Journalists often report on elected officials’ personal debt. But it’s rare for that reporting to serve as the basis of an opponent’s attack ad.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul did just that, however, targeting her Democratic primary opponent New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams for being six figures in debt.
“Williams still owes $10k in taxes and $625k on a loan from a failed business,” the digital ad released on Friday reads. “Our NY State budget is $168.3 billion per year. If he can't manage his own finances, do you really want him managing yours?”
Williams’ debts were brought to attention by the New York Post last week. But his financial woes had been reported on for years: by Gothamist in 2011, the Daily News in 2013, the Observer in 2014 and Politico New York in 2015.
Hochul’s commercial received a ton of attention on Twitter. Some thought it was a low blow, like defense attorney and former City Council candidate Ali Najmi.
Wow @JumaaneWilliams and @CynthiaNixon must be polling incredibly high for Cuomo team to come out with this. Let me understand this, you are shaming him for being a foreclosed on? Not the smartest way to connect with real New Yorkers. https://t.co/h6GLkv9x1w— Ali Najmi (@Ali_Najmi) August 4, 2018
But others, like NY1 political host Errol Louis, said that personal finances are a legitimate issue for any candidate.
No position; I pointed out that @KathyHochul’s attack ad emphasizing @JumaaneWilliams’s financial problems, while harsh, raises valid questions. @JumaaneWilliams and his followers are claiming his tax and credit delinquencies are (or should be) a non-issue. They are quite wrong.— Errol Louis (@errollouis) August 5, 2018
Hochul doubled down on her criticism of Williams in an interview with NY1’s Zack Fink on Monday, noting that Williams has been making a six-figure salary since took office as a City Councilman in 2010.
.@LtGovHochulNY doubles down on her criticism of @JumaaneWilliams finances. Says median income in parts of his district is $22,000, much lower than the Council Member’s $148,000 salary. Adds that Williams has taken more than a million in public salary over the last ten years. pic.twitter.com/g1srtWjzyl— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) August 6, 2018
On Monday, Williams responded.
“It’s an absurd attack. I’m not sure why they think it’s a winning one,” he said in an interview with City & State at Manhattan Criminal Court, where Williams was awaiting a verdict in his his trial for protesting the impending deportation of immigration activist Ravi Ragbir.
Williams also wanted to clarify his finances. He said he took out a home equity loan to finance his Brooklyn vegetarian restaurant, Earth Tonez Cafe, which closed in 2008. He’s paid off all the debt for that business, but now his house is in foreclosure.
As for the $10,102 tax bill, the Wednesday Post article was the first Williams had heard of it. “I still have to look into it. I have no idea what they’re talking about. From my understanding it’s sales tax… but I don’t know. It’s news to me,” he said.
But Williams had his own criticism for Hochul, calling her out of touch.
“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,” he said. Hochul made nearly $600,000 in 2017, according to tax returns she shared with the press.
When Rep. Chris Collins was running to unseat then-Congresswoman Hochul in 2012, he criticized her wealth. Then, her net worth was reported as between $1.05 million and $2.27 million.
Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim showed support for Williams on Twitter, suggesting that voters may actually appreciate Williams’s struggle with the same financial challenges as many typical families.
Disconnect bw corporate Dems and the people-driven movement: @KathyHochul doesn’t understand how millions of Americans are fed up with our debt-driven growth society that’s bankrupting our nation & @JumaaneWilliams knows how it feels to be on the losing side of our failing system https://t.co/t3MgKAqTN0— Ron T. Kim (@rontkim) August 4, 2018
Williams wouldn’t go as far to say that his debt was a positive in the eyes of New York voters, but believed that his situation was relatable. “I do think most New Yorkers understand the experience that I’ve had, (and) understand why I try to lift those (people) up as who we should be fighting for,” he said. “The lieutenant governor has now shown that she has scorn for those experiences.”