New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who has spent more than a decade serving as an activist elected official, is shifting from a seven-week exploratory bid to an official campaign for New York State governor, he announced Tuesday. This makes him the second Democrat from Brooklyn to challenge the current incumbent, Governor Kathy Hochul.
Williams, who just secured a second four-year term in his citywide post, released a video that captured his experience living with Tourette Syndrome, a chronic condition that affects the nervous system and can cause a person to make sudden movements, known as tics, or sounds. He called it something that did not “define” him but instead represented a certain truth of his life. “I’m always moving,” he said in the video.
“When you’re a kid in school, moving makes you a troublemaker, a problem. When you’re a young Black man under the abuses of stop and frisk, moving makes you a target, a suspect. When you’re an activist, moving is a mantra, a means of creating change,” Williams explained while images from his childhood flash forward to clips of his adult life as an activist and politician.
“Right now our state needs to move forward,” Williams said, “From a pandemic, from an era of scandal, and from old ways of governing that have failed so many for so long.”
Since launching his exploratory committee in September, Williams has traveled across the state, holding official events with local community leaders in places as far-flung as Buffalo and Long Island. At the same time, he was also shoring up support for his re-election to the public advocate’s office here in the city.
That potential conflict — running for one office with his eyes on another — was something Williams was asked about directly at the only general election debate for public advocate. In a what appeared to be a practiced answer, Williams said he couldn’t control the calendar and defended the idea of seeking a higher office that would give him even more power to implement the policies he supports.
Williams has long-advocated for police reform, passing the Community Safety Act in the Council as a lead co-sponsor along with Council member Brad Lander. The legislation established the Inspector General to oversee the NYPD, the agency’s first independent watchdog. The measure was also designed to make it easier for people to sue the NYPD if they are victims of racial profiling by police.
As of late, Williams has said that the conversation about public safety needs to extend beyond a singular focus on the police. “It has to be accountability and transparency and the governor's position is a great place to push that conversation,” he said during an appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show in August, just a week after Andrew Cuomo resigned as governor.
During his time in elected office, first as a Councilmember starting in 2010 and then when he was elected Public Advocate in 2019, he also focused on affordable housing access, hiring discrimination, and most recently, maternal health.
His wife, India Sneed-Williams, is 5-months pregnant and living with cervical cancer, according to an interview the couple gave to Pix 11 News. Earlier this year, he introduced a package of legislation to address the systemic inequities in healthcare provided to Black women and other women of color.
Black women are 8 times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes here in New York City, according to a report issued by Williams’ office. It cites research from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Williams enters the race behind his predecessor in the Public Advocate’s office, now state Attorney General Letitia James, who officially launched her own bid for governor just days ahead of the November general election. Both got their start as City Council members from Brooklyn, with overlapping bases of support, including the Working Families Party, which has backed both candidates in different races.
James’ campaign was the first to issue a statement about Williams’ announcement. She called him, “an important leader on issues from police reform to housing,” and welcomed him into the race.
Unlike James, who is sacrificing a re-election bid as state attorney general, Williams has little to lose. He does not have to give up his current Public Advocate seat to mount a gubernatorial bid. That may give him more freedom to tack most to the left on issues, even as his challengers aim to appeal to a broader audience.
He faces a steep climb to amass statewide support. According to the most recent polling data from Siena College, in a five-way race with Governor Hochul, former Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, Williams comes in second-to-last place with just 7 percent.
But he has the opportunity to build upon the coalition he started in 2018 when he first ran for statewide office, challenging then-Lieutenant Governor Hochul and outperforming most expectations. He won strong backing in New York City and picked up pockets of support in counties upstate. Altogether, he won nearly 47 percent of the vote.
Williams’ campaign said he plans to make another swing through upstate New York later this week.
While Williams has pledged to make ideas central to his campaign, as opposed to running against his opponents, some progressives fear his entrance into the race may splinter left-leaning voters among multiple candidates.
“It’s good for the issues that we want out there, but I’m really really concerned that the left won’t be coalescing around one candidate early,” said Camille Rivera, a partner at the Brooklyn-based progressive political consulting firm New Deal Strategies, who is not currently working on any of the gubernatorial campaigns.
One of the leading voices for progressive issues in the state is the WFP, which is just beginning its process to identify the candidate the party will support.
“We're planning to engage in a participatory endorsement process over the next couple of months to determine who best represents the values of the party and presents the strongest possible vision for New York State,” Sochie Nnaemeka, Director of the New York Working Families Party, said in a statement.
This article was updated to include responses from the Letitia James campaign for governor, the Working Families Party, and a political consultant.