Andrew Cuomo

No longer ‘defiant,’ James stumps for ‘respect’

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James becomes part of the establishment.

Rep. Grace Meng, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Rep. Nydia Velazquez

Rep. Grace Meng, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Rep. Nydia Velazquez Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

Letitia James clearly isn’t used to being part of the establishment.

She was nearing the emotional crescendo of her stump speech to donors Tuesday night at a fundraiser for her state attorney general campaign at the Times Square Irish pub Connolly's. A full floor of the massive bar was filled with supporters, drinking in her every word between sips of white wine, when she let the old James slip out.

James was saying that New York's next attorney general needs to be someone “who lives and breathes and wakes up every day committed to improving the life of someone. So I need all of you to march in defiance – “ James stopped, and caught herself. “No, not in defiance, in respect,” she continued, more calmly, “into those polls on Sept. 13 and vote.”

It was an appropriate self-edit. A vote for James isn’t defiant. A vote for the one-time insurgent is now a vote for the mainstream, for continuity, for the party line and for the ticket of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bulldozing his way to a third term.

James’ political persona always had a cool demeanor – tall, calm and smooth in conversation. But her politics were defiant: She was the first person ever elected on the Working Families Party line alone, bucking the Brooklyn Democratic Party in her 2003 election to the New York City Council. She has joined the mainstream since then, widely embraced by city and state Democrats – but she’s always maintained some of her outsider credentials, winning the public advocate’s office despite lagging opponent Dan Squadron in endorsements. Once in office, she challenged a number of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agencies in court.

But now James has decided that aligning herself with Cuomo, the odds-on favorite in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13, is the surest path to victory in the four-person attorney general’s primary race. Getting the endorsement from Cuomo and the backing of the state Democratic Party has been a benefit to her campaign coffers and her name recognition. She has a decent lead in all the public polls released so far, and she has won well over 50 endorsements from elected officials – far more than her opponents.

But Cuomo’s support has hurt her in other ways. She lost The New York Times’ nod, one of the few endorsements which may actually sway voters, to Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor who has never held elected office. The Times wrote about James’ ties to Cuomo with disdain. “Given the political landscape in New York and elsewhere, the state attorney must be absolutely independent,” the editorial read.

James thinks, however, that her backing by on-the-ground political players will matter more. “I thought about all of the support that we had received from labor,” she told City & State at the fundraiser, when asked what she made of the Times endorsement. This wasn’t a dig at the Times’ elitism, imagined or otherwise, but a bet on numbers. “They’re the salt of the Earth,” James said, referring to unions. “They know how to get out the vote, and that’s going to be critically important in a primary on an off day,” she said, referring the the election, moved to a Thursday to avoid Rosh Hashanah and the anniversary of Sept. 11.

Labor unions have almost unanimously backed James so far, save for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters – not exactly a force in New York elections – which has endorsed Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. The fourth candidate in the Democratic primary, Verizon lobbyist Leecia Eve, has likewise received just one union endorsement, from the Buffalo-based CWA Local 1168. Teachout hasn't received a single labor endorsement. And yet, Teachout’s list of endorsements has been growing, largely composed of candidates and groups to the left of the Democratic Party’s mainstream, from gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon to New York Communities for Change, a grassroots economic justice group. One notable exception: the Working Families Party, which made the rare decision to co-endorse both Teachout and James, even after James declined to pursue the WFP ballot line. Many observers thought she avoided the line at Cuomo’s behest, after it backed Nixon over the sitting governor, and James essentially confirmed it to the Times Union on Wednesday, quoting unnamed Democrats who “felt that the WFP party was very self-righteous.”

No longer running on “defiance,” James is instead running on experience, and respect for the office. She has plenty of both. James has been a public-interest lawyer for nearly three decades, working as a Legal Aid attorney, counsel to state legislators and an assistant attorney general under Eliot Spitzer. But she’s also a student of the office, listing past attorneys general and what they focused on – Robert Abrams, consumer fraud; Spitzer, financial crimes.

James hasn’t been a practicing lawyer for years, but she said she has been itching to get back in the courtroom. She considered doing overnight per diem public defender work while she served in the City Council. She ultimately passed, citing potential liability to the city, but she has been able to flex her legal muscles occasionally as public advocate. James personally represented an unaccompanied immigrant child in court during her first term, and set apart her tenure in the office by filing more lawsuits than her three public advocate predecessors combined. It was a deliberate attempt to add weight to an office with few enumerated responsibilities. “I would describe what I have attempted to do, or have done, in the office of public advocate as a mini attorney general’s office and legal services,” she said.

Her legal record, however has been mixed, with judges tossing a number of cases because she didn’t have legal standing to sue. After nearly five years in the office, she has no marquee legal wins to point to. Her biggest win may have been securing a settlement for 10 New Yorkers who were unfairly removed from the city’s rent freeze program.

But James told City & State that, like a minor leaguer waiting for a call up, she’s already dreaming of what she would do as the top law enforcement officer in one of the biggest states in the country. It’s a position that creates opportunities to fight everyone from unscrupulous landlords in Brooklyn to what many New Yorkers consider the unscrupulous landlord in the White House.

“I would love to second seat,” she said, referring to the practice commonly known as “second chairing” where the legal office’s leader actually argues a case in court as co-counsel to one of their assistants. ”Particularly in light of what’s happening in our country, I would love to argue a case in federal court in defense of someone’s rights, in defense of environmental laws, reproductive rights, housing rights, discrimination case, you name it,” she said. “A Martin Act, a Donnelly Act violation, consumer fraud case, I would love to,” she added, referring to the laws that let the attorney general prosecute securities fraud and bust up trusts, respectively.

James’ Times Square event was billed as an activists and young professionals fundraiser, and most of the room appeared to be born after James graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1986. But James, who will turn 60 – about 20 years older than she looks – a month after the primary, could still try to relate, quoting a couple of hip hop anthems to close out her speech. “We started from the bottom and now we’re here,” she said, borrowing from Drake’s 2013 hit to describe her political rise. “And what’s the other one?” she asked the crowd. Her political aide in the crowd was ready with the answer, a 2016 Fat Joe record. So James shouted to the crowd: “Nothing can stop me, I’m all the way up!”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Eve has received no labor endorsements.