EMILY’s List Backs Letitia James, Andrew Cuomo’s Candidate for New York Attorney General

The move is unusual for the women’s group, which tends to shy away from races with more than one viable woman in the primary.

Public Advocate Letitia James outside John Jay College, 524 W 59 Street, Manhattan, speaking at a rally for Food Service Workers Justice.  Tuesday  May 8, 2018  (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Letitia James speaks at a rally for Food Service Workers Justice outside John Jay College in Manhattan, on May 8, 2018. Photo: Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News via Getty Images

EMILY’s List announced on Tuesday its endorsement of Letitia James for New York attorney general, an unusual move for the women’s group that tends to shy away from races with more than one viable woman in the primary. 

James is facing a serious challenge from law professor and former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout. Leecia Eve, a telecom lobbyist, is also running. The endorsement from the group, which works to elect pro-choice women, came about without a competitive process or the typical trappings of interviews with candidates or even questionnaires, sources briefed on the matter told The Intercept. 

“Tish James is a fierce public advocate who has always had the back of every New Yorker, especially women. She’s ready to serve as the state’s top law enforcement officer and protect consumers, working families, and New York’s most vulnerable,” the group said in a statement. “It’s clear that with her proven ability to lead and determination to take on President Trump’s disastrous agenda, Tish is the strongest candidate to defeat Republican Keith Wofford in November. EMILY’s List is proud to endorse her.”

The endorsement of James lines up with the preference of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who endorsed James under the condition she reject the support of the Working Families Party. The WFP has endorsed Cuomo’s own primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon.

James is the New York City public advocate and has long been popular with progressives in New York, but her embrace of Cuomo and rejection of the WFP has raised questions about whether she’ll have sufficient independence to root out the rampant corruption around Cuomo in Albany. “I’ve been independent all of my life,” James said recently. “The reality is that although the governor may have a strong personality, I think I’ve got an even stronger personality, as someone from Brooklyn.”

Following the Tuesday endorsement, James said in a statement, “For years, EMILY’s List has been the force that has empowered countless women to run for office and enact policies to move our country forward and I am truly honored to earn their endorsement for my campaign for Attorney General.”

She added, “With the stakes in our country greater than ever, it is imperative that New York’s Attorney General have the experience and skills to take on Donald Trump and any force that would try to deny New Yorkers their most basic rights. I will be that fearless fighter and will never waver in my commitment to moving our state forward.”

James is a former city council member from Brooklyn who championed the Safe Housing Act, which pressured landlords to improve conditions. As public advocate, she pushed through a new law that bars employers from asking about salary history in an effort to reduce the gender pay gap. She previously worked in the attorney general’s office after beginning her career as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

Teachout, who has not held elected office, is campaigning on the basis of her legal expertise. She is considered one of the sharpest progressive lawyers in the country and has pledged to use her position to target Donald Trump’s alleged corruption in the state.

“I have to say I’m very disappointed in the process,” said Elisa Sumner, chair of the Dutchess County Democrats, of the EMILY’s List endorsement. “Women especially should not be treating each other like that. How do you endorse without interviewing all the candidates involved?”

“Shame on such a progressive women’s organization for behaving in such a good ol’ boys way,” added Sumner, who has not officially endorsed Teachout but nominated her at the state convention.

Zenaida Mendez, the former head of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, said that when NOW would endorse candidates, it would carry out interviews and require a questionnaire to be filled out. She said the lack of a process for the EMILY’s List endorsement suggests the decision came from up high. “She is the establishment candidate, that’s all I can say,” Mendez said of James.

Mendez endorsed Teachout in her challenge to Cuomo in 2014, which particularly infuriated Cuomo’s former campaign chair Joe Percoco, Mendez said recently. Cuomo, she said, had her ousted from her position at NOW in retaliation. Percoco was recently convicted on corruption charges.

Amid Teachout’s challenge to Cuomo, he created what’s known in New York as the “Women’s Equality Party.” The “party” has endorsed Cuomo against Nixon, along with a slew of Cuomo allies, many of them men.

Teachout has the backing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has found herself on the opposite end of EMILY’s List in a growing number of races, including in Kansas and Michigan. The group did not endorse Ocasio-Cortez against Joe Crowley in the 14th District primary (though rarely endorses against incumbents), though it still has not endorsed her in the general election.

EMILY’s List is backing Sharice Davids in a congressional primary in Kansas and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan against the Ocasio-Cortez-backed candidates Brent Welder and Abdul El-Sayed, respectively.

So far in 2018, things have not gone well for EMILY’s List in New York. A candidate it helped recruit, Juanita Perez Williams, was later exposed to be an anti-abortion advocate. She ultimately lost her primary in the state’s 24th Congressional District to Dana Balter in Syracuse. The group also shied away from the House race in Rochester after promising to engage; a controversial machine-backed man won the nomination. On Long Island, the organization celebrated when Liuba Grechen Shirley won the right to use campaign funds to pay for child care, but waited until the eve of the election to endorse Grechen Shirley herself. (The so-called Women’s Equality Party endorsed Grechen Shirley’s male opponent, an ally of Cuomo. Grechen Shirley won.)

Moreover, several women are challenging men who were part of the Independent Democratic Conference, a renegade group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans to bottle up progressive legislation, including the Reproductive Health Act. The IDC was organized by Cuomo, and EMILY’s List has endorsed none of the women — including Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May — challenging those men in state legislative races. It has also stayed away from high-profile insurgent Julia Salazar, who is running for the New York Senate.

The group has also not backed Nixon, Cuomo’s female challenger. The Intercept reported in June on the decision by EMILY’s List to largely sit out what has become a robust challenge to one of the most closed-off and patriarchal machines left in American politics:

[A]s the head of the New York political machine, Cuomo has links to many of the very same donors who support EMILY’s List. For example, Margaret Loeb, the spouse of hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, donated $73,000 to Cuomo, and $15,000 to EMILY’s List this year. Jon Stryker, a New York-based philanthropist and architect, donated over $28,000 to Cuomo, and $150,000 to EMILY’s List. New York means big money for EMILY’s List, and Cuomo maintains a tight grip on donors.

Update: August 7, 2018, 12:05 p.m.
This story was updated to include a statement from James, and additional background.

Top photo: Letitia James speaks at a rally for Food Service Workers Justice outside John Jay College in Manhattan, on May 8, 2018.

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