Three years ago, Jumaane Williams came within seven points of beating Kathy Hochul in the Democratic primary for New York lieutenant governor. It was a much better performance than his running mate, the actress Cynthia Nixon, who went down against Andrew Cuomo by some 30 points.
Now Hochul has the state’s top job and Williams, the city’s public advocate, is sizing up a rematch, telling Intelligencer that he is seriously considering running for governor. Even as Williams insisted during a Sunday evening interview that he’s not focused on a fight with Hochul, he suggested that she should share blame for the “toxicity” of the Cuomo years due to her time as his lieutenant governor.
“We’re not considering running against someone right now, we’re considering running for something,” he said. “If you’re going to renew and recover, you should remove that infrastructure that enabled someone like Cuomo to be around for so long, either by people explicitly supporting or enabling through silence.”
Williams believes both the culture and approach of the state’s government need a drastic change as New York strives to emerge from the pandemic. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t return to normal because normal didn’t work for a lot of folks,” he said.
Hochul isn’t the only one Williams would have to worry about in a Democratic primary. Looming over both of them is Attorney General Letitia James, whose office commissioned the sexual-harassment report that ended Cuomo’s tenure. Williams and James have been close since they represented nearby council districts in Central Brooklyn.
“I have a great relationship with Tish. I’m going to maintain that relationship. The attorney general is doing an awesome job as attorney general,” Williams said of James. “To my knowledge, she hasn’t publicly said that she was running or considering a run. Again, what we’re doing is putting forward what we think we can be for and not really about [being] against anyone at this moment in time.”
Asked if she considered Williams a friend, James texted back: “Yes. A younger brother. I wish him luck.” She did not respond to questions about her own plans for future office.
An ally of James, who requested anonymity to discuss the race, was far less reticent. “I don’t want to insult the guy,” the ally said. “He’s a nice guy, but this is Tish’s race, so good luck.”
The public advocate plans to launch an exploratory committee in the coming days, the beginning of a process that will involve talking with advisers to build a policy platform and taking trips around the state, as he did in 2018. New York City candidates have a reputation of not faring well statewide, but Williams said that’s an overstatement. “Like there’s this false upstate-downstate thing. That’s not real. The issues of transportation, the issues of education, the issue of gun violence, the issue of housing, is remarkably the same in these municipalities.”
In 2013, he sponsored legislation that established an inspector general for the NYPD and banned biased profiling. Two years later, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned as a staunch progressive, signed legislation from Williams that banned employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history and that regulated efforts to buy out tenants. Williams said many of his priorities fall under an expansive idea of public safety.
“When it comes to public safety, it’s really important to have someone who understands and knows that we can’t keep the conversation just on policing. That’s too narrow of a conversation on public safety, so what we need to be doing is making sure that we understand that law enforcement has a role to play,” Williams said. “The problem has been, we have severely over-relied on law enforcement, especially in the Black and brown communities and it has not solved the problems.”
To hear Williams tell it, he was reluctant to consider the job, but watching Cuomo face a series of scandals over sexual harassment, ethics, and his handling of the pandemic made Williams feel Albany needed someone with a history of strident opposition to the status quo. “There was a point that I said, ‘You know, we have to have someone who has been pushing on these things consistently for a very long time or else we may make the mistake of reverting back very quickly,’” he explained.
During the past decade in city politics, Williams has earned a reputation for pushing. Elected to the City Council in 2009, he became known as Occupy Wall Street’s “biggest” fan two years later and spent extensive time at the protests, where he was arrested and shoved by police. Williams went on to get arrested at demonstrations for rent reform and against ICE detentions, among other things. During the Bloomberg administration, he was one of the most prominent critics of the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk.
“I’m amazed that I’m a citywide elected official,” he said. “It’s just surprised me every day I wake up, and to be considering a legitimate run for governor is just wild. I’ve always been told I was too much of an activist.”
Williams, 45, is a Brooklyn native who was raised by two immigrants from Grenada. He speaks with a slight hitch due to Tourette’s syndrome and has talked about how much it means to him to be a role model for others with the condition. He attended Brooklyn College where, according to Williams, he discovered his brand of progressive politics while researching Grenada’s revolutionary “Marxist-Leninist” prime minister Maurice Bishop. “My first introduction to democratic socialism is when I did a paper on Maurice Bishop in college,” Williams said. “I found that paper a couple years ago when I was discussing how much the ideals that he was talking about appealed to my sense of equity and justice.”
Williams doesn’t see his own policies as radical and casts democratic socialism as a contrast to “democratic capitalism,” which can benefit a diverse cross-section of people from “the farmer from upstate” to “the Black trans woman in New York City.” Indeed, he believes much of the conflict between progressive and moderate Democrats has been overhyped. “People try to pretend somehow the basics of our democracy would change, which is just not true,” he said of democratic socialism.
And Williams isn’t concerned about upstate voters being hesitant to embrace a progressive agenda.
“There’s a kind of a false divide that people are setting up between progressives and non-progressives depending on the definition,” Williams said. “I believe if you ask most folks they will say they believe in quote, unquote progressive policies.”