Letitia James became the first black woman to win a major party statewide nomination Thursday, defeating three rivals in New York’s Democratic primary for attorney general.
With her win, James, 59, the New York City public advocate, has positioned herself as a prominent face of resistance to the policies of President Donald Trump, a role that the New York attorney general’s office has embraced since Trump took office.
“This campaign was never really about me or any of the candidates who ran,” Ms. James said in her victory speech. “It was about the people, but mostly it was about that man in the White House who can’t go a day without threatening our fundamental rights.”
With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in New York state by a margin of more than 2-to-1, James will be heavily favored in November against the Republican candidate, Keith Wofford, 49, who ran unopposed. If James wins, she would be the first black woman to assume statewide office, just five years after becoming the first black woman elected to citywide office in New York.
James beat out three other candidates who would also have made history if they had been elected as attorney general: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was seeking to be the first openly gay holder of statewide office; and two women who would have been the first to be elected to the position: Leecia Eve, an Africa-American former top aide to Hillary Clinton; and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor.
“Tish James is going to be the strong, progressive attorney general we need to stand up to Donald Trump,” said Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party.
James said she had received concession calls from Maloney and Teachout and that Eve had tried to reach her. Maloney, speaking at a Spanish restaurant in the Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, was conciliatory.
“We have so much more in common than divided us in this primary,” he said.
James supporters gathered at Milk River, a bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As early returns appeared on a large screen, showing James with a lead, the crowd broke into cheers.
“She brings a lot of hope to black and brown people,” said James E. Caldwell, 67, a community leader in Crown Heights
That there was a Democratic primary for attorney general came as a big surprise to everyone, including the man who had held the office, Eric Schneiderman, who appeared to be on cruise control toward a third term.
But on May 7, just hours after The New Yorker reported that four women had accused Schneiderman of choking, spitting at and slapping them, he resigned his position, sending shock waves throughout the country and immediately setting off a scramble as to who would replace him.
The New York attorney general was already one of the most powerful law enforcement positions in the country, responsible for overseeing Wall Street. Schneiderman raised the profile of the office exponentially by mounting a series of challenges to Trump’s policies.
James became the front-runner to be appointed to replace Schneiderman. As an attorney who had run the attorney general’s Brooklyn office and who used the public advocate’s office to file multiple lawsuits against the city, James was seen by some as an ideal candidate.
But as the process to replace Schneiderman continued, editorial boards around the city said it was starting to look like a backroom deal, especially when Barbara Underwood, the first woman to serve as solicitor general, was willing to fill the remaining eight months of Schneiderman’s term, and announced that she had no interest in running for the position.
James said she was no longer interested in being appointed to the position but would run for the office, and Underwood became the first woman to hold the office.
The four-way contest grew heated after the four candidates began debating about who was most independent from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. James, the front-runner, had aligned her campaign with Cuomo’s, accepting his endorsement and help in fundraising and in getting the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. But that support had come at a cost.
James, who is considered politically progressive, turned down the line of the WFP, the third-party group with whom she won her first election.
Sources say Cuomo pressured James to turn down the nomination after the WFP endorsed his opponent, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. Although they acknowledge discussing the nomination, both James and Cuomo deny there was any pressure for her to turn down the nomination.
But the decision was seen as an indication of Cuomo’s influence over James, something she strongly and repeatedly denied, characterizing herself in the words of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, as “unbought and unbossed.”
She said fundraising has always been difficult for her as a black woman and that her focus was on the attaining the major party nomination. She believed she would reconcile with the WFP once she won the nomination. And the WFP endorsed both James and Teachout, saying they would back the person who won the Democratic nomination.
James’ rivals repeatedly attacked her relationship with Cuomo and questioned her ability to be independent.
She also committed a few gaffes,along the way. She told The New York Times in an interview that it was “critically important that I not be known as the ‘Sheriff on Wall Street'” — a nickname earned by Eliot L. Spitzer for prosecuting financial fraud, which is seen as a critical function of the New York attorney general given that the Trump administration has made deregulation a priority.
Teachout, who surprised Cuomo in 2014 when she received 34 percent of the vote, used James’ decision to not seek the WFP line to stake out her role as an independent. She highlighted her professional experience writing about corruption and proposing legal strategies to fight Trump. She joined with Nixon and Jumaane Williams to form a ticket they believed was based on insurgency.
By the last debate, it was clear that Teachout was surging as she came under attack by her opponents for saying that she doesn’t accept donations from Wall Street firms, corporate political action committees or limited liability corporations when she does take money from individuals in those fields.
Teachout was also criticized for just recently joining the New York State bar; being reprimanded by the North Carolina bar for moving out of state while handling a death penalty case and growing up on a farm in Vermont — with critics implying that she was out of touch with New York.
At the same time, Maloney, relying on $3.1 million that he had raised for his congressional race, began spending on advertisements that focused on his being the state’s first openly gay congressman and raising three minority children with his husband.
Sensing a threat, the WFP launched the largest amount of ad spending on the race by a party other than the candidate’s campaign, spending more than $250,000 on digital ads on Facebook, Pandora and Spotify, a half-million robocalls and over 200,000 texts to highlight Maloney’s voting record on legislation about bank deregulation and highlighting that he voted against President Barack Obama dozens of times.
Eve, despite her strong credentials as a former adviser to Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, and the name recognition associated with her father, Arthur O. Eve, a longtime Buffalo assemblyman, never gained traction with voters.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, James had 40 percent of the vote, followed by Teachout with 31 percent and Maloney with 25 percent.
James pledged to be the “independent individual I have been” in her victory speech.
“Nothing’s going to change about Tish,” she said. “I’m still just a girl from Brooklyn.”