New York Will Be Electing a Governor Soon. Who Is the Early Front-runner?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock

No sooner had the big question in New York politics been answered — is Andrew Cuomo staying or is he going? — than attention turned to the next big question: What is Letitia James going to do?

The first-term New York attorney general, a one-time Cuomo ally who helped precipitate his demise with a 168-page report detailing how 11 women, all current or former state employees, were sexually harassed by the governor, is widely seen as wanting to occupy the mansion in Albany herself.

The question many in state political circles are asking is whether or not James is ready to go against Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor who will ascend to the top job in two weeks’ time after Cuomo’s resignation.

James has been careful to not reveal her political intentions, fearful that signaling that she is looking to ascend the political ladder would give Cuomo and his allies a talking point that her investigation into his misdeeds was purely political and designed to give him a boost. She is expected to keep a low profile for many weeks or even months, under the belief, her supporters say, that should she decide to jump in, she will have the ability to quickly raise money and potentially clear the field.

James could also decide to pass on the race entirely instead of getting involved in what will likely be a divisive primary with Hochul, preferring to wait for four years for a cleaner shot and not risk giving up her job as attorney general.

And the longer she delays, the more other candidates are likely to take a serious look. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has been signaling his own interest in the job of the person who tortured him throughout his tenure in City Hall. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand could jump into the race as well, but a primary against Hochul would be complicated for her, too. Other more left-leaning and ambitious pols are also interested, including public advocate Jumaane Williams and State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, although both would likely find themselves struggling to lock down support against James, who, if she won, would be the first African American female governor in America.

“Few elected officials with statewide profiles can appeal to both progressives and Black New Yorkers adeptly — and Tish James is one of them,” said Monica Klein, a progressive strategist who advised a number of left-leaning candidates who defeated incumbents in the legislature over the last several years. “If she can quickly put together a strong campaign team and is able to raise significant funds within weeks of declaring, she’ll be an early front-runner — and could also scare would-be opponents out of jumping into the race. There’s no question Tish will be a formidable candidate if she puts the pieces in place quickly.”

James has already received the public backing of Rodneyse Bichotte, the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and a close ally of Eric Adams, the likely next mayor of New York City. “What’s out there right now is if she runs she might run unopposed,” Bichotte told The Brooklyn Paper, adding, “I don’t think it’s a controversial thing. Everyone will get behind her.”

Hochul has been telling state lawmakers over the past several weeks that should Cuomo resign, she intends to run for reelection, telling one, “If I am the governor, why wouldn’t I try to stay in the job?” Hochul, who previously served one term in Congress representing a conservative district near Buffalo, was tapped by Cuomo to bring geographic and gender diversity to his second term, and was nearly dropped from the ticket before he campaigned for his third.

She was never close to Cuomo, was left out of his 300-page memoir on the state’s COVID-19 response, and had not spoken with him since February — until he told her of his plans to resign on Tuesday morning. Given all that, Hochul’s supporters believe it will be difficult to tar her as being a part of the mess that Cuomo left behind in Albany.

But even though Hochul is genuinely well-liked throughout the state, it remains to be seen what kind of campaigner she turns out to be, let alone a governor forced to manage a state facing another wave of the coronavirus, rising crime, and an uncertain budget outlook.

Even for a sitting governor, James would be a formidable primary opponent. She would likely run strong in the city where the bulk of the state’s electorate resides, consolidating support among organized-labor and progressive groups. She would also be running on the inspirational prospect of becoming the first female African American governor in the nation.

James was once seen as a favorite of the city’s progressive left, running a hard-fought campaign for public advocate as a fierce opponent of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. A few years ago, she was widely considered to be a front-runner to replace Bill de Blasio as mayor. But when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in 2018 for sexual misconduct, James adeptly maneuvered to replace him, becoming a favorite of Cuomo’s in the process and hooking into his donor network. As she ran for the job, she was tarred by her opponents for being too close to the governor, but she went on to win easy victories in both the Democratic primary — besting law-school professor Zephyr Teachout and others — and the general election.

Democrats in the state are increasingly mindful as well of the fact that they could face a difficult electoral environment. The party in power in Washington tends to suffer at the polls in the midterms, and the nation may still be mired in a pandemic and with uncertain electoral prospects. Lee Zeldin, the likely Republican nominee, has already banked $4 million, and has alarmed Democrats with his apparent political strength.

It is quite possible that the biggest consideration in a Democratic primary next year is who is the best candidate to go against him, Hochul or James.

“I think Tish is elected governor next year if she runs,” said one lawmaker close to her. “The thing I just can’t tell you is if she is going to run.”

New York Will Elect a Governor Soon. Who’s the Front-runner?