Is Jumaane Williams made of Teflon?

Jumaane Williams during the second televised public advocate debate
Jumaane Williams during the second televised public advocate debate
Stefan Jeremiah for the New York Post (pool)
Jumaane Williams during the second televised public advocate debate.

Is Jumaane Williams made of Teflon?

Why an array of criticisms being thrown at the public advocate candidate may not spook progressive voters.
February 24, 2019

In the race to be New York City’s next public advocate, City Councilman Jumaane Williams carries the support of the progressive Working Families Party, multiple labor organizations and The New York Times editorial board, which is part of why many predict that he will win Tuesday’s election.

But Williams also carries some baggage that – while loaded with hot-button issues for progressive voters – has not managed to weigh him down.

That could be because Williams is a charismatic and credentialed candidate, but some say the more likely explanation for why various controversies and critiques aren’t sticking to him is because progressive voters don’t care about a candidate’s past – what they want is a candidate who stands up for their views now.

“With respect to progressives, I think you can look at the lieutenant governor's race and see the number there,” said Lupe Todd-Medina, a political consultant and founder of Effective Media Strategies, referring to Williams’ candidacy in last fall’s lieutenant governor Democratic primary, in which he won nearly 47 percent of the vote. “When they've asked about his positions and how they've evolved, they have taken him at his word.” While Williams has built credibility with the left on racial and economic justice by fighting for affordable housing, tenants’ rights and police oversight and accountability, his history of social conservatism has drawn criticism in staunchly socially liberal New York.

First elected councilman in 2009, Williams’ stance on abortion rights has long been called into question. In 2013, he was quoted in a Politico article saying, “You have to check off a box of pro-choice and you have to check off a box of pro-life and I don't know that I'm comfortable in any of those boxes. I am personally not in favor of abortion.” Later, in a 2017 letter to his colleagues in the City Council when running unsuccessfully for speaker of the body, Williams stated his definitive pro-choice stance. “Let me be as clear as I can,” he wrote. “I support marriage equality for our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA communities. I support a woman’s right to have access to a safe, legal abortion.” When the issue was raised again at the first public advocate debate earlier this month, Williams responded to questions from opponents Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former New York City Council speaker, and Assemblyman Michael Blake by saying that he not only supports but fights for a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. Williams also received a 100 percent rating from the Planned Parenthood of New York City Action Fund.

Williams has previously stated a belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, telling Politico in 2013, “I personally believe the definition of marriage is between a male and a female, but that has nothing to do with my belief that government has to recognize everybody's relationships as equal.” But when that distinction didn’t satisfy some of his colleagues in the City Council, Williams opened up about his religious upbringing and the evolution he said he had undergone. “I think when you’re brought up, your religion tells you a whole lot of stuff,” he said in 2017. “A lot of it is very good. I use a lot of it for the work I do, the revolutionary aspect of it. Jesus of Nazareth … a revolutionary fighting for people who are oppressed, fighting to make sure that people had their voice. So that gives me my push for equality and equity. But religion can be used for some very bad things, for slavery, for homophobia, for a lot of craziness.”

Todd-Medina believes Williams has defused liberal concerns with those answers, and that Williams’ critics forget that the predominantly Caribbean-American, moderate district that he represents is the same community that he was raised in. “If you know anything about Caribbean churches and Caribbean communities, it's not surprising that he grew up and his beliefs were the beliefs that he had,” she said. “It doesn't mean that he can't represent people who support pro-choice or are pro-abortion, it doesn't mean that. But let's understand the community of which he was raised, the community that reared the man that he is today.”

Another political consultant compared it to former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s moral opposition to abortion as a Catholic and his refusal to impose his personal religious views on society.

While New York City is something of a beacon for ideological liberals, it’s also a city of immigrants, many of whom came from countries with more traditional mores on sex, gender and the role of religion in society. The explanation may not be that New York voters are quick to forgive, but that in some cases they actually share Williams’ perspective. “I also think people took him at his word because we are a city of immigrants,” Todd-Medina said. “Most people here have done some evolution of something, some time ago.”

Williams’ finances have also been cracked open over his years in office and two failed bids for City Council speaker, with the most scrutiny being paid to his history during his campaign for lieutenant governor last year. The New York Post reported that Williams owes more than $600,000 on a loan he took out to finance a vegan sandwich shop that closed in 2008. During the course of his public advocate campaign, it was also reported that Williams owed more than $10,000 in taxes for the restaurant. But when his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, cited his debt in an attack ad, Williams deftly spun it as a positive. “It’s an absurd attack. I’m not sure why they think it’s a winning one,” he told City & State at the time. “To have a millionaire, elitist, corporate Democrat talk about debt in this way really shows a disconnect that so many of us have been pointing out for some time.”

Clearing the hurdle of questionable personal finances is likely even easier than the more volatile issues of abortion and same-sex marriage when it comes to progressive voters. Debt is an issue on which New Yorkers are especially forgiving, Todd-Medina said. “It's an expensive city," she said. "If you don't have a little bit of debt, you're one of the lucky ones, or you're a billionaire.”

But issues have also cropped up for which Williams and his team have not offered explanations or managed to spin as positives for voters. These include his taxes revealing that he wrote off $3,000 for haircuts and grooming in one year, his history of evicting tenants from his Canarsie rental property who he said owed tens of thousands of dollars in rent and a dismal driving record, including 27 speeding violations in school zones and 10 instances of blocking bus lanes.

On some of these, Williams and his camp have responded, explaining that the $3,000 write-off included expenses for laundry and dry cleaning, and denying one of the alleged evictions, saying that "the tenant vacated" after not paying rent, instead. On his driving record, Williams has been contrite, promising to change his driving behavior.

But one critique that has, perhaps surprisingly, not managed to stick to Williams during the public advocate race is the accusation from his detractors that his campaigns have been a sanctuary for men who are predators. Tatek Ewart, Williams’ former treasurer on his 2009 and 2013 City Council campaigns was fined and “targeted for firing” by the Department of Education over allegations that he sent inappropriate poems to a student. The New York Daily News then reported that Ewart stayed on with the campaign for months after the accusation went public.

Williams did remove state Sen. Kevin Parker from his campaign after the senator tweeted “Kill yourself” at a female staffer, but Parker has faced assault charges in the past, and yet he remains on Williams’ list of endorsements. Last week, Politico New York’s City Hall bureau chief Sally Goldenberg tweeted at Williams asking why he hadn’t removed Parker, a question to which Williams did not respond.

Another endorsement that would seemingly rub progressives the wrong way is City Councilman Andy King, who has been accused of sexual harassment by a female staffer, and was found to have broken the council’s anti-harassment rules. Like Parker, King remains on Williams’ list of endorsements.

“As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I'm deeply troubled by these revelations,” Mark-Viverito said recently. “We need leaders who support and believe women. Jumaane's decision to closely align himself with men who have harassed and assaulted women raises serious red flags." Despite being confronted over these endorsements by Mark-Viverito at a public advocate debate earlier this month, Williams managed to avoid responding to the question directly, citing his record of supporting women instead.

It’s not obvious how Williams has managed to evade some of these points, given the current prominence of the #MeToo movement. Most likely, these are instances that largely haven’t crossed voters’ radar. “It might be a bee sting at best, at this point,” Todd-Medina said of the impact this criticism would have on the election’s outcome. “I certainly haven't heard a lot about it, and I've kind of got my ear to the ground.” Todd-Medina also raised the possibility that Williams’ team hadn’t removed the endorsements because doing so would only draw more attention to a controversy which, so far, has received very little.

When it comes down to why these controversies don’t seem to be holding Williams back, his record of voting and advocating on the very issues that have been raised – including abortion and tenants rights – is certainly a factor for progressive voters, who seem to be more concerned with a candidate’s current position and legislative record than past statements. But another key part may be that issues like traffic violations and personal finances simply don’t rise to the level of outrage for progressives. “This is New York City, we've seen it all,” Todd-Medina said. “You've got to come harder than he had an unpaid tax bill at this point, when it comes to New York City residents.”

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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