Attorney General Letitia James gave a rousing campaign speech to business and civic leaders in Lower Manhattan Wednesday, outlining her vision for a state recovering from the pandemic and scandals that besieged former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Whether she will be running next year for her current office or his old one was the question that loomed not so quietly over the proceedings.
James and her campaign advisors have been making calls to labor unions, lobbyists and county leaders to take the temperature of the political field, gauging whether a run for governor is advisable for her, according to several people briefed on the matter.
An announcement on her decision is expected in the coming weeks, sources said.
Attendees at the Association for a Better New York breakfast agreed that James’ address had tones of a gubernatorial speech, even as the attorney general was coy about committing to a run.
Kicking off her speech, James noted that mayoral candidate Eric Adams was the last to address the business group, “and he’s the Democratic nominee.”
“And here I am, Letitia James, so who knows,” James said to laughs from the crowd.
“Don’t read anything into that,” she quickly added.
A Standing Ovation
Whether James, who was elected to be the state’s top law enforcer in 2018, runs for governor in 2022 remains one of the most closely watched decisions in New York politics.
James oversaw a months-long investigation against Cuomo that resulted in the three-term governor resigning in August, after 11 women shared stories alleging unwanted come-ons and touching by the governor. Independent investigators brought in by James found that Cuomo had violated federal and state workplace harassment laws.
Cuomo’s stunning departure in August propelled Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to lead the executive chamber and fueled talk that James might vie for the top job.
Hochul has already declared her intention to run for governor next year, while others are showing signs of interest.
City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams announced this week that he’s creating an exploratory committee. Mayor Bill de Blasio is also flirting with a statewide run, telling reporters Wednesday that he “wants to keep serving” after leaving City Hall on Dec. 31.
But James remains evasive.
“Are you running for governor?” ABNY Chairman Steven Rubenstein asked in a parting question Wednesday morning.
“It was a wonderful breakfast,” James replied, to more laughs from the audience. “I’m so glad that all of you are here. It’s a packed room.”
“I’m focusing on my work, putting my head down, serving all of you as the attorney general,” she added.
“I must leave you now,” James said as the crowd of New York power brokers gave her a standing ovation.
‘Let’s Lift All Boats’
James’ wide-ranging speech touched on a variety of issues — from reforming the governor’s office and state government, to economic recovery from the pandemic, to infrastructure and climate change.
“There is no upstate or downstate way to make government work. So let’s agree that we will not return to business as usual. No, returning to normal is not the answer. Let us agree to a new era of partnership,” James said.
“A new era of commitment to do what is right, together. Let’s agree to make history, to break ground, to shatter society’s self imposed glass ceiling. That is exactly what we should do for the people of New York. Let’s improve outcomes. Let’s lift all boats.”
Hochul, first elected as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor in 2014, is courting deep-pocketed donors, as the head of the state’s Democratic Party seeks to tie up early support for her run next year.
Looming over James is the accusation from Cuomo and his most diehard supporters that she weaponized her office’s investigation, without providing him fair opportunity to respond before releasing her bombshell report.
The former governor and his allies accused James of intentionally seeking Cuomo’s ouster, with the aim of seeking the state’s top job herself.
In a Newsday op-ed, one Cuomo supporter called her action “an Albany coup d’etat.”
In his departing message to New Yorkers last month, Cuomo continued to claim the attorney general’s probe was a politically motivated inquiry to pave the way for a gubernatorial run.
“This was politics. Every step of the way,” Cuomo tweeted in sharing the Newsday piece.
On Wednesday, James sought to dispel claims she was jousting for the governorship when she took on Cuomo.
“Since that report came out, the former governor has spent a lot of energy criticizing me,” James said. “Until now, I have chosen to take the high road. Chosen not to respond in detail.”
She added: “But that changes today.”
James noted to the crowd at the Marriott that during Cuomo’s 2000s tenure as attorney general, he also investigated the governor at the time, Eliot Spitzer, who later resigned in scandal.
“My office appointed outside independent investigators. By contrast, Mr. Cuomo used his own staff. The report my office commissioned from the outside investigators took five months to complete. By contrast, Mr. Cuomo took 20 days to investigate then governor Eliot Spitzer,” James said.
Political observers say such maneuvering is nothing new.
“There’s an old joke in Albany that AG stands for ‘aspiring governor,’” said Peter Kauffmann, a political strategist who worked for Cuomo’s campaigns in 2010 and 2014. “The fact that Tish James has aspirations for higher office isn’t exactly news, and there’s certainly a precedent for an AG clearing out the governor’s office via investigation of the incumbent — just ask Andrew Cuomo.”
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Cuomo and former aide, continued to question the accuracy of the investigation’s conclusions. “The public deserves specific answers from AG as to the credibility of her report — especially while she mulls a run for governor,” he said in a statement.
Today, for the first time, the Attorney General said she would break her silence regarding the report she issued over 2 months ago — now she should answer the following 10 questions: pic.twitter.com/8aXZcH4C2v— Andrew Cuomo (@andrewcuomo) September 29, 2021
Others in Albany politics saw James as taking a principled stand.
“I think it’s really important that Tish addressed the Cuomo attacks,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Queens) who was in the audience for James’ speech. ”It’s a good lesson for women leaders — there’s nothing wrong with pushing back on distortions of the truth.”
James’ repeated that the former governor has yet to acknowledge the sexual harassment claims.
“Mr. Cuomo has a lot to say on these matters, but he has never taken responsibility for his own conduct. He has never held himself accountable for how his behavior affected our state government. So let’s not lose sight of what’s important: It’s not me. It’s not Mr. Cuomo. It’s the survivors of his harassment,” James said.