The decision by New York attorney general Letitia “Tish” James to drop out of the race for governor and instead seek reelection caught a lot of political observers off guard, including advisers, donors, and staffers who had only recently signed on to work for her campaign.
It’s not as if victory were out of reach for James. She was clearly a contender, well on her way to developing the three factors that count most in an election: money, message, and momentum. When I spoke to her last week, James sounded like somebody who hears the call of history and wants the keys to the executive mansion in Albany.
“I am the first woman of color to have been elected on a citywide level and the first woman of color elected on a statewide level. And I will be the first African American woman governor in the United States of America,” she told me. “All of that said, it is nothing more than a historical footnote. The question really is: What can you do with the power that has been given to you? How can you transform the lives of others?”
She went on to tick off a range of proposals on combating the pandemic, reigniting the economy, and fighting against addiction.
“The status quo will not do,” she said. “For ten years under the previous administration, it was not about what was in the best interest of New Yorkers; it was about what was in the best interest of the donor class.”
That doesn’t sound like a candidate entertaining second thoughts.
It’s true she faced a formidable opponent, incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul. A recent Siena College poll showed Hochul was preferred by 36 percent of Democratic voters, compared with 18 percent for James — a sizable gap but one James could close given her popularity in vote-rich New York City.
That’s why it came as a surprise when James announced, tersely, on Twitter, “I have come to the conclusion that I must continue my work as attorney general. There are a number of important investigations and cases that are underway, and I intend to finish the job.”
So what happened? Why drop out of a winnable race?
I strongly suspect James is hunting bigger game than the top job in Albany and is preparing to drop a bombshell in the ongoing investigation of the Trump Organization, ratcheting up the legal pressure on the former president that already includes the recent arrest and indictment of Allen Weisselberg, the company’s longtime chief financial officer.
James, working with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, has been exploring allegations — made in testimony to Congress by Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen — that the Trump Organization had deliberately overvalued properties in the company’s portfolio to secure loans while dramatically lowballing the value of those same parcels when it came to paying taxes.
“Investigations are still ongoing, and I urge everyone to stay tuned,” she told me. A minute later, she repeated herself: “A lot can happen between now and the end of 2022, and I urge everyone to stay tuned. Our office is continuing to investigate Donald Trump and his organization, both on the civil and the criminal side.”
That phrase — stay tuned — has a specific, portentous meaning in New York politics. It dates back to 2016 when Preet Bharara, the then–U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, publicly castigated then-Governor Andrew Cuomo for suddenly disbanding a committee investigating corruption in state government. Cuomo himself had created the committee in 2013 and ordered a halt to its work a year later when investigators began scrutinizing his allies and donors.
Bharara promptly launched an investigation into whether Cuomo’s efforts to cripple the commission’s work had violated federal law. He ultimately concluded there was “insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime” — but he demanded the files from the disbanded commission, announced he would pick up where the probe left off, and went on a prosecutorial tear that began with the dramatic arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (who is currently serving time in federal prison).
Reporters asked Bharara if more political leaders would be indicted. “Our unfinished fight against public corruption continues,” he said. “You should stay tuned.”
Over the next several years, Bharara went on to convict a raft of high-ranking officials, including Dean Skelos, the State Senate majority leader; Malcolm Smith, the former State Senate majority leader; and a group of Cuomo allies, including Joe Percoco, a top aide to the governor. Bharara was later fired by President Trump and now hosts a successful podcast called — what else? — Stay Tuned With Preet.
So when James says “stay tuned,” it could mean a bombshell is about to fall. She continues to work in partnership with the Manhattan district attorney — an office that successfully managed to acquire Trump’s long-hidden tax returns — and is now pressing to have Trump answer questions under oath in the next few weeks. James has already deposed Eric Trump, and the Manhattan DA empaneled a new grand jury last month, suggesting the possibility of more indictments to come.
It’s sure to be an ugly showdown. “There is nothing more corrupt than an investigation that is in desperate search of a crime,” Donald Trump said earlier this year, attacking James’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”
It’s hard to imagine James simultaneously prepping for a high-stakes clash with Trump and jumping into the thick of an upcoming Democratic primary that, under New York’s new calendar, will take place in June for the first time.
Yet a successful prosecution of the Trump Organization and/or the former president himself would instantly make James a candidate of national stature — the kind who ends up on the shortlist when positions like senator or vice-president open up.
Could that be the larger goal? We shall see.