In 2003, Letitia “Tish” James shook the New York Democratic political establishment, becoming the first City Council candidate to win office solely as a nominee of the Working Families Party. James spent the next 15 years as an outspoken, independent-minded progressive and a leading voice for the city’s social movements. In 2013, despite being vastly outspent, she won a tight race for New York City public advocate, a stepping stone to mayor.
Her close alliance with the city’s grassroots was considered by political observers to be both a benefit and an obstacle. She had people behind her, but she didn’t have money — and moving to the next level required lots of it.
When New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was forced to resign amid a #MeToo scandal in 2018, James was quickly discussed as a potential successor. But could she raise the funds?
That’s where Andrew Cuomo came in. The state’s governor, who was seeking his third term, was in the midst of a long-running feud with the organization that was so intimately linked with James’s rise, the WFP. Under pressure from Cuomo, local unions had left the party, taking their clout and financing with them. In April 2018, the WFP came for the king, endorsing activist and actor Cynthia Nixon for the Democratic primary over Cuomo, who vowed to destroy the organization. Cuomo had long treated figures in New York politics — his playground — like kids to be bullied. He turned his attention to James.
In May, Cuomo made James an excruciating offer: He would endorse her and open his donor network to her, but it would come at a price. Not only would she have to endorse him, but she would also have to publicly refuse the support of the WFP. Ripped from the pages of a cliched mafia screenplay, James would have to prove her loyalty by executing her longtime ally.
Cuomo made James an excruciating offer: He would endorse her and open his donor network to her, but it would come at a price.
James was left with two bad options: Accepting Cuomo’s offer was the most likely route to winning the election, but it would come with accusations that she had traded in her trademark independence and social justice values. Rejecting it could cost her the election and make Cuomo into a fatal enemy.
James took the deal. The WFP endorsed her anyway, against her public will, while jointly endorsing Zephyr Teachout. The bulk of its spending went toward opposing the most right-leaning candidate, Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents a congressional district upstate.
In the fictional version of these parables, a deal with the devil always ends the same way: The devil always gets his due. But New York politics is not a parable. The story’s new plot twist conforms more closely to a Disney version: Cuomo is getting his due of a different kind, with scrutiny over his failed coronavirus response and an investigation into sexual harassment claims. His fate now rests with Tish James.
The election long since over, James owes Cuomo nothing. And, in fact, nobody could blame her for appreciating the opportunity to demonstrate — to him as much as to her detractors — that she was never for sale and that she’s just as independent as she’s always been. In late January, she released a damning report on the state’s handling of Covid-19 in nursing homes, setting off Cuomo’s descent.
Teachout, her progressive opponent in the primary, said she has been impressed by James’s tenure, including her willingness to take on both Big Tech and the governor. “It’s no secret that I was worried about James’ close connection to Cuomo, because being willing to take on the Governor is part of the job, but the key moment in Cuomo’s unraveling was when she published the nursing home report,” Teachout told The Intercept in an email. “[Assembly Member] Ron Kim and others had been yelling about it since the beginning, and [journalist David] Sirota has followed it closely, but Cuomo trusted that none of the big figures in New York politics would say a word, because the usual rule in Albany is that no one publicly crosses Cuomo in a big way. That report changed the entire dynamic, and she proved her independence in a way that really matters to all New Yorkers, and especially those in nursing homes, with family in nursing homes, those who died.”
New York WFP Director Sochie Nnaemeka also praised James’s response. “What New Yorkers are seeing is the fearless Tish we know and love, who stands up to bullies, whether they’re Amazon or Trump, the NRA or Cuomo,” Nnaemeka said over email. “In this moment of crisis, she brought crucial information to light around the Governor’s handling of Covid-19 in nursing homes — which precipitated massive calls for accountability.”
Implications that she had sold out her integrity for Cuomo’s backing rankled James from the beginning. “What’s so interesting and kind of comical is that prior to this vacancy no one ever questioned my independence — nobody,” James told the Albany Times Union editorial board in 2018 in response to the backlash. “All the groups, all the advocacy groups, all the Indivisible [groups], all the True Blue, all the activists: ‘We want Tish James. We want her voice, her moral suasion.’”
Yet as soon as she accepted Cuomo’s endorsement, all that changed, she said, snapping her fingers. “Just like that, my independence is questioned. So it’s somewhat disheartening after 20 years of public service, 20 years of exercising independence,” she said. “Gov. Cuomo did have a fundraiser for me. Do you know how much it netted? $70,000.”
Cuomo, who built his base of power on fear, is now seeing it crumble beneath him.
Cuomo, who built his base of power on fear, is now seeing it crumble beneath him as his rivals reevaluate just how much ability he has to make good on past threats. Two weeks after James’s damning nursing home report, state Assembly Member Ron Kim reported that a top Cuomo aide had confessed to undercounting deaths in such facilities, adding that Cuomo called to threaten and berate him for his public opposition to the governor’s handling of the pandemic. Kim’s claim and Cuomo’s weakened stature opened space for a public airing of Cuomo’s harassment of women on his staff. In the wake of the sexual harassment claims, James fought for jurisdiction and has pledged a thorough, independent review.
Cuomo’s fall from grace is the consequence of those twin scandals. The first is related to his handling of nursing home Covid-19 cases. Early in the pandemic, he ordered nursing homes to take patients who had tested positive for the coronavirus back from the hospitals. The facilities were not equipped to successfully quarantine those patients, and thousands died. Cuomo also immunized nursing homes against liability for negligence in handling the situation.
Just how many died has become another thread of the scandal, as his administration recently admitted to underreporting deaths. Prosecutors are exploring whether laws were broken.
Two of Cuomo’s own former aides kicked off the second scandal. Lindsey Boylan said that he made a series of inappropriate comments and kissed her without consent in his office in 2018; she left the administration soon after.
Charlotte Bennett said that Cuomo asked probing and inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she dates older men. She reported the harassment at the time and took a position that would allow her more distance from him, before eventually leaving state government last fall.
A third woman, Anna Ruch, said that he put his hand on her bare lower back at a wedding in the fall of 2019. After she removed it, she said, he put his hands on her face and asked if he could kiss her, a moment memorialized in a photo that captures her mortified expression.
Cuomo initially sought to punt the matter to a crony, then suggested pairing James with a judge he had appointed to multiple positions. Under pressure, he conceded to an independent investigation. “It took the governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation. These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice,” Bennett responded.
That independent investigation will now be overseen by none other than Tish James. That’s not exactly what he bargained for.