On Monday afternoon at a senior center in the South Bronx, the current frontrunner to be New York's next attorney general was calling BINGO numbers in Spanish. "Ba-inta, say," Public Advocate Letitia James said, butchering the number 26. "Veinte seis!" the seniors called back, laughing.

As a City Councilmember from central Brooklyn and now as Public Advocate, James has pushed for issues like paid sick leave and tenants' rights. (Disclosure: she also gave a fiery speech at a rally that this reporter attended for employees of DNAinfo New York and Gothamist after Joe Ricketts, the former owner of the sites, shut them down following a successful union drive). A former Legal Aid attorney and Assistant Attorney General under Eliot Spitzer, Tish James is also the first African American woman to be elected to a citywide office, and she was also the first politician to win on the third party, Working Families Party line in New York.

That made it all the more surprising when James declined to seek the Working Families Party nomination this year; WFP had endorsed Cynthia Nixon, who is running against Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor has since backed the Public Advocate, and Tish is now slightly ahead in the polls and has raised more money than her opponents in the Democratic primary—Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, attorney Leecia Eve, and law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran for governor against Cuomo in 2014.

In an 18-minute discussion, Tish talked about how the next attorney general can combat corruption in Albany, why she's being criticized for her relationship with the governor, and what it will take to make public officials and state agencies more transparent. (Also, placard abuse.)

Were you upset by the Times’ choice to endorse your opponent Zephyr Teachout?

Listen, I am endorsed and supported by a wide range of organizations in the State and the City of New York. Including Emily’s List, and a wide range of supporters on the ground, and a countless number of elected officials as well as unions. I’ve received just about the lion’s share of unions throughout the State of New York. And we’re moving forward to victory on September 13.

You’ve said that when Eric Schneiderman resigned, you were focused on a future run for mayor. What made you change gears to running for attorney general? They’re very different offices.

Because my faith is built on the Constitution, which is under attack at this point in time. And when you see immigrants who are hiding in the shadows, when you see individuals who are afraid to go to work, individuals who are afraid to go into our courthouses because of ICE...My venture into this campaign is a culmination of all of my hard work, but particularly my legal training, and recognizing that no one is above the law, and that no one is below the law, and that the law has really been the firmest pillar of our democracy, and our democracy right now is under attack.

What we really need right now more than ever is a fighter, someone who understands that at her core, someone who has stood up and defended the Constitution and defended the rights of individuals here in the City, and now I look forward to doing that all across the state of New York.

The New York Attorney General’s office has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times—

Only a hundred? [Laughs]

But all of the major state corruption cases—the Percoco case, the Buffalo Billion case, Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos—

There were some filed by the AG, but it was in cooperation with others.

But the big juicy ones—

Have been filed by the federal government, yes.

Is the State AG’s office doing enough to crack down on corruption in Albany?

Clearly we could do more, obviously. Particularly now that you’ve got a president where his business transactions should be examined. You know, listen, almost a decade ago, the president of the United States was in debt, then all of a sudden, because he was not getting any funding from domestic banks, he veered into getting funds from international banks. And so, there’s an issue as to whether or not he received a lot of funds from Russia. There’s been arguments that most of his money comes from Russia. And that’s why he was flush with money to purchase assets as well as golf courses.

We’ve got an obligation and a duty to investigate that, which could perhaps explain why he’s been genuflecting to Vladimir Putin, and why he’s not afraid to take them on. So we’ve got an obligation, a duty, you know, as the next attorney general, to investigate those business ties, those financial transactions, and conspiracy charges that have been made.

But what about state corruption?

Obviously you can leverage your civil and your criminal authority as the next attorney general of the State of New York, to investigate cases, particularly public benefit corporations, where there’s a significant amount of economic development money. But if you’ve never worked in the state, and if you know nothing about the attorney general’s office, you would not know this, you would not know what the initials “EDC” stand for, or “PACB,” or all of the public benefit authorities that continue to exist in upstate New York which oftentimes go unchecked, and there’s no oversight.

So, as someone who has worked in public service for 20 years, and recognizes the role of some of these public benefit corporations, it’s really about following the money, but you’ve got to have experience, and the only one who has that type of experience in this race is Letitia James.

Here’s an acronym: DHCR, the Department of Housing and Community Renewal. Are they doing enough to protect—

Actually they changed their name, it’s no long Department of Housing and Community Renewal, it’s something else. But anyway. [Ed. Note: They are now Homes and Community Renewal.]

Do you think they’re doing enough to enforce state rent regulations, and tenant harassment laws?

No, no, no. One, we’ve got to strengthen our rent regs. Two, we have to make sure we have a Democratic State Senate, and that we pass some bills that have been pending in Albany that I have supported for a long time, that protect rent controlled and rent stabilized tenants in the City of New York, and to close a number of these loopholes, like vacancy decontrol.

Is that the AG’s purview?

Well, the AG has a role in advocacy, so clearly if you don’t know much about the office of attorney general, you recognize that you do have an advocacy role, and that you can advocate on behalf of the passage of these bills. These bills have been the priority of Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins and when she becomes the [Senate majority] leader I’m confident that they will be passed. And it will give more power and authority to the office of attorney general, to turbocharge the Worst Landlord’s List.

Let’s say you win. Your first day in office, you can’t send a letter to HCR saying, you need to step up enforcement of these particular laws? Isn’t it part of the AG’s role to make sure that the state is enforcing current laws?

Sure, we can obviously work with them, and we could urge the commissioner as well as the governor of the state of New York that they need to do more to protect tenants. Tenant harassment is a major issue. Demolition by construction is a major issue. Tenants who have been evicted illegally, and individuals who are paying [higher] rent in rent stabilized and rent controlled apartments in violation of the laws, and obviously should be made aware of the law. Also preferential rent, needs to be reformed in the state of New York. So yes, just as we did in the office of Public Advocate, working with district attorney offices, and as you know we were able to get two landlords arrested, we would be just as active and just as vigilant on behalf of tenants in the state of New York. And that’s something I really want to focus on because it’s a major issue.

Part of your platform on immigration states that you will take “legal action” to keep ICE out of state courthouses. What kind of legal action? What does that look like? How do you keep court officers from allowing ICE officers into courthouses?

Part of the role of the office of attorney general is enforcement of the law. And it’s my position that ICE is discriminating against immigrants, and particularly focusing on individuals who come into the courthouses seeking orders of protection, cooperating with district attorneys in certain cases, and individuals who are basically seeking justice. The fact that ICE has arrested a number of immigrants in our courthouses has had a chilling effect on the cooperation of immigrants who are seeking justice.

It’s important that one, we work with OCA, the Office of Court Administration; two, that we work with the unions; and, three, that we enforce sanctuary laws, because New York City is a sanctuary [city]. It’s important that individuals understand that we lobby Washington D.C., to let them know that ICE is in fact violating the laws of immigrants when they step into courthouses. All of that and more is what we can do in the office of attorney general. It’s really critically important that we enforce sanctuary laws here in the state of New York and the city of New York and in particular, that we make sure that our courthouses are open for business, for all individuals.

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Public Advocate Tish James speaks to a group of seniors playing BINGO in the Bronx (Scott Heins / Gothamist)

When you won your Public Advocate seat in 2013, you said you were “a thorn to bureaucracy and those who represent the elite.” You had this powerful underdog message. Now, in 2018, you have more money than your opponents, you’re polling higher. How do you stay “the people’s lawyer” when you’re not the underdog anymore?

I’m sitting with you in a senior center, where most of these individuals are low income individuals, most of them are immigrants, very diverse population. These are individuals who propelled me into office when I ran for City Council, when I ran for Public Advocate, and as I now enter into the office of Attorney General. These are the individuals who I serve, and these are individuals who are often forgotten in this debate and in this campaign for attorney general. They will never be forgotten by Letitia James as their next attorney general. It’s really critically important that I stay close to the ground, that I stay close to my roots, and that I remember those individuals who have paved the way for me to be in this position right now.

Do you think that the criticism that you’re too close to Governor Cuomo is solely because of who you are, as you have alluded? Do you think that if any of the other candidates had aligned themselves with the governor, who is being challenged pretty hard from the left, that they wouldn’t have received the exact same criticism?

It’s not because of who I am, I think it ignores my 20 years of service. It ignores my independence. It ignores the fact that the mayor of the city of New York was supportive [of me], and I sued him. I sued the governor before. I sued the former mayor of the city of New York, Mayor Bloomberg. There’s nothing that’s going to stop me from continuing my advocacy, representing the interests of the marginalized and vulnerable populations of the state of New York. Nothing will stop that. I will continue to do that. Because one, these are the individuals who propelled me into this position, and again, I come from humble beginnings. That’s part of who I am, it’s part of my make up, it’s part of my nature. I feel more comfortable here in this senior center than I feel on Wall Street or I feel in any corporate setting. This is where I got my start, and this is why I’m here today. And plus, they make really good food. [Laughs]

The State’s Freedom of Information Law is frequently ignored by politicians and agencies. How can you as the attorney general make sure that they abide by FOIL and actually turn over information that should be public?

We are chair of COPIC, which is a City agency that ensures that City agencies respond to public information [requests]. When we were elected into office we made sure that all City agencies were online, and that their hearings and meetings are open to the public, and we’re going to do the same on the state level. It’s also really critically important that we examine the Freedom of Information Laws on the state level, and make sure that there is compliance with those laws, and there won’t be delays. Particularly at a time when more individuals are demanding accountability.

So if you’re AG, do you threaten agencies with legal action if they don’t comply? Right now you generally have to sue the politician or agency if you want to get really sensitive information, which is a long, laborious, expensive, process for most news outlets or individuals.

What we can do, as we did in the City of New York, as opposed to resorting to litigation you can call agencies, and you can issue reports, and you can basically say to agencies, listen, FOIL requests to your office are taking years, and you are in violation of the law, and as your attorney I am urging you to comply with the law. That is the reason why we were able to get a number of City agencies to cooperate with the public on the local level.

Should public officials be using private email accounts to conduct state business in order to shield their communications from FOIL?

What we need to do, when we get to Albany on January 1, I think we obviously need to educate elected officials, with respect to making sure that the use their state email accounts and not their personal accounts, to subvert the law, because it’s in violation of the law. If you are intentionally subverting FOIL laws to avoid accountability and transparency, there should be some penalty for that. Because that suggests a corrupt intent.

You also say in your platform materials that you will “hold unscrupulous prosecutors accountable.” What falls under “unscrupulous”? There was a report that came out recently that showed that the Bronx DA’s office was intentionally dragging their feet in criminal cases. Is that sort of thing—

No, so what I am specifically thinking about, is prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence, and prosecutors who are more focused on winning cases as opposed to justice. So I’m urging the governor of the state of New York to sign the bill that’s on his desk. [Ed. Note: Cuomo signed that legislation to create a commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.] Prosecutors who violate the law and engage in unethical behavior and tactics to win at all costs should be held accountable.

I told Twitter I was interviewing you, and one person wanted me to ask you about parking placard abuse.

Oh yeah, the gentleman who has been on Twitter a lot about placard abuse.

What can the AG’s office do about placard abuse in New York City?

The City of New York I know has been trying to enforce placard abuse. As a former City Councilmember, there was a lot of placard abuse and I was focusing on it in and around Downtown Brooklyn by a number of city agencies. I had brought the matter to the attention of a number of commanding officers, particularly in the 84th Precinct, where they park on public grounds, and they park on the ramp of the Manhattan Bridge and the BQE.

It continues to be a problem, and I would hope the NYPD and FDNY get to the bottom of it. And the elected officials who abuse the law and use their placards to park next to fire hydrants and in bike lanes—and the individual on Twitter is actually a hero, and he’s been dogged about this issue, and he should be commended. But obviously it’s an issue that the mayor should be focusing on, in the City of New York, and I look forward to working with this gentleman on Twitter as we begin to look into investigations.

This interview has been edited and condensed.