Tish James Says ‘Story of Who I Am’ Is Her Pitch for Public Advocate

Councilwoman James speaking at a rally. (Photo: Facebook)

Councilwoman James speaking at a rally. (Photo: Facebook)

“It was very surreal,” Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James said, reflecting on the moment her predecessor was assassinated. “When I got the news that he had been shot, I said, ‘I think I know who did it.’”

Othniel Askew wanted to run against Councilman James Davis. Instead, on a City Hall balcony in July of 2003, he drew a silver .40-caliber pistol and started shooting–killing Mr. Davis and setting events in motion that would place Ms. James in public office.

“The person who assassinated him visited me the night before,” Ms. James recalled, speaking with Politicker recently at a Manhattan campaign office. “Sat on my stoop and came into my home for two hours. He wanted to know whether or not I was going to run again, and if I was not, he wanted my support.”

A special election opened up in the aftermath of the incumbent’s death and Ms. James, who had run against Mr. Davis before, would indeed mount another bid. This time, she ran for the seat solely on the Working Families Party line–the first New York State official ever to do so successfully. The circle completed itself Thursday night when the labor-backed third party endorsed Ms. James again as she now campaigns for citywide for public advocate.

Her campaign has been humming along too. In addition to the WFP, she has scooped up union endorsements and support from clubs far outside her Brooklyn district. Last week, one of the Upper West Side’s most prominent political clubs, the Three Parks Independent Democrats, offered its endorsement, giving her 72 votes, versus 20 for the man seen as her chief opponent, State Sen. Dan Squadron. Another group, the Broadway Democrats, soon followed.

Curtis Arluck, a district leader and Broadway Democrats member, pointed to Ms. James’ experience–as well as a desire for diversity–as key to the endorsement. There are only three citywide positions in New York and, as several white candidates are jockeying for the mayoralty and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer runs unopposed for comptroller, the public advocate’s office is viewed by some Democrats as an opportunity to have demographic diversity on their ticket.

“When you have two good candidates and one has more experience … and is also African American and a woman, that’s appealing,” Mr. Arluck told Politicker.

Ms. James’ own campaign pitch isn’t too complicated either. “I believe that the narrative of my life–the story of who I am–just speaks to the mission of the office,” she explained. “It fits hand in glove.”

She proceeded to tick off functions of the office–emphasizing its role as an ombudsman and watchdog–adding phrases like “I’ve done that” at each point. She was particularly proud of her early criticism of the city’s bungled CityTime project, which aimed to modernize government payroll systems but instead wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Ms. James further claimed with near-certainty that she’ll be able to increase the office’s relatively underfunded budget, enabling her to create new divisions for low-wage workers and immigrants.

“Imagine taking the skills that I have and utilizing it on a citywide basis,” she said. “I’ve demonstrated that time and time again and that’s why I’m running.”

Ms. James, whose voice booms like a preacher’s at press conferences, has emerged as one of the loudest members of the City Council when it comes to issues she’s focused on, including not only CityTime but cuts to social services, the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy and the controversial Atlantic Yards development project, located in her Fort Greene-based district.

“She and I did not always share the same view on the Atlantic Yards project,” Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who lives in the district and has not endorsed in the race, told Politicker. “But her concerns were always incredibly well articulated and with a passion and delivered with a sense of forcefulness.”

Her detractors, to the extent they’re audible, largely point to her campaign’s relatively weak fund-raising and directly question her viability as a candidate. New quarterly filings will be made public later this week, but up until last March, Ms. James had raised about $500,000 with a high burn rate–$300,000 spent. Her top two opponents have done much better in the same period. Both Mr. Squadron and former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani raised roughly $1 million while spending close to $200,000. (Cathy Guerriero and Sidique Wai are also vying for the Democratic nomination.)

“The money will come in. I’m not really worried about the money,” Ms. James insisted when we brought up her lagging numbers. “We will be competitive. My strongest point has never been fundraising. My strongest point has been advocacy and focusing on people and transforming the lives of others. And that’s why you’re looking at the next public advocate.”

Partially because of her fund-raising, there are often rumors that Ms. James will drop down into another race. Recently, the Daily News reported that Ms. James was eying a possible run for Brooklyn borough president in the wake of revelations that the race’s front-runner, State Sen. Eric Adams, may be under federal investigation. Ms. James flatly rejected the report.

Others have quietly speculated that she might run again for her current Council seat, and try to succeed Christine Quinn as the next City Council Speaker.

“Don’t try to distract me,” she said when asked about a possible speakership bid last month. “They want me to run for speaker, borough president. They want me to run for district attorney. It’s wonderful that so many people are talking about me. As long as they keep talking about me, then I’m a winner … Thank you for your vote of confidence, I’m running for public advocate.”

Ms. James was similarly committed when we asked if she might follow the path of current Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and run for mayor after a term or two in office.

“I’m running for public advocate. I’m running for public advocate. I’m running for public advocate,” she replied, repeating the trained response for emphasis. “I’m running for public advocate.”

Additional reporting by Jill Colvin.