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Will Letitia James's Embrace Of Cuomo Sink Her Attorney General Campaign?

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Public Advocate Letitia James in April 2018
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Governor Andrew Cuomo and Public Advocate Letitia James in April 2018 Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

Winning the endorsement and support of New York’s two-term governor should be a huge boost for any political campaign. With Governor Andrew Cuomo’s help, Public Advocate Letitia James raised more than $1 million two months after she announced her run to be New York’s next Attorney General, and picked up the endorsements of major labor unions and a slew of other elected officials throughout the state. Early polling gave her double-digit leads over her three opponents—Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, Zephyr Teachout, and Leecia Eve—albeit with a large number of voters still undecided.

Now almost four months later, James’s momentum appears to be flagging. This shift was most apparent during last week’s debate, when Teachout, not James, bore the brunt of questioning and criticisms from her rivals—the kind of focus normally placed on someone who has pulled ahead of the pack. On Tuesday, Teachout was also endorsed by Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City, in her first solo endorsement independent of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Because of the hyper scrutiny on [James], on her fundraising, on her strategy, this is the textbook case that I would teach in my intro to politics class on the perils of being a frontrunner,” Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told Gothamist.

With each candidate qualified in their own way, it’s become difficult to distinguish their actual policy differences. All of them have promised to take on Donald Trump’s administration and all of them have pledged to look into the state’s pervasive corruption problem.

But James’s decision to align with Cuomo has specifically created an opening for Teachout, a law professor and former gubernatorial and Congressional candidate. Teachout has pitched herself as the most independent candidate—from the governor, from big donors, and from special interests—and she has refused to take any money from corporations or limited liability companies. While Teachout had only pulled in $551,000 in the first two months of the race (about half of what James and Maloney had raised, but more than what Eve had brought in) 97 percent of that came from small donors, according to her campaign.

It’s a strategy that Teachout believes will connect not only with the insurgent left, but with New Yorkers across the state. “Democrats across the board really care that I’m not taking corporate money, and understand what corporate money does to politics in general,” Teachout recently told Gothamist. “I think many people support me because they know I’m going to be really serious about looking under every rock in Albany, even if it’s big donors or people closely connected to power, and not be scared to investigate.”

All of this has led many organizations with close ties to both James and Teachout, like New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which could have stayed neutral, to end up endorsing Teachout.

“We were going to stay out of it, but the thing that put our members over the edge was the real estate money that Tish was taking,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of NYCC. In August, The Real Deal reported that 19 percent of James’s most recent $1.6 million fundraising total came from the real estate industry, despite the fact that she has historically been an outspoken critic against landlords. Maloney took in 23 percent of his $1.8 million fundraising total from real estate, and is also a favorite of Wall Street donors.

“That was the breaking point for us, taking money from landlords and developers that are displacing our people, that’s where we had to made a decision," Westin said. "We need someone independent of the real estate industry, since the attorney general is responsible for all of the rent regulation laws in New York and making sure landlords are being held accountable for them."

Another progressive group, Indivisible Brooklyn, had all four candidates come and speak to their members. They also ended up endorsing Teachout. “You can’t have a cozy relationship with people you have oversight over,” Adelle McElveen, a member of Indivisible Brooklyn, told Gothamist.

McElveen recalled a moment when Teachout walked into the Indivisible meeting and asked her about some letters she was clearing away. McElveen explained that the group had been writing them to wealthy DCCC donors, asking them to push the party to stop taking sides in primary races to the disadvantage of progressive candidates.

“She was like ‘oh cool, I’ll sign it,’” McElveen said. “And she can because she’s not worried who gives her money. I was like, oh my gosh, she’s really not afraid of anybody.”

At the start of her bid, James made a political calculation that gave many progressives pause—she decided to forego the Working Families Party line, reportedly under pressure from Cuomo, who has a long history of feuding with the WFP. James, however, won her first election in 2003 with the progressive third-party’s support, making her the first official to have ever been elected solely on its line. James recently explained her decision to Times-Union, saying that the impetus wasn’t Cuomo (although they did speak about it) but rather because she felt like she needed the backing of the Democratic Party.

“I think it’s pretty clear that Tish not taking our line has hurt her a lot,” said Bill Lipton, state director of New York WFP. “I think there’s a lot of recognition across the state that the way Andrew Cuomo does his politics and governing is deeply intertwined and that is to the detriment of New York.”

Perhaps the most visible repercussion of James’s embrace of Cuomo and his donors came when The New York Times, hardly a bastion of the insurgent left, ended up backing Teachout in August. James didn’t even end up as the Times’ second choice—that honor went to Eve. A few days later, the New York Daily News also endorsed Teachout, calling her the “puzzle-piece fit of candidate and moment” and warning that James “is a credible candidate, but she’s the pick of party power brokers, and that should set off alarm bells.”

“For people who are marginally paying attention or paying attention and are just are really torn—after all, you’ve got three really strong women, you’ve got candidates with years and years of public service in different ways—I think The New York Times endorsement definitely helps as a shortcut for a lot of people,” Greer says. Teachout also saw a fundraising boost in the wake of the endorsement, with more than 3,000 contributions totaling $200,000 in five days, according to her campaign.

When asked about whether she still stood by her strategic decisions when it came to not seeking WFP’s support, James told Gothamist “Yeah, without a doubt.” She asserted that she is still close with the WFP, believes in their values, and is confident she will be on their line in November. “But at the time, it was about securing the Democratic nomination, and as an attorney general, individuals have to make difficult decisions,” James said. “And all throughout my career, I’ve had to make difficult decisions, because it’s really about getting things done.”

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Zephyr Teachout and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon in August. (JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It’s still far from clear that Cuomo’s endorsement will end up being a net negative for James. With his help, James has been able to drum up more money, an essential boost given the fact that black women face many more obstacles when it comes to fundraising, something that even those who chose not to endorse James have acknowledged. Not to mention that outside of the progressive circle, Cuomo’s name recognition—along with the endorsements of labor unions and other elected officials—could still matter a lot.

Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College, still believes that James has the upper hand at the moment. “The reality is that nine times out of ten, the person with the most money and the person with most name recognition is going to win almost every election,” Zaino said. But Zaino added the caveat that a low turnout on a Thursday primary in September could still push it in the direction of Teachout, with the most active progressive members of the party coming out to vote. “It is a perfect recipe for that kind of upset if there is going to be one.”

And the results of New York’s Congressional primaries in June—not just with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over establishment candidate Joe Crowley, but with progressive challengers to Carolyn Maloney and Yvette Clarke both garnering over 40 percent of the vote—also bode well for Teachout. “Taking all of that in account it seems as though that there’s somewhat of an anti-establishment wind growing,” Greer says. “I’m not necessarily saying that’s enough to knock out Cuomo and Tish, but I do think progressive voters are feeling very inspired.” The challenge for Teachout will be to get those voters to show up this month, whereas for James, it will be to assert her independence to her supporters over the next week.

There’s also the question about how things will play out in the suburbs and upstate, where Maloney, who pulled ahead of James in August for total fundraising numbers, but still has less cash-on-hand, could siphon off voters. Teachout had a strong showing upstate during her 2014 gubernatorial run, and James could struggle with name recognition outside of the city. But Zaino noted that “establishment support” might “put [James] a little bit up as you move upstate.”

James has consistently insisted that Cuomo’s endorsement, and the big donors it comes with, won’t compromise her independence. “The notion that I’m somehow a wholly owned subsidiary of Governor Cuomo is laughable but also offensive at the same time,” James told Gothamist. When asked about the real estate donations, she said, “I do not want to unilaterally disarm at a time when my opponents have deep ties to Wall Street and to special interests.”

James also pointed out that more than 60 percent of her funds are from small donors and that she has significant backing from labor. She asserted that “if anyone thinks that any contributions are going to influence my progressive bent, then they just don’t know Tish James.”

And not all progressive groups are aligned with Teachout. Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, told Gothamist that the decision to endorse James was unanimous. “She’s somebody we’ve known and trusted for years and years,” McKee said. “She’s always been right there for tenants.” When asked about whether he was concerned that Cuomo’s endorsement would compromise her independence, McKee didn’t hesitate to shut that possibility down. “Not at all, there’s no way she would ever kowtow to Andrew Cuomo.”

Downtown Independent Democrats endorsed James early on, before the Cuomo-WFP incident. Jeanne Wilcke, treasurer of DID, said that many of their members knew James personally, because she had made a point of coming to community meetings for years. “She would often stay for the whole meeting, she wasn’t one of those flyby people. People felt like she was steeped in the issues.” When I asked if anything had changed after Cuomo’s endorsement, Wilcke said that many members were “disappointed,” especially when it came to the LLC donations.

“But still you look at the overall person and there’s a lot of muck with campaigns and there’s missteps, or you might not see why somebody took a step until you look back.” Wilcke said. “She’s a really strong candidate.”

Even those critical of James’s decision mainly place the blame on Cuomo for putting her between a rock and a hard place. “Our members were deeply excited about both of these choices, were really angered by the way Cuomo made this outrageous demand that Tish not take our line,” Lipton said. “To us it was reminiscent of the way he puts his own interests ahead of others time and time again.”

It’s not hard to see that in certain ways, Cuomo and James’s alliance benefits him more than it does her. The governor is facing his own primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, and while polls have him ahead, it’s likely that his real end goal is a much bigger seat in 2020 (although he consistently denies it). It will be harder for Cuomo to be seriously considered as a presidential candidate if he barely scrapes by in his gubernatorial primary. Having James—a credible and popular black progressive figure—on his side will only help him shore up his base.

Greer pointed out that if Cuomo really cared about James winning, he could have deployed some of his infamous backdoor dealmaking to her benefit. “I think he would have asked or negotiated with Leecia to get out of the race or vice versa,” Greer says. “You have two very qualified black women, one upstate, one downstate. Having both Leecia and Tish in the race helps Cuomo tremendously, because she brings out black Brooklyn and Leecia brings out black Buffalo, and possibly splitting their votes and neither of them getting elected.”


The truth is, with little data available, the race could still end up going any which way come September 13th. Zaino noted that because turnout is so difficult to determine in an odd calendar year and because the few public polls out show a large number of undecided voters, that this race, unlike most, “could really be fluid.” Overall, given that all four candidates are not particularly well-known, it will be “a matter of getting known to the voters and giving them a reason to support you,” said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster.

As James put it herself to Gothamist, “I find it hypocritical that individuals are questioning my independence when it was never an issue less than four months ago.” But the question come September 13th is whether her biggest mistake might end up being a failure to see how big of an issue it would become.

There will be a final Attorney General Democratic primary debate at Cooper Union at 7 p.m. this Thursday, September 6th. It will be moderated by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and WNYC's Brian Lehrer. The debate is sold out but it will be broadcast live on WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820, and livestreamed on www.Facebook.com/cooperunion, www.youtube.com/cooperunion, and CAFE.com.

Clio Chang is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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