New York Attorney General Letitia James was only a few months into her second term as New York City’s public advocate when, over a few hours during a dinner party with friends, a stunning twist of fate put her on a collision course with the state’s most powerful man, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In a report published on the evening of May 7, 2018, by The New Yorker, then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was leveled with a series of domestic and sexual abuse allegations. Within hours — by the time dessert came around, James recounted later that year — Schneiderman had announced plans to step down. The next week, James declared her candidacy to replace him.
That November, James was elected New York’s attorney general, the first Black person and woman to win statewide office. On the same night, Cuomo won his third term. The pair, who exchanged endorsements that spring, made for strange political allies. James is a favorite of New York progressives, Cuomo their longtime rival and antagonist. But the support of the governor proved too much to turn down and, despite some grumbling on the left, James joined his ticket.
Now, with Cuomo facing calls for his resignation following two allegations of sexual harassment and an accusation that he made unwanted advances on another woman at a 2019 wedding, James is poised to lead an investigation that could derail his political career. After a very public back-and-forth last weekend, Cuomo agreed — after twice pushing for arrangements that would cut off or limit James’s role in the probe — to formally refer the matter to her office. James is now at the helm of an independent civil inquiry into the governor’s behavior. Her office is currently seeking outside counsel, which will be armed with subpoena power and the ability to depose Cuomo as the investigation, which could last for months, gets underway.
For both Cuomo, who, during his own turn as attorney general, launched damaging investigations into two governors, and James, the stakes are clear — and steep.
“He’s saying that nothing inappropriate happened. If the investigation shows that something inappropriate did happen, I think he would have to resign,” New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, told CNN on Wednesday.
An assortment of New York politicos interviewed for this story split on whether James should be lionized for her courage in standing up to the powerful governor, or regarded as a shrewd politician who read the room and, with cover from high-ranking state officials calling for a truly independent investigation, refused anything less. The reality, others argued, fell somewhere in-between.
Bill Lipton, who ran James’ first two campaigns and served until recently as the liberal New York Working Families Party state director, suggested that Cuomo, the party’s longtime political rival, had underestimated James.
“Tish James stood up to him, he tried to meddle in his own investigation. Tish knows how to do her job. And she flatly rejected that, correctly, because of the conflict of interest,” Lipton said. “He had nowhere to go, so he caved.”
James’s office declined to comment on the investigation.
Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing and, in a news conference on Wednesday, offered a qualified apology to a former staffer who accused him of harassment, claiming that he did not realize she had been made “uncomfortable” by his comments.
But the governor also mixed in streaks of defiance when confronted with growing calls for his resignation.
“I do not believe that I have ever done anything in my public career that I am ashamed of. I didn’t know that I was making her uncomfortable at the time, I feel badly that I did,” Cuomo said. “I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed.”
A senior Democrat in New York who has worked with both Cuomo and James said the attorney general’s true test is still ahead of her — and that “different offices from (former Attorney General Eliot) Spitzer to Cuomo to Schneiderman all handled these kinds of things very differently depending on the leadership style of the attorney general.”
“There’s two schools of thought: one is you’re more active, you have potentially more opportunity to inform the outcome. If you’re more hands-off, then you have a little less ownership if it is an unfavorable outcome,” said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing probe. “I think that the less-is-more approach to this stuff has really served her quite well thus far.”
A fateful reckoning
For those who have known James for years, her arrival at this fraught moment is both remarkable and unsurprising. An estimable politician and attorney who graduated from Howard University Law School, she served as a Legal Aid lawyer and assistant state attorney general in Brooklyn before winning her first election, to the New York city council in 2003, by bucking the Democratic Party and running on the Working Families Party ballot line.
She has been a close ally of the progressive organization for two decades as she ascended in city politics, succeeding Mayor Bill de Blasio as the public advocate in 2014, before being reelected to the post — which is widely viewed as a launchpad for ambitious city politicians — four years later.
The job did lead to bigger things for James, just not in quite the way she planned.
Before Schneiderman’s spectacular implosion, James appeared on track to again follow de Blasio, who is term-limited, as an early favorite in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary. Instead, she jumped into a suddenly wide-open 2018 race for state attorney general. But her decision to do so on a ticket with Cuomo was the source of heartburn for her WFP allies, some of whom were frustrated by James’ willingness to join forces with a governor who has repeatedly sought to undermine, if not destroy, the party over the years.
During the campaign, James repeatedly asserted her independence — from the governor and anyone else — while WFP leadership decided to do its best to maintain the long relationship. Her bonds with party and its rank-and-file, if momentarily strained, ultimately remained intact.
Democratic City Councilman Brad Lander, a candidate this year for city comptroller, was an early WFP activist and briefly overlapped with James on the council. He led the Fifth Avenue Committee, an affordable housing non-profit in Brooklyn, during James’ first council campaigns and remains a staunch supporter. Lander described James, as she first sought office in the early 2000s, as a precursor to the progressive stars of today.
“This was a long time before AOC or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, well before Bill de Blasio — this was somebody who was really speaking with an energetic progressive energy and just a fierce integrity,” Lander said, recalling her advocacy against the forces of gentrification in Brooklyn.
In the 2018 primary season, Lander endorsed Nixon, Williams and — unlike many city progressives, who flocked to Teachout — James. Asked why he thought Cuomo chose James, Lander said he believed the governor, of whom he has been critical, made a fundamental miscalculation.
“It would not surprise me if the governor’s thinking was, here’s an appealing person who would be a compelling candidate who, with my bullying, I will be able to bend to my will and who will do what I want in my hour of need,” Lander said. “But I also thought at the time, if that was his strategy, he was making a terrible mistake.”
An ally of the governor told CNN that the decision to endorse James had been made on simpler terms. Though they were “never that close,” Cuomo believed she was a compelling candidate who was already on a path to the nomination and victory that November.
“He just likes to be with winners,” said the Cuomo ally, who was granted anonymity to speak openly about the governor’s history with James. “She was well regarded in the party and it is important to him and the New York state party that they elevate diverse voices.”
Lupe Todd-Medina, a political consultant who was a communications adviser to Cuomo’s 2018 campaign and is now working on former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire’s mayoral bid, has known James for two decades. And though they have frequently been at odds politically, Todd-Medina counts James as a friend — and trailblazer for women of color in what has traditionally been an unwelcoming profession.
“As she has elevated in her career, she’s always kept the door open. Which is also a testament to her and her values, her ethics,” Todd-Medina said. “It says a lot, because again, it does go back to, we’re all these Black women together in this space and we’ve got to kind of look out for each other.”
Asked what the public — and Cuomo — should expect from James in the week and months to come, Todd-Medina said the attorney general was likely to keep out of the headlines and focused on her job.
“You don’t hear her talking a lot, but she does carry a big stick. So (Cuomo’s) not going to mess with her,” Todd-Medina said. “I wouldn’t mess with her. I think she’s lovely and I wouldn’t mess with her.”
For most of the first two years of James’s tenure as attorney general, she and Cuomo seemed to exist a world apart. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Cuomo emerged as a national political star, celebrated by Democrats around the country for his data-driven, daily news briefings, which cut a stark and scathing contrast with then-President Donald Trump, who either ignored the virus’ growing toll or actively undermined public health officials’ most basic safety recommendations.
That all changed at the end of January, when James’ office released a report that found the Cuomo administration had undercounted the number of Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents by as much as 50%. Cuomo’s standing took an immediate hit. His troubles were compounded by some Democratic state lawmakers’ claims that he threatened them in private as he sought their public support after his top aide clashed with the legislature over the administration’s decision to withhold relevant data last summer.
“The nursing home report coming out was a real pivot point,” Lander said. “I think people knew what the investigation would probably show, but having (James) come out with one that laid it out so clearly and just made clear she was going to be guided by the facts and the law, that for me was both an affirmation point about Tish James, but also turning point in the governor’s ability to believe that he might be able to deflect the truth.”
Cuomo has insisted that he and his aides did nothing wrong in their handling of the nursing home situation — that the overall death count was correct, even if the classifications were ultimately misleading — and, at a news conference before the first sexual harassment allegation became public, suggested his only mistake had been in not being aggressive enough in countering misinformation.
But after the first accusation was lodged, by former aide Lindsey Boylan, who said in a Medium post that Cuomo kissed her against her will and spoke to her in an inappropriately suggestive sexual manner, Cuomo sat back, not appearing before cameras for more than a week.
In his return, on Wednesday, he asked the public not to jump to conclusions and “wait for the facts” to be presented by the attorney general’s office. Cuomo’s rivals called his request a bid for time and effort to defuse calls for him to step down now.
But some of James’s most ardent supporters believe that, by the time she has finished her work, Cuomo’s position will be untenable.
Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, said James’s refusal to allow Cuomo to dictate the shape of the investigation “felt liberating to see” and expressed confidence that her report would be damning.
“She’s going to be aggressive,” Westin said, “and will push to get all the facts and I fully expect that what she’ll find will most likely result in the resignation of the governor. That’s what I expect to come out of this.”