New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is eyeing a run for governor in what would amount to a primary rematch against Governor Kathy Hochul. The two faced off in a surprisingly hard-fought contest for lieutenant governor in 2018, where Williams won nearly 47 percent of the vote.
Williams announced Tuesday that he was filing paperwork to form an exploratory committee with the New York State Board of Elections. Hochul has already said she plans to run for a full term.
“I’ve spent my entire career, most of my life, pushing and advocating and fighting on behalf of the people and against injustice and inertia,” Williams said in a statement announcing his nascent gubernatorial bid. “Now, our state is attempting to recover from a pandemic and move forward from an era of toxicity, of scandal, of ego, and personality standing in the way of progress. I’ve always been dedicated to public service, and over the coming weeks, I’m considering how best I can serve in that work to renew New York.”
Williams' new gubernatorial exploratory committee, first reported by The New York Times, was not entirely unexpected. Shortly after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned from office last month, the Public Advocate was a guest on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show where he was asked whether he was under consideration for the newly-open position of lieutenant governor. His response foreshadowed this moment.
“There were a lot of differences between the both of us and how we thought the state should go forward, how that position should be used and what was needed in Albany. Those don't just go away,” Williams said on WNYC. “I will say, again, that's a discussion for later, and that is not the position I'm interested in,” he added, leading some to speculate whether he planned to mount a bid for higher office.
If Williams makes his run official, supporters say it will force a conversation about the issues he has worked on during his time on the City Council and in the Public Advocate’s office — criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and equity.
While Hochul has stressed that she was not aware of the issues faced by the 11 women whose complaints were documented in a report by the State Attorney General’s Office, Williams could raise the question about whether a lieutenant governor who aimed to counterbalance the governor would have identified those problems sooner. During his run against Hochul for lieutenant governor in 2018, he viewed the office as a check on the governor’s power.
Over the next month, Williams plans to form an advisory council made up of other elected officials along with community organizers and advocates from across the state, while he conducts a statewide listening tour.
Brad Lander, City Council member and Democratic nominee for City Comptroller; Antonio Reynoso, Council member and Democratic nominee for Brooklyn borough president; and Tiffany Garriga, the Majority Leader of the Hudson Common Council are the first named members of the advisory council, which will offer advice on the campaign’s strategy and policy priorities.
A spokesperson for Governor Hochul’s campaign has not yet responded to a request for comment about Williams opening an exploratory committee.
Hochul was in Albany on Tuesday delivering remarks at the annual Police Officers’ Memorial Ceremony. The day before she was in the Bronx and Queens at two separate events addressing what she has said are her top priorities: fighting the spread of COVID-19 and delivering direct aid to the neediest New Yorkers, in this case undocumented residents facing damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
With the weight of the executive office behind her, Hochul has spent her first few weeks in office filling out her staff and moving quickly on stalled legislation and projects, often making announcements flanked by large groups of sitting elected officials and community advocates.
Williams is not the only candidate who may be eyeing a challenge to Hochul. CNBC reported last week that State Attorney General Letitia James is also discussing a possible run for governor next year. She is scheduled to address the Association for a Better New York on Wednesday morning. The nonprofit made up of some of the city’s top corporate, nonprofit and civic leaders holds semi-regular breakfast events, where elected leaders have been known to announce new major policy ideas.
For James, the decision to run for governor becomes inherently more complicated. Cuomo allies, including his current lawyer and spokesperson, accused James of conducting an unfair investigation motivated by her own political ambition. Those attacks would likely emerge again during a primary campaign. The decision to enter a gubernatorial primary would also mean giving up the chance to run as an incumbent for the state attorney general’s office, an automatic advantage in any primary contest.
For Williams, those risks don’t apply, similar to his 2018 lieutenant governor bid. As a sitting member of the New York City Council at the time, he returned to his position after he lost. If he wins this November’s general election for Public Advocate, he will remain Public Advocate until at least 2025 — even if his gubernatorial bid is unsuccessful — with an opportunity to run for another term here in the city after that.
Update, September 29th: During an unrelated event on Wednesday, Williams said, "Our campaign is not against someone. Right now, we're exploring the vision that we have... We're really putting a vision forward that is for a different type of New York and we're going to go around the state and talk to some folks and learn from some of the lessons we did when we had an exploratory committee in 2018." He added that he wants to "speak to the people of the state... I've really tried to, over the years, get through this false upstate-downstate divide because most of the issues are the same and we have a vision of how to change that. And you want to make sure that's what New Yorkers want."
Additional reporting by David Cruz