Potential rivals may have backed away from running against New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2018 but a new primary challenger emerged Monday to his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Jumaane D. Williams, a city councilman from Brooklyn and an outspoken liberal Democrat who served as a delegate to Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign, said he was opening an exploratory committee to unseat Hochul.
Williams, who has previously been floated as a possible challenger to Cuomo, said in a brief interview Monday that he would be a more independent voice. “It needs to be used not just to co-sign what’s being put forward but to help set a very distinct agenda,” he said of the post.
The lieutenant governor’s contest could quickly become a proxy battle for liberal activists in New York who have years of pent-up frustrations with Cuomo, but have been scared away by the possibility of directly taking on an incumbent with high ratings and an estimated $30 million campaign treasury.
Hochul, in contrast, had $144,000 in her campaign account as of last July.
The lieutenant governorship is an office far more symbolic than substantive, with a limited budget and few formal responsibilities. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run independently in the primary in New York. But Cuomo and, by extension, the state Democratic Party apparatus, could weigh in heavily to ensure that Cuomo’s partner in the executive branch is an ally and not an agitator.
Challenging Hochul “is to challenge the governor’s administration,” said Charlie King, who ran for lieutenant governor with Cuomo in 2002, and who is now an informal adviser to the governor.
Cuomo’s and Hochul’s office declined to comment.
Williams did not formally declare his candidacy, but he is now able to raise money while gauging “whether there is a definite path” and “an appetite” for his candidacy, he said. He most recently ran for New York City Council speaker but was not among the finalists.
Williams, who is African-American, would have some demographic advantages in a Democratic primary where an enormous number of votes come from New York City and minority communities. Hochul, a former congresswoman and clerk from Erie County, has traveled the state extensively in her years as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, but is hardly a household name.
In a sign of the prominent role race could play, Williams announced he was exploring a bid on Martin Luther King’s Birthday. He later spoke at a rally in Harlem at the National Action Network, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s organization, and rattled off the all the prominent positions held by white leaders in New York, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and New York City mayor.
“What we need to do is make sure there is diversity in the highest order of government,” he said.
Williams faces a steep climb. He spoke last among the parade of more than 15 politicians in Harlem, more than two hours after Cuomo.
As for crossing the governor, who is known for his long memory and even sharper elbows, Williams said, “People shouldn’t be afraid to do what’s right. As we’re talking about King Day, we should remember that.”
While most speakers ripped into President Donald Trump, Williams noted that New York’s shortcomings predate the president — and come under Democratic rule.
“I want to make sure I make that clear. That’s not Donald Trump,” he said, tapping the microphone to punctuate his point, “Those weren’t just Republicans. Everyone needs to be held responsible.”