Light rain fell on Sunday as Letitia James and her two campaign aides hurried into St. Paul’s Community Church in East New York in Brooklyn. It’s the type of day pastors fear will keep their flocks from filling the pews. That morning, projections that Hurricane Florence would hit the East Coast before Thursday’s New York State primary circulated on the internet. James, who is running for New York attorney general, used the drizzling rain and the prospect of a hurricane as a metaphor: Black people may have seen storms before, but that’s never stopped their march to liberation.
“We’re in a pivotal moment in the history of this country,” she told the congregants to a chorus of “mm-hmms” and shouts of “yaaas, yaaas!”
“We’re careening toward chaos and confusion. We’re more divided now than we’ve ever been since the Civil War. We’re facing the possibility of a constitutional crisis; an illegitimate president who is out of control. A racist. A misogynist. Someone who has no respect for the rule of law and no respect for you or I,” James said.
“They tell me that a storm is coming Thursday. Assemblyman [Charles] Barron, they tell me that they only expect 10 percent of the electorate to come out: One, because it’s a storm, and two, it’s on a Thursday, and it’s after a holiday,” said James referencing the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashana. “But I tell them I know some people who’ve been through storms—storms in life. I know some people who came out of City Hall in the midst of a storm. I know some people who live each and every day in storms. I know some people who praise a good God. I know some people who, despite the storm, they come out on the other side. And I know some people whose ancestors died for the right to vote. And I know some people who scratched, and they clawed, and they fought to get to this point. And I know some people who recognized there is no storm and no weapon that will be formed against us.
“So this Thursday, I need you to come out in record numbers,” she implored. “And I need you to let people know that, despite the storm—despite what we’ve been through, despite all of our struggles—we’ve been here before, and we believe in victory. Nothing more and nothing less. And that’s why this time again, we will make history. My name is Letitia James, and I will be the next attorney general of New York. God bless you, and thank you.”
Applause erupted as James stepped down from the pulpit to greet parishioners until her aides escorted her down the aisle toward the front exit, where a black SUV waited to rush us off to the next church.
Here in New York state, James’ candidacy has serious political implications. Should James snag her party’s nomination this week and go on to win in November, she’d be the first black woman elected to statewide office in New York. Black women are the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters but are severely underrepresented at all levels of government nationwide, according to a study by Higher Heights, a national organization aimed at getting black women elected to higher office. The position of attorney general in New York is often viewed as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion, a role many of James’ supporters see her pursuing if she can win her party’s nomination Thursday and the office in November.
New York state assemblyman and DNC vice chair Mike Blake told The Root that a James victory will send a powerful message within the Democratic Party.
“One, more black women should run for higher office,” he said. “Two, that we will support the organizations that are supporting them, Higher Heights being a great example of that. Demonstrating that the ecosystem support is there. And three, that we have to realize that the language that is used against black candidates is ever present in 2018. The questions of, ‘Is she qualified? ‘Is she capable?’ ‘Is she ready?’ is the same kind of silent garbage you were hearing in Florida against Andrew [Gillum]. Until you keep winning, you will validate that noise.”
Before we make it to the next church, James asks to stop by a 7-Eleven for tea. We talked about how tight the race is between her, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Zephyr Teachout, and to a much lesser extent, Leecia Eve, another black woman who’s also a former aide to Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Gov. Cuomo. The latest poll has James trailing Maloney by one point.
“That’s been my story,” James said of being behind in the polls. “That’s been my testimony. And I’m usually at my best when I’m down; usually at my best when I’m against the wall.”
We arrived at the 7-Eleven on Rockaway Avenue and Linden Boulevard a few minutes later, where customers quickly recognized James.
“Heeeey, Tish,” said one woman.
People waiting in line walked up to her with their phones pulled out for selfies. Without having to be asked, James posed and smiled. An older black man gave James a hug, and asked me to take a photo of the two of them before returning to his seat.
“That’s my girl,” he said, as he pointed in James’ direction. “That’s my girl right there.”
James was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1959, and grew up in Park Slope with seven other siblings. After attending New York public schools, James continued her education at the City University of New York, Lehman College, graduating with a bachelor’s of arts in 1981. Over the course of 20 years, she took on roles as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society, a city councilwoman and eventually worked her way to her current position as public advocate. Most of that time has been devoted to helping the most underprivileged New Yorkers.
During her time as a councilwoman in Brooklyn, a seat she won in 2003, James was a leading voice against the construction of the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, fearing it would gentrify the surrounding community. As public advocate, James sued Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration nearly a dozen times, including one against Department of Buildings and the landlords of a New York City apartment building, whose tenants alleged that the building was not accessible to people with disabilities.
Should she win the office of attorney general, her primary aim would be to defend the most vulnerable, which includes undocumented immigrants who are being targeted by ICE. She supports New York Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages’ bill that would stop ICE agents from arresting undocumented immigrants who appear at New York courthouses. James believes ICE should be abolished, but with a few caveats.
“There are certain functions of ICE that should be incorporated into a new entity, such as human trafficking, gun smuggling and terrorism,” she said, as we traveled to another church. “But their enforcement actions should be ended immediately, particularly the ones where they detain individuals before the court for violations, misdemeanors, cooperating with district attorneys getting orders of protection or witnesses in trials. We should not be cooperating with ICE, and they should not be obstructing justice—and they are.”
The office of attorney general in New York is particularly vital in this current political climate, given that former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman used it to prosecute Donald Trump’s business dealings in the state. Schneiderman sued Trump University for fraud in 2013, and won a $25 million settlement in 2016. Current Attorney General Barbara Underwood is suing the Trump Foundation for allegedly violating state and federal charity laws. If James wins the office, her national profile will grow exponentially.
“The stakes are high. Everything is at stake,” she said, before touching on Trump’s xenophobic policies, like the Muslim travel ban. “Last night, I had the opportunity to break bread with some Muslims who are afraid. Muslims are the ‘other,’ and he has basically demonized them. He has erected walls and not bridges.”
The attorney general can’t pass legislation, but the AG can certainly advocate for bills he or she favors. In her public-advocate position, James pushed for the NYPD to be outfitted with body cameras and now wants that to expand statewide. Additionally, she wants to end cash bail and diversify alternatives to incarceration. She would like to see more state money invested in Operation SNUG (guns spelled backwards,), a violence-prevention program based in seven cities across New York state, which uses an on-the-street approach to curbing violent crimes. As attorney general, she would continue the wrongful-conviction review work of late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who helped to overturn 23 wrongful convictions between 2013 and 2016.
While Thompson was seen as a reform-minded prosecutor, he was also widely criticized for his decision not to push for jail time for Peter Laing, the former NYPD cop who shot and killed Akai Gurley in his Brooklyn apartment stairwell in 2014. James believed Laing should have served time. If she wins the attorney general seat, James intends to further develop Cuomo’s executive order that, in certain cases, empowers the AG office to prosecute cops who have shot civilians. In fact, James believes the powers need to be codified into law.
“You need someone who is independent,” she said. “District attorneys have to rely on police officers in order to pursue their cases. It’s important [that] you have someone outside of that role who is not a DA, and that is why the office of the attorney general is uniquely qualified and suited to be a prosecutor.”
I asked her about last week’s debate and the significance of competing against three women, including Eve.
“Stacey Abrams, Ayanna Pressley. Given what black women have done in Virginia, Alabama and New Jersey, it doesn’t surprise me,” James said. “People are just outraged over the events of the last year and a half and the policies of this White House, so more and more individuals are getting involved in politics.”
Her political assent hasn’t protected her against racism, even in her well-publicized role of public advocate or while campaigning for attorney general.
“When I walk into courthouses, I am constantly confused with being a defendant’s mama—even to this day—or the defendant herself,” she told me, as our SUV drove down Atlantic Avenue.
I asked her to describe what exactly happens when this kind of situation arises.
“You just walk into court, and they ask, ‘What’s your case number?’”
“What’s your response?” I asked.
“I look at them, I catch myself—and I usually ignore them, and walk around them,” she said. “It comes with the territory. You just have to catch yourself. Usually, you do your case, and what happens, invariably, they’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I apologize.’”
“Who are these people?” I inquired.
“Usually court officers,” she replied. “Usually I get a case dismissed. Or I’ve made enough noise or ruckus in the courthouse, and I’ve gotten their attention, and they say, ‘Can I have your card?’ It used to be weekly. Now it’s monthly,” she added.
Camonghne Felix, a political analyst who served as deputy communications director and speechwriter for Gov. Cuomo, was often assumed to be an intern during her days in government.
“At the end of the day, being a black woman, these experiences that we have, are very much in line with each other,” Felix said. “They really don’t change depending on what level you go to. So, we still have to deal with being judged immediately as inferior as soon as we walk into the room.”
The toughest criticism James is fighting against is her association with Cuomo, who has endorsed her candidacy. The New York Times pointed out that key groups have backed Teachout because James has embraced Cuomo. A recent headline from Gothamist asked, “Will Letitia James’ Embrace of Cuomo Sink Her Attorney General Campaign?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that narrative. And it’s sort of laughable and offensive, because one, people are defining me by a man, and two, people don’t know my history,” she said. “As long as we’ve got income inequality and poverty; if you don’t think that Tish James is gonna make some noise about that—then you don’t know Tish. As long as we’ve got housing laws that protect landlords more than tenants; if you don’t think Tish is gonna shake the table on that—then you don’t know Tish. And as long as we’ve got a criminal justice system that is hellbent on imprisoning black and Latino people; if you don’t think I’m going to flip the table over that—then you don’t know Tish.”
By time we left Brown Memorial Baptist Church, the rainfall intensified. James had to rush off to Westchester for more campaigning. Evoking the words of MLK, she characterized her candidacy as the fierce urgency of now; immigrants who fear ICE, children being snatched out of their mothers’ arms, environmental racism, people who fear their government, mass incarceration.
Houses of faith, James told me, reminds us of our struggle and our progress. The only way we can build on the progress we’ve made is to come out and vote—no matter how rough things may seem outside, she said.
“Storms come and go,” James said. “You have to weather the storm. This campaign has been a storm. But we’re gonna come out on top.”