When New York Attorney General Letitia James was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, she noticed that some women on the subway looked different from others. “I would admire women who wore suits, business suits,” she tells me during a 45-minute telephone interview on Oct 26, three days before she announced her bid for New York Governor. “The first woman of color I ever saw wear a business suit was on the subway.”
She finally got her own first business suit in law school, but by then she was onto bigger professional thrills. “It was surreal,” she recalls. “But what was even more surreal was stepping into a court room and defending someone falsely accused of a crime.”
When I asked her why there had never been a Black woman Governor anywhere in the US, she seemed to shrug. “I tend not to focus on race,” she said. Instead, she was interested in “how one uses power.”
When it comes to using power, James has carved out a record of using hers to, as one New York political observer put it, “go after bad guys.” And even on the precipice of a race which could make her the first Black woman governor in American history, she turns the conversation away from her biography, preferring to talk about her track record instead. As New York Attorney General, her office pursued investigations of financial malfeasance at the NRA, the Trump Organization and the miscounting of Covid-19 nursing home deaths. She led a victorious effort to get up to $1.5 billion in restitution from opioid manufacturers to help New Yorkers confront the opioid crisis. And she capped her three-year stint by overseeing the probe of former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s alleged sexual harassment of staff members that led to his resignation on August 10.
Next to all that, it seems Tish James doesn’t think the personal story of Tish James is particularly interesting. “I put my head down every day and I go to work,” she says on our phone call, three days before she announced her candidacy.
Her entrance into the New York gubernatorial race kicks off a contentious primary contest to challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state’s first woman Governor, who succeeded Cuomo after he was forced out. The high-profile primary between a Black woman with deep roots in progressive Brooklyn and a more moderate white incumbent from Buffalo is shaping up to be a referendum on race, geography and ideology that could determine the direction of the New York Democratic party, even as more potential candidates signal they’re considering entering the race.
James, 63, has made her own way in New York politics. She was the first Black woman elected to citywide office in New York City (as Public Advocate in 2013,) the first woman of color elected to statewide office in New York (as Attorney General in 2018) and now she’s seeking the highest office in the state, a bid that would make her the first woman and Black person to be elected to the state’s highest office. Her career is also tinged with political intrigue: James and Cuomo were allies when they ran in 2018, but her office oversaw the investigation that ultimately that led to his downfall.
The office of Attorney General is often seen as a launchpad for hard-charging aspiring Governors to audition for the top job. Yet three of James’s predecessors—Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, and Eric Schneiderman—found themselves engulfed in scandal themselves. James is unfazed. “We will not be defined by the failings of a few men,” she said. “We will be defined by our greatness, and we will be defined by all that I have done, and all that others have done to invoke the axiom that no-one is above the law, and that the law should be used as both a sword and a shield.”
Given the checkered records of her predecessors and her own role in investigating sexual harassment, I asked James if she had ever experienced sexual harassment herself. She recalled her time as a staff member in Albany, counseling other women who had been harassed by elected officials. But had she ever personally experienced it? “No, I haven’t been personally sexually harassed,” she said. “I’m an imposing woman and very opinionated and no one has approached me and/or harassed me.”
If James’s formidable climb up the rungs of New York politics speaks for itself, her personal life is a different story. Notoriously private, James is about to put herself under the biggest spotlight of her career so far. She starts her day around 7 a.m., reading every major newspaper and City & State, watching NY1, and drinking her chai latte for breakfast. She seems somewhat baffled when I ask her what she does for fun, but says she’s a “huge fangirl” of Rachel Maddow, and in between briefs she’s reading The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. She has never been married, and does not live with a partner. During Covid, “I was socially isolated,” she recalls. “But nonetheless I’ve got neighbors, we check on our neighbors, I’m directly across the street from my church.”
It may seem refreshing, in a state full of big personalities that produced the likes of Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo, that James seems inclined to keep her biography understated and her personal life private. Yet James has not yet carved out the personal narrative that has buoyed the national profiles of other crusaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, or Vice President Kamala Harris.
I asked her, as someone who has spent much of their career enforcing the rules, if she has ever broken one herself. “I haven’t had time to break the rules,” she said, with a little laugh. “That’s a joke.”
Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with seven brothers and sisters, James recalled spending most of her childhood in the library reading fairy tales. Her mother was a maintenance woman before she got a job at AT&T. Her father worked as a super at several properties in Harlem. Aside from watching her parents cry on the night Dr. King was assassinated, James doesn’t recall being particularly engaged in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. “We weren’t aware of that,” she says of the larger racial justice movement at that time. “We were more interested in jumping rope.” Their block was racially diverse, and even though “some parents didn’t want their children playing with us,” she and her siblings “still got in the middle of the street.”
Still, her early memories of racial politics involve the legal system. “I can recall when my brother was falsely arrested and my mother took me to court,” she says. “I saw the defendants in criminal court all looked like me, and all the people in power did not.” Her brother was arrested for stealing a bicycle when James was a young teenager, her office says, but was never prosecuted.
After starting her career as a public defender and working in various staff positions in Albany, James spent a decade representing her Brooklyn district on the City Council before becoming New York City’s Public Advocate in 2013. She then ran for New York Attorney General in 2018, in a bid supported by then-Governor Cuomo, and became the first Black women elected to statewide office in New York.
From that perch, James pursued aggressive investigations that earned her a national reputation. Her office has been conducting a civil investigation of the Trump Organization’s alleged inflation of assets for years, and recently announced that investigation will proceed alongside the Manhattan District Attorney’s probe, becoming a criminal investigation. She is suing to dissolve the National Rifle Association, alleging that senior executives misused charitable funds for personal purposes and broke state and federal laws. More recently, her office investigated the state Department of Health’s undercounting of Covid-19 deaths in New York nursing homes, and oversaw the investigation into Cuomo’s alleged pattern of sexual harassment.
“She was that trailblazer we were looking for in our lifetime,” says New York State Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, who compared James to the legendary New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. “Tish was the rising black woman that we all looked up to.”
Hermelyn, who also chairs the Democratic party in Brooklyn, recalled James not only as an inspiration for other Black women in New York politics, but also as a caring friend. When Hermelyn lost her infant son and her mother in the span of a few years, James was one of the first elected officials to reach out. “My child dying, my mother dying, were two points in my life where I didn’t know if I wanted to live,” Hermelyn recalls. James, she says, was “praying on the phone with me when I lost the baby.”
Her candidacy, says Hermelyn, could prove a watershed moment for Black women in New York. “She doesn’t want to be alone, right? Why would you want to be alone in that world?” Hermelyn says. “You want to be surrounded with people like you, more women, more women of color. Why would you want to be surrounded constantly by white men? That’s something we both share.”
James is widely considered to be Hochul’s most formidable challenger in the race for New York Governor, even as several other candidates from the progressive and moderate wings of the party are rumored to be weighing their own bids. The face-off between the two women reflects longstanding divisions in the Democratic party, between the diverse progressive base in New York City and the more moderate voters upstate. James, a Brooklyn native and familiar face in progressive New York politics, has an edge in the city; Hochul, who is from Buffalo and has spent years cutting ribbons in the suburbs and rural counties, has the advantage in the rest of the state.
On balance, that serves James well, since the majority of Democratic votes in the state come from the Big Apple and surrounding areas. “When was the last time a Democrat was elected governor that was not from the city of New York?” says Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “I think the dinosaurs roamed the earth.”
Still, James may face challenges in arguing to voters why she would be a better Governor than Hochul, a personable if relatively unknown incumbent who has largely avoided political mistakes in the months since she replaced Cuomo, and who has spent years building relationships around the state. Winning the nomination would require James to make a persuasive argument for why Hochul isn’t up for the job, an argument she does not seem eager to make quite yet.
In a video posted on her Twitter on Friday as she announced her run for Governor, James didn’t mention Hochul at all, instead touting her own lawsuits against opioid makers, the Trump Organization, and the NRA. “I’ve spent my career guided by a simple principle: stand up to the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable,” she said.
“This is not an issue of Letitia James and Kathy Hochul,” James tells me during our call. “I’m focused on the challenges I see on the ground, that New Yorkers face each and every day. As you travel the state you see it, you see poverty, you see high unemployment, you see the lack of economic development, you see hopelessness.”
If that sounds like a different kind of politics than what many New Yorkers may be used to—less personality, more results—James is OK with that. “I’ve been focused on improving the lives of others,” she told me. “That’s what my focus has been.”
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