Who had a better Somos: Letitia James or Gov. Kathy Hochul?

Both 2022 candidates for New York governor made appearances, but state Attorney General Letitia James consistently got there earlier and stayed later, building momentum for her bid.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James at Somos last week.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James at Somos last week. Zach Williams

Lawmakers and other members of the New York political scene are recovering from the five-day Somos conference in Puerto Rico, where they spent their time schmoozing, partying and building alliances over drinks. The annual pilgrimage, timed for right after Election Day, doesn’t generally have a set of winners and losers – or at least the fruits of their labor aren’t apparent before flights take them back home to New York. 

But for state Attorney General Letitia James, the conference was her first time on the political stage as an official gubernatorial candidate, and she was fully in campaign mode. The only other declared candidate, incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, also used her time in sunny San Juan to drum up energy and support among Latino voters and crucial labor leaders in attendance. Much will change before primary day, but James seemed to return home with more momentum from the conference. 

James had a head start compared to Hochul, arriving in Puerto Rico a full day before the governor. Incoming New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said he wanted to reserve judgment, but noted on Friday afternoon, several days into the conference, that he had seen James more than he had seen Hochul when asked about who was making a better impression so far.

Between the two, James opted for more gladhanding than the governor she’s attempting to unseat. While Hochul stopped for some pictures with the regular conference attendees going to or from events, she was not exactly a common sight at the hotel bar or making the rounds poolside. James, on the other hand, seemed to be everywhere, talking to everyone. James could move around without a security entourage, but the difference in style still made an impression. “Tish seems to be hyper focused on the micro level of political retail, hand-to-hand, and Kathy Hochul seems to be focused on the macro,” Democratic consultant André Richardson told City & State in Puerto Rico. “Stopping in at the big events, but there seems to be little retail and limited opportunity to get near her.” He added that he posed a similar question to over a dozen people while relaxing on the beach, all of whom were from New York City and replied that James was their “day one” – their first and immediate choice.

The Somos conference is fairly New York City-centric, with those from outside the five boroughs the outliers at the get-together, so support for James among attendees from her home turf makes sense. The same could be said of her warm reception by union representatives at a well-attended labor breakfast Saturday morning. It was one of several events where both she and Hochul spoke, but James arrived sooner and stayed longer, while Hochul showed up shortly before her speech and exited promptly after. Her quick exit meant she missed something of a bidding war for a fundraiser to help repair roofs in Puerto Rico, as union bigs and politicians began shouting out large donation pledges. Tish stood up during the commotion to say she would give $5,000 to big cheers. 

Her quick exit also meant that Hochul missed the end of James’ remarks, which sounded a lot like a stump speech, when she declared that she would be the next governor of New York, shouting into the microphone to raucous applause. She turned to leave the podium, but thought better of it as the cheers continued and returned to the mic to lead a chant. “When I say Tish, you say vote,” she yelled. “Tish!” The crowd responded with an enthusiastic “Vote!” It was one of a few mic-drop campaign moments the state attorney general had throughout the conference, which Hochul never seemed to match. 

Union support will be crucial for whoever wants to win the primary next year, and so far, big players are assessing their options. “I think it’s safe to say she’s a strong candidate who has been there for us, and of course she has to be one of the top considerations,” District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido told City & State of James after her speech, remaining noncommittal. But he acknowledged that her ties to labor are strong, as James’ reception at the breakfast clearly indicated. “Labor loves Tish,” Garrido added.

For some, James’ success compared to Hochul at Somos seemed apparent. “I think she ran flat, not as excitable,” one Democratic consultant at the conference said of Hochul. “For Tish, it’s like ‘I’m home.’” Others didn’t see it as quite so clear cut. One labor source described the pair as “neck and neck” depending on which event one may be referring to, but conceded that James had become bolder and much more upfront about her campaigning at Somos. “I think they're both making their pitch and I think they're both actually showing who they are as human beings,” Assembly Member Harvey Epstein of Manhattan told City & State. “They're expressing who they are, sharing their values, speaking about their priorities, and then we all get to learn more about them to make some decisions.”

James and Hochul have already staked out some differing policy decisions, with James pledging support for at least one major left-wing priority. On the final night of Somos, while attending a reception for new progressive members of the New York City Council, James explicitly pledged support for so-called good cause eviction legislation, which would impose restrictions on a landlord’s ability to evict tenants and place certain limits on rent increases. Just days earlier, in an interview with City & State before she arrived at the Puerto Rico conference, Hochul demurred when asked about the very same topic. In the same interview, the governor pledged that she would not raise taxes any higher.

None of this is to say that Hochul did anything wrong at Somos or that she received a poor reception from attendees. It is only November, and members of the political class could well forget a good showing at Somos in even just a few weeks, let alone in several more months. “None of these races will be won or lost in Puerto Rico,” Assembly Member Robert Carroll told City & State as he made his way to the beach. While it’s a good place to be, he pointed out it will hardly be the deciding factor. Democratic strategist Trip Yang (who is a member of City & State’s board) was more blunt: “None of this will matter in June 2022.” But good buzz coming from Puerto Rico certainly doesn’t hurt as the two candidates start campaigning.