“I am guilty by association,” says Letitia James, weary in the broiling heat, as we sit on a park bench in Queens after a campaign stop at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. She has just given four elderly women playing mah-jongg a kiss, posed for pictures, and been endorsed by no fewer than 20 Democratic Party district leaders, city councilmembers, and state legislators. James is the city’s public advocate — first in line to succeed the mayor — and was until recently considered a sure thing for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. She has the support of nearly every labor union and every elected official in the state, including—and this is increasingly problematic, given how much the activist left now dislikes him — Governor Cuomo. But now she’s fighting for her political life against Congressman Sean Maloney and the insurgent candidacy of Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who has cleverly found a way to use James’s long record and, more important, the warm embrace of the state’s political class against her. If Teachout wins, it might mean that the playbook for how to get elected in this state, and in this town, is no longer operable.
It’s a situation James finds disconcerting. “In May, I was the progressive darling, and now I am the Establishment,” she says. Switching to her habit of referring to herself in the third person, as if trying to gain some objectivity, she adds, “It is a case study about how the narrative has shifted about Tish James, about who she is and what she stands for.”
An aide brings a mango smoothie. James worries that she’s getting sick. (“I probably shouldn’t have kissed those ladies.”) The last few weeks have been a nonstop slog: three senior centers in the Bronx one day, a union hall in Mineola the next. Teachout, who admittedly is quite pregnant, has kept a less brutal statewide schedule.
One of eight children of parents who’d fled sharecropping in the South and eventually lived in a brownstone in Park Slope, James went to Lehman College and Howard Law School. She has climbed the political ladder, with steady focus, as a public defender, assistant attorney general, and city councilwoman. In May, after Eric Schneiderman resigned in the wake of reports that he abused several women he dated, James seemed like such an overwhelming favorite to replace him that for a moment it looked as if she would have no credible challenger. She would be the state’s first African-American AG and, Barbara Underwood’s interim appointment aside, its first female.
But with many Democrats inspired by outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, James finds herself having to defend The System. “You have to understand that not everyone in Albany is corrupt,” she retorted to Teachout during a debate — which may be true, but a bumper-sticker slogan it ain’t. On top of all that, the New York Times endorsed Teachout, an academic and activist who went to Yale and grew up in Vermont — her father a law professor and her mother a judge — who has previously lost bids for governor and Congress. She’s not a machine politician. As the Times put it: “James has for decades been a standout fighter for tenants, children, and other vulnerable New Yorkers. But she has embraced political contributions from donors to Mr. Cuomo, who held a fund-raiser for her earlier this summer.”
Of course, until recently, this just seemed like how you succeeded: work within the system, then make it work for your constituents. “Yes, the governor has embraced me, but it’s because he respects me. He recognizes my independence, and he recognizes my hard work in 20 years of public service,” James says. “But these are strange times, and I got it.’ ”
James lost her first bid for City Council in 2001. Less than two years later, the councilman who won the seat, a gadfly named James Davis, was murdered in the council’s chambers. Local Democrats wanted to hand the seat to Davis’s brother, Geoffrey, but James ran in the general election on the left-wing Working Families Party line and won, becoming the first person in city history to do so.
In the City Council, James made her name as a fierce opponent of the Atlantic Yards project (nonetheless, Barclays Center got built). Bloomberg-administration officials recall her as a relentless advocate for her district who, for the most part, worked well with them, though she took the opportunity at her public-advocate inauguration to criticize departing mayor Bloomberg for governing too much for the wealthy and leaving the working class to struggle (he was sitting, grim-visaged, a few feet away). James also brought a homeless girl who had been the subject of a five-part Times story onstage with her, then later suggested that she’d tipped off the paper to the girl’s plight, when in fact she hadn’t. The Times blasted James for turning the girl into a “prop.”
Being public advocate is a little like being lieutenant governor: You are mainly angling for a promotion. James seemed to consider the gig something of a cross between councilmember-at large — she introduced more legislation than any previous public advocate — and leader of a public-interest law firm. She has rarely been openly critical of Mayor de Blasio, but her office has sued his administration about a dozen times, over everything from more transparency in the Eric Garner case to un-air-conditioned city school buses.
It’s a novel use of the office, maybe too novel — a number of those lawsuits were tossed out. Given that, under Schneiderman, the AG’s office became a front-line fighter against the Trump administration, her legal moves would be greatly scrutinized.
There have been other missteps: She said she didn’t want to be “the sheriff on Wall Street,” a comment she had to walk back. She declined this time to seek the backing of the Working Families Party, which many on the left found suspicious given that the WFP and Cuomo are feuding. James denies he had anything to do with it: “The governor never forced me not to take the WFP line.” Rather, she was responding in part to the concerns of (unnamed) elected officials who felt the WFP had become “holier than thou” and focused on issues they didn’t care about. Not that she herself necessarily agrees with these critics, she assures me.
Meanwhile, the party’s mood is restless. “I no longer felt the need to settle for the status quo,” says Ritchie Torres, a Bronx city councilman who first endorsed James, then said he will be voting for Teachout. “I no longer feel the need to make decisions based on political relationships and realities.”
“There are a lot of individuals who want to tear down the system,” James says. “I want to reform the system. The system has done a lot for me and countless Americans and New Yorkers. I am not listening to the noise. There is a lot of cynicism out there. I am hearing it from people who want to gin up this notion that the Democratic Party is split 50,000 different ways. But I fought and clawed and scratched my way to the table, and now all of a sudden people want to question my independence. It’s never been questioned before! And it won’t be in the future, I guarantee you that.”
She takes a sip of her smoothie.
“I love campaigning. I just want my voice back.”
*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!