an endorsement from Bernie Sanders as well as that summer’s breakout star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams, the leftist primary ticket against Cuomo and Hochul, informally teamed up with Teachout - hoping to shock the system once more.
A month before the primary, The New York Times issued a strong endorsement Teachout, citing her independence from the political establishment as one of her biggest assets:
“Zephyr Teachout, an independent-minded lawyer unusually well prepared to curb abuses of power and restore integrity and pride to this office. Ms. Teachout waged a strong primary challenge against Mr. Cuomo four years ago, lending her additional credibility and distance from a governor who remains all too cozy with the donors, contractors, union leaders and influence peddlers who dominate Albany and beyond.”
Along with The Times endorsement, Teachout won the backing of New York Daily News, which called her a “puzzle-piece fit of candidate and moment” that would “bring welcome sunlight to the Capitol’s dark corners.”
Both The Times and Daily News were less kind to James, echoed the many concerns about her ties to Cuomo:
“Ms. James has for decades been a standout fighter for tenants, children and other vulnerable New Yorkers. But she has embraced political contributions from donors to Mr. Cuomo, who held a fund-raiser for her earlier this summer.” (The New York Times)
“Public Advocate Tish James, is a credible candidate, but she’s the pick of party power brokers, and that should set off alarm bells. The second strike against James: After Schneiderman imploded, she was happy to play the inside game and get handed the job by the Legislature. The third: Her record of successfully filing suit as public advocate is spotty, to put it kindly.” (New York Daily News)
The race became a dead heat, with the final poll, administered on September 11th, two days before the primary, essentially showing a three-way tie: with Maloney at 26%, James at 27%, and Teachout narrowly leading with 28% - in addition to 16% undecided. Teachout, who had consistently polled third throughout the race, was shown ahead entering election day.
However, come election night, James prevailed, winning 608,308 votes (40.34%) to Teachout’s 468,083 (31.04%) - a final margin of 140,225 votes.
Editor’s Note: Sean Patrick Maloney won 379,099 votes (25.14%). He was re-elected to his House seat in that November’s General Election.
The defining story was James’ strength in the five boroughs and the City’s surrounding suburban counties (Rockland, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk). In a theme throughout her many campaigns, James won big with the City’s outer borough Black and Latino working class, running up staggering margins, in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Such a strong showing ultimately made the difference, a fitting result for the first Black woman elected to statewide office.
James Margin of Victory over Teachout (net gain):
Brooklyn: 69,417 votes
Queens: 59,609 votes
Bronx: 66,983 votes
However, Upstate proved to be a different story, as James did not win a single county north of Westchester.
Meanwhile, Teachout won twenty-two of these counties while Maloney won thirty-one. James finished a distant third in all of them, indicating her struggles with white voters based outside New York City’s orbit.
Maloney proved strongest throughout Western New York while Teachout performed best towards the East, winning Tompkins, Ulster, Columbia, and Otsego counties with greater than 60% of the vote.
A credible case could be made that had Maloney withdrawn from the race, or simply never entered in the first place, Teachout could have coalesced further support Upstate and eked out a victory over James.
As James began her tenure as Attorney General, she sought to define herself largely around partisan issues, namely her vow to hold Donald Trump accountable for basically everything. Intraparty fights, especially with the Governor, were not her first priority.
This all changed at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as James turned her attention to someone once thought of as her close ally, Andrew Cuomo. For the duration of his time in office, Cuomo narrowly escaped trouble despite his countless misdeeds and a dubious reputation, aided and abetted by a culture in Albany characterized by intimidation and retaliation.
While coronavirus raged throughout the state, with New York City as its epicenter, Cuomo was lionized by the media as America’s hero, cast in stark contrast with villain President Donald Trump. Cuomo’s popularity ballooned, and for the first time in his career, he became a national figure, with some liberals openly pleading with the DNC to replace the feeble Joe Biden with New York’s Imperial Governor. Cuomo’s bravado adeptly cast a shadow over his administration’s malfeasance, with much of the mainstream media gleefully ignoring the depth of his impropriety.
In this moment of manufactured consent, James shined brightest. She launched an investigation into the neglect of nursing home residents in March 2020 - a response to the Governor’s declaration, which forced nursing homes to take residents with COVID-19 back into their facilities. Cuomo’s fateful decision rapidly spread deadly infections amongst the more vulnerable, elderly nursing home population, leading to mass death throughout the state.
Her office’s investigation, which was released in January 2021, confirmed what many had feared, that the Cuomo administration had (intentionally) under-counted nursing home deaths by up to 50%. Cuomo, who assumed that James would bury the report out of deference to him, was by all accounts blindsided. The FBI and United States Attorney followed suit, launching their own investigation into Cuomo’s handling of the nursing home catastrophe.
Former rival Zephyr Teachout, among countless others across the political spectrum lauded James for the report:
“I will say, on the record, that I frankly was concerned about James’s closeness with the governor, and I was very impressed that she stood up to him there. That was a really powerful moment. And a good one for New York.”
Trump’s sheer presence, and the threat he posed to New York State, had temporarily united both James and Cuomo. As Trump’s memory faded, James was eager to assert her independence, and Cuomo was scheduled for a reckoning long past due.
The Governor’s career was threatened by twin scandals: a nursing home death coverup and multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. As more women came forward, Cuomo staved off calls for his immediate resignation by agreeing to an investigation into his conduct. Although Cuomo tried to ensure it would be led by one of his cronies, James stonewalled his attempts, electing for her office to lead the probe.
While Cuomo had bought himself time, he was merely a dead man walking.
James presented her findings on August 3rd, which reaffirmed that Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women. The report was the death knell to Cuomo and his administration. Within hours, Democrats across the country, from New York’s congressional delegation to President Joe Biden, called on Cuomo to resign. He did so on August 23rd.
Cuomo’s resignation elevated Buffalo-native Kathy Hochul into the Governor’s office. Quickly, she declared an intention to seek a full term in next June’s Democratic Primary.
Now that James has officially entered the race, New York State is poised for it’s most competitive Gubernatorial election since 1982 (a statewide rematch between then-Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor Ed Koch).
The matchup between Kathy Hochul and Tish James is especially intriguing, because their respective strengths and weaknesses are inverses of one another.
Hochul’s electoral strength is with suburban white voters, many of whom are cautious, incrementally focused moderates, who value competency and look kindly on Hochul’s history of bipartisanship and compromise. These voters are wary of defunding the police and a runaway social safety net, and value that Hochul is not a member of the out of touch downstate political class.
In 2018, Hochul only lost two counties north of Westchester, whereas James failed to win a single one.
For James, New York City’s Black and Latino working class have been the foundation for every one of her electoral victories. It is with these voters, especially in Brooklyn, the state’s biggest county, that Hochul is weakest. While her Lieutenant Governor, Brian Benjamin, is a former Central Harlem State Senate, I am skeptical of his ability to help Hochul peel away Black voters from James, especially given his poor performance in the Comptroller primary. Hochul's struggles in New York City are well documented, as even when she shared a ticket with Andrew Cuomo, Jumaane Williams, now the City’s Public Advocate, handily defeated her in both Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Editor’s Note: While James and Hochul have received significant bumps to their name recognition over the last few months, their weaknesses are so pronounced that such a shift should only benefit them marginally.
Speaking of Jumaane Williams, he recently declared an intention to run for Governor as well, which would be bad news for James. Williams, another darling of the Working Families Party, is positioned firmly to the left of James, who is to the left of Hochul - making James vulnerable to an “ideological sandwich”. Williams is one of only a handful of City politicians who are popular amongst both DSA-aligned activists and working class Black voters. However, Williams' embrace of leftist politics puts his statewide viability into question, especially in New York’s most suburban, and conservative counties. James’ legal resume plays better with these voters than Williams' embrace of activist rhetoric.
A further hindrance to Williams campaign would be an inability to raise the requisite millions necessary to compete across the airwaves through election day. Without a matching funds program, Williams might lag woefully behind, especially given that Hochul, and to a lesser extent James, have few qualms with taking large campaign contributions from PACs or corporations. As Ross Barkan outlined in his piece on Williams, there might be less energy around a Williams bid in 2022 than there was in 2018, because Hochul, for all her faults, is simply not the foil Cuomo was, and James, while not a socialist, is still quite responsive to progressive concerns.
There is a real risk that a Williams Gubernatorial bid will act as nothing more than a spoiler of James. While James is not the leftist Williams is, many do consider her a progressive with a strong record of accomplishment. It will be interesting to see what the Working Families Party, and New York City’s other left nonprofits do in response to this potential pitfall. James would be wise to recruit Williams, or someone like him, to be her Lieutenant Governor, in order to shore up support amongst the state’s most left-leaning voters.
Even if Williams remains in the race, I predict that James will receive the highly coveted New York Times endorsement, despite being bypassed by the editorial board four years prior. The Times editorial board members will be inherently skeptical of Hochul’s embrace of big money and the Albany status quo, exemplified by her lucrative fundraisers headlined by corporatist relics like Joe Crowley. While the editorial board endorsed Williams over Hochul in the 2018 LG race, they are unlikely to side with him here, largely due to his lack of executive experience. That leaves James, who will no doubt have her praises sung for thoroughly dispatching Cuomo, which will be cited as evidence of her independence.
Cuomo himself, while unlikely to run a redemption campaign, is still the same vindictive sociopath as always. Thus, it is totally plausible that the $18 million banked in his campaign account could be cynically deployed in a series of negative ads across the state in a vengeful attempt to exact revenge on James. Cuomo’s unhinged aides have already been trying to undermine James’ credibility for months.
As for a few other potential candidates…
Bill de Blasio, who has fallen quite far in the eyes of the City’s voters since his resounding 2013 primary victory, has no chance in this field. Outside of New York City, de Blasio’s name is radioactive to suburban voters, and many of the white liberals who helped him reach City Hall moved on from him a long time ago. Even de Blasio’s base of outer borough Black voters seem ready to leave him at the polls next summer. If Bill de Blasio even clears 15% in a statewide race, I’ll be stunned.
Hochul’s path to victory would be aided by the presence of Williams and de Blasio in the race, who would combine to depress James’ share of New York City’s electorate, allowing Hochul to win behind a coalition of moderate suburban voters, both Upstate and on Long Island.
However, if conservative Democratic Congressman Thomas Suozzi declares, Hochul could see her suburban base compromised. Suozzi, who campaigned vigorously on behalf of Byron Brown in Buffalo, is the prototypical Nassau County politician eager to use fear monger tactics around issues of policing, bail reform laws, and (of course) socialism. While Suozzi lacks a clear path to Albany, his reactionary politics could steal a few voters away from Hochul.
James’ historic candidacy - if she wins, she will be the first Black Woman Governor in U.S. history - gives her, by far, the biggest upside of any candidate in the field. If she can successfully nationalize the race - garner earned media, expand her fundraising, all while controlling the narrative - the office is hers for the taking. A titlewave of momentum is enough to sink Hochul, and James certainly has the means to do it.
If James, who will be sixty-four on inauguration day, reaches the Governor’s mansion, her electoral prospects can only grow. Given the weak bench of national Democrats seeking to take up the party mantle in a post-Biden world, it is not implausible that James, rather than Eric Adams, would be viewed by some as a future leader in the national party.
But first, James must win, and to win, she needs progressive voters throughout the state, especially in New York City. While the viability of Williams and de Blasio is questionable at best, their presence in the race, for however long, should help move James leftward. While Democratic supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate should inspire confidence if James is elected, nothing in Albany is guaranteed.
Therefore, the time for the left to exact policy concessions is right now, during the campaign. Given that James recently came out in favor of Good Cause Eviction, she is undoubtedly amenable to a myriad of other progressive priorities, like increased taxes on the rich, single payer healthcare, state campaign finance reform, and further tenant protections.
While James has been tasked with holding the powerful accountable throughout the entirety of her career, it is now up to the voters to hold her accountable.
While Kathy Hochul has turned the page, Tish James represents an opportunity to begin a new chapter.
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