Talking to New York City Public Advocate Letitia James About How to Get Involved in Local Politics

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Letitia James.Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

The results of this election have galvanized a lot of people into wanting to get involved in local politics. But the task itself can be daunting to actually take on. Where do you start? What organizations or issues need your help the most? Does getting involved necessarily meaning running for office yourself someday? Should we really be focusing locally instead of nationally?

New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James, is here to help. James was the first woman of color to hold citywide office in NYC when she became public advocate in 2014. Her role in the second-highest ranking office in the city (behind the mayor) requires her to parlay between the citizens of New York and the government, making sure she’s advocating for what residents need most — whether that’s criminal-justice reform, rehabilitating the foster-care system, or closing the gender pay gap. In a conversation with the Cut, James gave some insight on where to start if you, too, want to advocate for your community’s most vulnerable populations.

If I were interested in getting into local politics, what is the first step I should take ?
First, I would check to see if you’re registered to vote. Once you’ve checked your registration, I would ask for your interests and your passions. Then, I would direct you either to a civic-minded organization, a community-based organization, a political club, or a house of faith. All of those organizations tend to be very active in the city of New York. There is this sense of longing that I’m feeling in this city. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People want to be part of the movement on the ground. Those four places are great jumping-off points for those feelings.

What if I were interested in taking it to the next level and running for local office?
If you were interested in running for local office, you’d have to determine first what district you want to focus on. Then you’d want to determine if you want to get involved with the school board, the community board, the precinct council, your tenant’s association, the block association, the community board. You could also run for elected office like City Council or district leader or county committee. Or maybe you’d want to work at the board of elections, or volunteer at a city agency that does police oversight, or volunteer to count the homeless, to feed seniors, to read to children in low-income neighborhoods. And if you want to run for higher office, then it’s really all about the district and the vulnerability of the current officeholder. Even if that officeholder is not vulnerable, it’s all about putting your name out there and talking about the issues you care most about and trying to press the current local officeholder to take positions that tend to be aligned with you, the political rising star.

Now that Trump is going to be president, are there issues in New York City that people should be advocating for more than others? Redistricting! Nationwide, redistricting, if you’re really interested in changing that map from red to blue, it all starts at state houses, and we really need to focus on redistricting before the midterm elections.

Do you get a sense that not enough women or women of color are getting involved in local politics in New York City?
In New York State this year, there was a record number of women of color who were elected to the state legislature. I believe at last count it was eight, so I think that we are seeing more and more women and women of color getting involved. But it’s not just about women of color, it needs to be about individuals in general who are interested in moving the world, who want to shake things up — those people need to get involved in government just as much.

What about the people who are too afraid of the bureaucracy of government and the barriers to entry that they might face?
That’s an even bigger reason for them to get involved in government, so they can tear down those barriers. At this point in our country’s history, it’s even more critically important that we start to break through glass ceilings, that we are a force that throws rocks at those glass ceilings and all of those barriers. These people who are afraid of bureaucracy need to consider litigation, they should consider agitation, they should consider legislation. They have to consider the number of avenues available to them to either remove those barriers or reform them.

I raise my voice and I speak to people in government’s higher conscious. I really try to rise above the fray and focus on what is most important and that is the interest of communities whose voices are not heard. Bureaucracy is all part of that.

New York City is a very liberal place. What would you advise people who want to change things in less progressive areas of the country?
For those individuals who don’t live in progressive places like New York City — and mind you, not all of New York City is progressive and/or liberal — it’s really about finding individuals of like mind. Just like all of these individuals who were the “silent majority” Trump supporters, there is a silent majority of progressive-minded individuals and you merely have to identify them in your cities and counties. A significant number of these people are millennials. It’s important to identify those like minds and instead of sitting around, actually organize them. I’m confident that whether you’re in North Dakota or Idaho or Mississippi, in all likelihood there are some neighbors in your community who feel like you. And I think given how popular social media is, it really doesn’t matter where you live. Social media removes residential barriers, so that should be a means through which we communicate with other like-minded individuals who want to move the needle more toward the left, raise all boats, and recognize that we’re all in this together.

In the past two weeks, what have you seen as the most important and immediate issue for residents of New York City to get behind?
We have to protect our most vulnerable communities, like members of the Muslim community, members of the LGBT community, women. There is a concept in law that basically says that bystanders don’t have a legal obligation to respond in an emergency, and right now, we have to turn that on its head. I think bystanders should have a moral obligation to respond to instances of hate. Hate should not be the new normal. Hate should not be normalized or accepted in this country. We should not submit to a fascist government — not now and not ever.

You come from a law background. Do people who want to get involved in politics need special training?
I think any civilian can take on local politics or community organizing: All you need is a pure heart and a fire in your belly. Those are the basic qualifications. And if you have that, then get ready to join the struggle.