James explains break from Working Families
Posted August 23, 2018 7:34 a.m. EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. _ New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, a leading Democratic candidate for state attorney general, says she shunned the endorsement of the liberal Working Families Party this year because Democratic leaders had expressed concerns about the rival third party.
State and local Democratic officials "felt that the WFP party was very self-righteous," James said in an hour-long meeting with the Times Union's editorial board on Wednesday. "They said the WFP party is an 'all or nothing' kind of party. They said it wasn't diverse enough. They said it was leading our party towards the left at a time when the party needs to be more centrist."
James said while she did not share the state Democratic leaders' beliefs about the Working Families Party, the path to victory in this year's surprise attorney general race required backing from the Democratic party establishment. So she did not seek the WFP's support.
That tack has put James, a longtime liberal stalwart, in an unusual position as the Democratic Party nationally, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo himself locally, are pushing further leftward this year.
After Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in May following allegations of physical abuse from multiple women, James quickly decided not to seek the WFP endorsement as her own bid for the office began. It was a stunning rebuke: In 2003, running for New York City Council, James won office running solely on the WFP ballot line and became a flag-bearer for the influential third party, which seeks to push the Democratic party leftward.
James confirmed that Cuomo talked to her about not taking the endorsement of the WFP, which a month earlier had endorsed actress Cynthia Nixon over Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Around the same time, Cuomo's escalating feuds with the WFP prompted a number of unions aligned with the governor to abandon the party.
But James said it was not Cuomo's issues with the WFP that were the key to her decision to accept the liberal party's backing.
The governor "had a conversation with me," James said. "But I think speaking to 62 county leaders and hundreds of delegates and a number of elected officials, who did not want me to take WFP, weighed more on me than that. ... For me, the question was, 'Tish, should you try to resolve this difference in the Democratic Party' _ the individuals who have issues with the WFP, and those who do not, such as myself? I didn't have time to deal with that. I had to get the nomination of the Democratic Party."
James also said she did not attribute the Democrats' negative opinions of the WFP to its endorsement of Nixon over Cuomo, who is the de facto leader of the state Democratic Party.
Cuomo himself has tacked to the left on a number of issues in recent months, a development Nixon supporters have dubbed "the Cynthia Effect."
Despite James' decision to not seek its support, the WFP in May decided to back both James and law professor Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic attorney general primary.
Besides lining up Democratic support for James, Cuomo's backing has helped her fundraise from Cuomo supporters who otherwise might not donate to the longtime liberal activist from Brooklyn. James said that many in New York City's financial and real estate industries were still uneasy with the prospect of her as attorney general.
The criticism resulting from Cuomo's backing of her candidacy has clearly stung. James noted how in January 2016, after President Donald J. Trump implemented his travel ban from several majority-Muslim nations, activists had literally lifted James up in the air so she could speak at a rally at JFK Airport.
"What's so interesting and kind of comical is that prior to this vacancy no one ever questioned my independence _ nobody," James said, "All the groups, all the advocacy groups, all the Indivisible (groups), all the True Blue, all the activists: 'We want Tish James. We want her voice, her moral suasion.' "
That perception for some changed the moment Cuomo backed her for attorney general, James said, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
"Just like that, my independence is questioned," she said. "So it's somewhat disheartening after 20 years of public service, 20 years of exercising independence. ... Gov. Cuomo did have a fundraiser for me. Do you know how much it netted? $70,000."
For Cuomo, meanwhile, James' support has helped him shore up his backing in minority communities in New York City that have been an electoral bulwark for him in the past.
While Cuomo and prior attorney generals have used the high profile of the attorney general's office as a launchpad to run for governor, James said she was not looking to do so _ even if the governorship came open in the future.
"I don't think so," James said.
Although James had been planning to run for mayor of New York City in 2021, the "office of attorney general speaks more to my credentials," she said.
All the candidates in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, at least right now, say they aren't interested in running for governor either. That is the position of attorney Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo administration economic development official, according to a campaign spokeswoman.
Teachout said in a statement that, "I will not run for any other office, and will not use the office as a stepping stone. (Former Attorney General) Bob Abrams showed the power of the office when someone isn't running for something else, ditto Barbara Underwood," the current attorney general who replaced Schneiderman. A spokeswoman for the fourth Democratic primary candidate, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, also said he was not interested in running for governor and is "running for attorney general."
James said that she had spoken to Cuomo about giving the attorney general autonomy to pursue public corruption cases. That's a power that Cuomo wanted during his term as attorney general, but as governor immediately shied away from granting Schneidernman.
James said she had reminded Cuomo of his past position.
"He said, 'We'll continue to have those discussions,'" James said. "And so we're going to continue to have those discussions. I'm going to continue to push. I'm not going to give up."
James said that Cuomo's rumored aspirations to run for president in 2020 might prompt him to push harder on this and other ethics reforms, such as closing the so-called "LLC loophole" in state election law.
"Particularly now, as the governor is seeking to come into this national platform, seeking to enter a discussion nationally, entering into the space of a candidacy for president _ I just that there's too much momentum," she said.
While Cuomo hasn't signed off on giving James more power as attorney general to pursue public corruption, that hasn't stopped James from supporting him.
"There's so many other issues I agree with the governor on," James said, citing a $15 minimum wage, support for Puerto Rico's recovery, landmark marriage equality legislation, housing issues and more. "He has a very strong personality, but I too have a strong personality."
James also noted her solid relationship with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as a selling point. James said she had spoken with Heastie already about passing several key pieces of legislation within her first 100 days as attorney general, such as closing the "pardon loophole" that blocks state charges from being brought against those who receive presidential pardons for federal crimes; and restoring a six-year statute of limitations for the Martin Act, which has been used to go after financial fraud.
Support from the governor is not the only Democratic fault line James is straddling.
James has declined to endorse any of the eight former members of the state Senate's defunct Independent Democratic Conference, who rejoined mainline Democrats earlier this year, or to back their challengers. Teachout, in contrast, has backed challengers to the former IDC members, who for years had allied with Senate's majority Republicans.
"At this point in time I'm focused on my race solely," James said. "I'm confident that come Jan. 1 the IDC will be no more, and that (Senate Democratic Leader) Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has endorsed me, will be the next majority leader."
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