ALBANY — New York Attorney General Tish James announced Friday she will run for governor in 2022, putting an end to months of speculation about her political ambitions and opening the floodgates for what could be the most contested Democratic primary for governor in a decade.
James, whose sweeping investigation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo led to his resignation in August, declared her long-awaited candidacy in a video that emphasized her Brooklyn roots, her record standing up to powerful companies and her 76 challenges to the Donald Trump administration. “But who’s counting?” she quipped with a shrug.
“I’ve spent my career guided by a simple principle: Stand up to the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable to be a force for change,” she said in the 83-second video.
James has widely been regarded as one of the strongest potential challengers to Gov. Kathy Hochul, the former lieutenant governor who took over for Cuomo after he was toppled by a mushrooming scandal linked to a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct.
While Hochul made history as the first woman to lead the state, James would be the first Black woman elected governor in the nation. In addition to those dynamics, a primary between the two could represent tectonic shifts happening within the party, said Democratic strategist Neal Kwatra.
“New York, arguably the most powerful gubernatorial gig in the country, is almost assuredly gonna have its first duly elected female chief executive,” he said. “On top of that history you’ve got the current rivalries roiling the Democratic Party between progressives, liberals and moderates. With this race coming on the heels of Eric Adams’ win in New York and the Buffalo mayor’s race, it will be a fresh chance for all factions in the party to validate their worldview for the ingredients of a winning coalition in big statewide contests.”
James has long topped the short list of contenders, partly due to her current title — “AG” stands for “aspiring governor,” New York’s political class likes to joke — and partly due to the national publicity she garnered by going after Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association and Cuomo.
Her role in Cuomo’s downfall — dual reports detailing the Cuomo administration’s undercount of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and then her confirmation of the sexual harassment accusations — is likely to define the narratives of her candidacy in the coming months.
She has been largely applauded for her office’s investigations into the former governor. But in the aftermath of her findings, Cuomo’s personal attorney and spokesperson have continued to stoke the theory that the probes were biased because James coveted Cuomo’s office, despite both being launched at Cuomo’s direction.
“What Tish James did was abuse of the justice system in a way that would make Bill Barr blush,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said in a variation on a theme in a statement following James’ announcement.
Those claims could force James into consistent defense mode during her run, especially if Cuomo — known for his fondness for revenge — uses any of his $18 million in campaign cash to push that narrative. But Cuomo’s credibility may be a rapidly diminishing commodity.
The Albany County Sheriff’s office on Thursday announced that Cuomo now faces criminal charges regarding one of the accounts of sexual harassment detailed in James’ report — specifically that he’s accused of groping a former staffer in the executive mansion. On Friday, Sheriff Craig Apple said there was “an overwhelming amount of evidence” in the case.
James had fended off questions about a run for months, saying she was still “considering” where she could make the greatest impact in New York and that her plans for 2022 would be “entirely up to the people.”
Her actions this year have demonstrated a slow crescendo of campaign momentum, including a rare statewide tour in October to pass out opioid settlement funding in communities from Long Island to the North Country, and speeches that have taken a campaign-toned turn. She’s more recently staffed up with a handful of nationally known strategists and fundraisers, significant because raising money hasn’t traditionally been James’ strong suit. Hochul has said her campaign is looking to raise $25 million.
James is the only Democrat to officially declare a challenge to the incumbent thus far, but New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has filed paperwork and launched an “exploratory committee.” Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) have also signaled an interest in running.
A recent Siena poll found Hochul with a strong lead (39 percent) in a hypothetical four-way primary that included James (20 percent), de Blasio (10 percent) and Williams (8 percent). Hochul outpolled James 47 to 31 in a one-on-one matchup, but pollsters warn that the results can’t be taken too seriously until the entire field is solidified.
The head of the state Republican party, which has named U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin its presumptive candidate for governor next year, in a statement called James “a radical left ideologue” who has used her power to politicize the office.
“The truth is, it doesn’t matter which Democrat runs for governor as next year’s election will be a referendum on their 15 years of destruction to our state thanks to their pro-criminal, socialist agenda,” Nick Langworthy said.
A matchup between Hochul and James could place a number of Democrats and organizations looking to elevate Black and female politicians in difficult positions, specifically if they have existing relationships with Hochul or her likely running mate, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin.
“I’ve talked to quite a few Black elected officials, and they’re not all convinced [James] is entirely in,” said one Democratic strategist, who has worked in New York City political circles for decades and requested anonymity to speak freely. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to see this happen. They don’t want to see a primary that leads to all these kinds of splits.”
Hochul has already been endorsed by several county committees, state NAACP president Hazel Dukes and national fundraising behemoth Emily’s List. She has been campaigning publicly and privately since taking office. Earlier in the day Friday, Hochul appeared with James to tout Democratic unity ahead of the upcoming mayoral election in New York City.
James has been a rising star in the party since her 2003 election as a City Council member, representing parts of Brooklyn — which has increasingly become the city’s political center of gravity. She was the first city officeholder to win on the Working Families Party line.
She then moved up to become New York City’s public advocate before earning the state party’s endorsement for attorney general in the wake of Eric Schneiderman’s resignation following accusations he physically abused several women.
James, while not the most liberal politician in the state, is a favorite of downstate progressives looking to fully erase Cuomo from New York. That may require ousting his former lieutenant governor, they say, despite Hochul’s claims of distance from the previous administration’s “toxic” culture and promises to clean up Albany.
Other Democrats in the state stand to benefit from the domino effect that will happen if James leaves her current office. James will be competing for votes with fellow candidate Williams and de Blasio — two other well-known politicians that count Brooklyn as their base.
The official Brooklyn party seemed to already be backing her candidacy — though Brooklyn Democrats have been infamously divided in recent years.
“New York State just welcomed its first female governor Kathy Hochul and now we have the prospect of welcoming the first Black woman governor in the nation — Tish James,” Brooklyn Democratic Chair and state Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said in a statement this week. “Brooklyn will at last be able to elect a Governor that will empower and uplift all Brooklynites.”
James would also need to forgo reelection for attorney general because of her candidacy for governor, and at least a half-dozen Democrats across the state have expressed interest in taking her place.
The deputy majority leader of the state Senate, Mike Gianaris, said “I do” hope James runs for governor when asked in an August podcast. Gianaris, of Queens, is one of a handful of Democrats eyeing a run for attorney general if James gives up the spot.
“The AG is immediately and easily the leading downstate candidate, and in a primary dominated by downstate voters, and against an upstate incumbent still finding her footing, that’s a good thing to be,” said Democratic political consultant Eric Phillips. “It’s not quite her race to lose, but it may quickly turn out that way.”