The Crusader

Public Advocate Letitia James has never been known for her diplomacy — and she’d never have it any other way. A Brooklyn-born and -bred politician with a penchant for making sermon-like speeches and starting fierce battles with city agencies, James — who often goes by the nickname “Tish” — has approached political office by casting herself as a crusader for change and spokeswoman for the interests of outer-borough working people. Her election as public advocate last November gave her a bully pulpit for her populist, labor-oriented brand of liberalism. But success as public advocate will require more than just winning an election — and the fact that the newly elected mayor is an ally means the bar for that success will be higher than ever.

Since the Office of the Public Advocate was established by an amendment to the New York City Charter in 1993, politicians and pundits have questioned its capacity to have a meaningful impact in the lives of New Yorkers. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg tried unapologetically to abolish the office, or at least slash its budget. But after 20 years and three public advocates, the reputation and powers of the watchdog office have grown, even as its budget hasn’t. Public advocates have taken on challenges large (creating a “watch list” of derelict landlords) and small (streamlining the application process for food stamps). Most recently, the public advocate has been a successful candidate for mayor.

James, who before her election was a member of the City Council representing the 35th District, which includes Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, seems to have no doubt that she can further transform the office into a powerful, independent force in the city. Her history certainly suggests that she will not be afraid to engage in high-publicity battles for what she sees as the public good. But whether she can deliver depends on how effectively she can navigate a job that’s one of the most contradictory and loosely defined in city government.

Elected in the 2013 wave that brought a number of progressive, reform-minded Democrats into power, including Bill de Blasio, James is the first woman of color to be elected to a citywide office. Her timing is fortuitous. James supported de Blasio in his campaign for mayor, and he endorsed her for public advocate while she was in the middle of a highly contested race. Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Daniel Squadron, was endorsed by the New York Times, and in the Democratic primary for public advocate, no candidate received the 40 percent required to prevent a runoff. (Two weeks later, James won a runoff against Squadron 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent.)

Three people served as public advocate before James: Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum, and de Blasio. Each of them got to play the part of a crusader, missing no opportunity to criticize more conservative mayors, the police department, or the real estate industry. James doesn’t have the luxury of simply positioning herself as a thorn in the mayor’s side. To succeed in her new role, she’ll have to do something far more difficult: be just enough of a thorn in de Blasio’s side to maintain her credibility as an independent force, while being canny enough to know when to cut deals with the city’s political establishment.

James at the public advocate’s office in the Municipal Building. Photo by Walker Esner.

James didn’t begin her adult life as a politician. After graduating from Howard University law school in Washington, D.C., in 1986, she returned to New York, where she launched her career as public defender at the Legal Aid Society. At Legal Aid, James represented indigent criminals and worked on attempts to reform the Police Department. She then went to Albany, where she served as counsel for Assemblyman Albert Vann and chief of staff for Assemblyman Roger Green. James’ work in the Assembly caught the eye of then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and in 1999 he appointed her assistant attorney general in charge of the Brooklyn office, where she focused largely on consumer complaints involving predatory lending. After a failed run in 2001, James was elected to the City Council in 2003 on the Working Families Party ticket. (She has since switched her registration back to Democratic but maintains a close relationship with the WFP.) She was reelected twice, in 2007 and 2011.

Whether James has the tact and diplomacy to win new converts to her side, and not just play to her base, is the subject of great debate, and it’s a question that has reared its head early. Her first controversy as public advocate came on January 1, her very first day in office. In a speech calling city officials to account for the plight of Dasani Coates, a charismatic 11-year-old girl profiled in a New York Times series on child homelessness in December 2013, James condemned the lack of employment and affordable housing that leads families like Coates’s into poverty and homelessness. She posed for photos with Coates and called the young girl her “new BFF.” She also implied that she herself “had a little bit something to do with” the Times’ decision to publish the series — a claim she was later forced to walk back.

In a speech filled with righteous anger, James spoke of her own roots among “humbled individuals more accustomed to backbreaking work than dinner parties.” She railed against stadiums and luxury condos — symbols of the excesses of Bloomberg’s New York. The speech set off to a firestorm of criticism from liberal and conservative media outlets alike, as well as a number of letters to the editor accusing her of opportunistic political maneuvering. Ultimately, the incident revealed the heightened public scrutiny that James faces in her new post, as both manager of and spokeswoman for New York’s citizen-advocacy agency. For James, who is first in the line of succession for the mayoralty, it was an eye-opening experience.

When I sat down to interview James in her office on the fifteenth floor of the Municipal Building, which she’s filling with decorations, supplies, and other boxes, the new public advocate acknowledged that as time passes, her actions will be held up to more scrutiny. As she answered my questions about negative coverage of her inauguration speech and an early misstep in which she refused to comment on the mayor’s handling of a traffic violation involving his security personnel, she nodded several times and explained that she was developing relationships with local press to correct perceptions. But, characteristically, she refused to back down from the content and tone of her speech. “I got flak from the established media, but I got praise from the people on the ground because the speech really reflected the reality,” James said. “I still check in on Dasani, and we talk from time to time … and, as you know, we were able to remove children from that shelter.”

Months before, as a councilwoman working in the Clinton Hill neighborhood, James had in fact investigated living conditions in the Auburn Family Residence, one of the largest shelters in New York City. The shelter first came under fire in 2009 for its lack of services and harsh disciplinary environment. Conditions were announced that it was removing over 400 children from Auburn and another shelter in Manhattan and converting the two into adults-only facilities.

It’s not surprising that James took so strongly to Dasani Coates, since the young girl’s story hit close to home. As a teenager, James was evicted from the Park Slope home where she was raised with eight siblings and a single mother, and had to shuffle from house to house, her family members split across neighbors’ and relatives’ houses. “That’s where I get my sense of displacement from,” James said. She often tells the story of the eviction to New Yorkers, sometimes going into a very high level of detail, “because it had a devastating impact on my family,” she said. James, who now lives in Clinton Hill, has vowed never to leave the borough.

James’ experiences with poverty and displacement gave her an intensely personal stake in what would end up becoming one of the toughest political fights of her political career: the battle over the Atlantic Yards development in central Brooklyn. Soon after the 22-acre development, which builders promised would bring housing, office space, and the Barclays Center arena to James’ Council district, was announced in 2003, James came out against it. She particularly opposed the city’s attempts to use its power of eminent domain to relocate residents. And she began working closely with neighborhood businesses and community advocacy groups such as Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn to support organized opposition to the project and prevent what she called “the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.”

To fight Atlantic Yards, James used everything in her arsenal: tenant organizing, grassroots campaigning, public shaming, and litigation against Forest City Ratner, the developer. Ultimately, she lost. A 2009 State Court of Appeals ruling in the city’s favor gave the go-ahead for the state to use eminent domain to evict homeowners. Amid widespread support from the city’s most powerful politicians, including both Bloomberg and de Blasio, the plan went through, and James’ fears that the development would change the character of downtown Brooklyn were all but ignored. While James admits she lost the battle over Atlantic Yards, she says it’s the battle that “made her.”

It’s also a fight that isn’t anywhere near over. The original Atlantic Yards plan was approved by the state in 2006, and Barclays Center has been in use since 2012, but critics, including James, have been quick to point out that developers have not followed through on their promises of affordable housing. At a public consultation held on April 30 on the project’s supplemental environmental impact statement, James reiterated her demand for a clearer timetable on the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

“What I wanted then, as what I want now, is more affordable housing to stem the tide of gentrification which is having an adverse impact on the balance of the racial composition of downtown Brooklyn — something that we all celebrate, I hope, and something that we all would want to maintain,” she said at the consultation. James called her colleagues to task in her remarks. “Where is government at a time where people are doubling up and tripling up and we’ve got an affordable housing crisis? Giving tax breaks and tax breaks and more subsidies to a developer and then saying 25 years,” she said. “Our job as elected officials is to hold agencies and entities accountable.” While Greenland Holding Group, the Shanghai-based developer that now holds the controlling interest in the project, has committed to constructing two towers with affordable housing units, the revised timeline for their construction, which was approved by the state-run Empire State Development Corporation, sets their completion date far into the future.

James’ position on Atlantic Yards continues to command respect in the neighborhoods around Atlantic Yards, although when she came out against the project, it put her at odds with then-Councilman de Blasio and most other citywide lawmakers. Doug Derryberry, president of the Dean Street Block Association and a resident who has watched high-rise buildings erected around his home, said that James’ position on Atlantic Yards was what earned her his support. “She was speaking what I perceived to be the truth,” said Derryberry, who is also a musician. “I was pleased because I thought of her as someone who calls it like it is.”

The rapport that James has created with community leaders like Derryberry is probably her greatest strength. When she needs to win support for her initiatives or create a groundswell around legal battles, she draws upon her Brooklyn roots and grassroots experience. “It’s all about organizing,” she told me. She credits the Working Families Party for teaching her this lesson. “Retail politics is critical to my success. That door knocking, that connecting with people matters and that people on the ground can move things. That’s what they taught me.”

James’ partnership with the Working Families Party has been a major boon to her career; the party’s populist, left-leaning rhetoric is well matched to James’ sensibilities. Her first run for office — an unsuccessful 2001 bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Councilman James Davis — was on the WFP ballot line.

Two years after that race, James was poised for a rematch with Davis. But in July 2003, Davis was gunned down at City Hall by Othniel Askew, a rival politician. The murder shook New York’s political establishment to its core. It also left an empty slot on the Democratic ballot line, which Davis’s brother Geoffrey stepped in to fill. But Geoffrey was no match for James, who racked up more than three-quarters of the vote, becoming the first Working Families Party member to be elected to office in New York state. From her seat in the City Council, James began her steady climb in NYC politics, winning the trust of the city’s labor unions while cultivating ties with the city’s political elite. With her feet in both camps, James mastered the art of speaking to a diverse base, hearing its concerns, and building consensus between groups whose interests don’t always converge.

But James’ success at the community level isn’t guaranteed to translate well on the stage of citywide politics. Despite the public advocate’s symbolic role of presiding over the City Council, the advocate, almost by design, has an adversarial relationship with the mayor and the council. In a sense, it’s the public advocate’s job to find problems that the rest of city government isn’t noticing — or is actively making worse — and call attention to them. This sort of “complainer in chief” role, which has been a blessing for previous public advocates positioning themselves against City Hall, is a natural fit for James, who has long fashioned herself as a fighter against the city’s elites. But the calculus has changed now that the city’s highest political elites, Mayor de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, are among James’ allies.

For example, while the battles she’s waged and litigation she’s brought over Bloomberg-era policies have surely earned her some enemies, her position on the need to preserve affordable housing aligns her, at least rhetorically, with Mayor de Blasio. The mayor has made it a central goal of his first term to solve a housing crisisthat has been decades in the making. His lengthy housing plan details city policies such as clamping down on unscrupulous landlords, improving the quality of housing stock, ensuring equal services for rent-stabilized tenants, and promoting responsible development. De Blasio’s housing plan relies heavily on new, high-density construction, and unlike James, the current mayor supported the Atlantic Yards plan. In fact, among prominent city politicians, James remains an outlier for having opposed one of the most significant development schemes in the city’s history. She will have to find other forms of common ground if she wants to work effectively with the administration and play a role in carrying out this plan.

Likewise, in order to pass the broader agenda that she alluded to in her nomination acceptance speech, James seems prepared to adopt a conciliatory, compromising approach. She has committed publicly to tackling widening income inequality and pay equity and has spoken out against what she calls general attacks on workers, such as the termination of several hundred UPS workers for walking out in solidarity with a fellow worker. With wide support across City Hall, she has helped to launch Vision Zero, a comprehensive set of initiatives to dramatically reduce traffic deaths across New York City and strengthen commuter-friendly initiatives like Citi Bike. Finally, she has sought to build on her record as the lead sponsor of the Safe Housing Act of 2007, which introduced a new level of enforcement against hazardous conditions that violate building codes. James has recently used the public advocate’s office to push for more security in housing projects, greater regulation of landlords who abuse rent-stabilized tenants, and improved conditions in low-income housing citywide.

But James’ most publicized initiative as public advocate so far indicates that her tendency toward adversarial politics isn’t going away soon. Stepping into a raging debate over educational equity and the proper balance of power between charter schools and traditional public schools, James supported a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court that attempted to block the co-location of over 30 charter schools within public school buildings and to postpone this year’s charter-school lottery for new students. This put her directly in opposition to the mayor, who approved co-location for 44 charter schools early in his term, and led to charges from the charter-school community that she was “putting ideology before kids.” In mid-May, Judge Eileen Rakower dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust the available administrative remedies. But James, in a statement after the trial, did not back down from her strong views on what she sees as the stripping of resources from traditional public schools.

James likes to cast herself as a fighter for ordinary New Yorkers — someone who is aware of just how hard it is to win battles against the city’s elite — but intractable, powerful opponents aren’t going to be her only headache. She’ll have fewer resources at her disposal than any public advocate since the office was established. James wants to expand the investigative and litigation divisions of her office by hiring additional lawyers to handle ongoing civil rights suits, or “pattern and practice” cases, litigated in collaboration with public-interest law partners like the American Civil Liberties Union. She also wants to expand the office’s ombudsman unit, which currently responds to over 1500 individual cases a year, as well as its policy unit, which develops and introduces legislation.

The office’s current budget is insufficient to make this happen—in fact, when James took office, the public advocate had less money than at any time since the position was created. According to James, when Mark Green took the job in 1993, his annual budget was approximately eight million dollars (according to another source, when the office was established, Green’s budget was actually $4 million, or approximately $6.4 million in 2014 dollars). James' budget when she began the job was $1.9 million. The public advocate’s office, because it is a division of the Office of the Mayor, is particularly susceptible to the whims of whoever occupies Gracie Mansion (Giuliani and Bloomberg both attempted to slash the office’s budget as political revenge). So James will have to make a case to de Blasio that her office is worth the extra money.

She’s at least cautiously optimistic. “The mayor knows this office all too well, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to request that the budget be restored,” she said. De Blasio, in his preliminary executive budget, seemed amenable to her requests: he bumped the office’s budget up to $2.3 million from its previous $1.6 million. But this budget is still subject to the approval of the City Council, and if the money doesn’t come through, James says litigation is on the table to force the mayor to remove the Office of the Public Advocate from the jurisdiction of the mayor’s office, make it an independent body, and restore its budget.

Beyond budgetary concerns, though, cultivating relationships, embracing conflict, and avoiding the appearance of toeing the party line has proven to be a delicate balancing act for James. And she does not have a delicate approach. Her willingness to go head to head with the mayor over the budget reflects her personal, assertive brand of politics, equal parts litigator and community organizer. “If I’m handicapped from getting things done, then I use my voice,” she said. “First the voice of reason, and then of passion.” But by James’ own admission, the lessons of retail politics do not always translate into successful policymaking.

At the “Zero Tolerance” benefit for Sanctuary for Families, which offers services to survivors of gender violence. Photo by Mélanie Duault.

Above all, a shrewd New York City politician must understand the politics of Albany and be able to play by its rules. On the subject of de Blasio’s attempt to pay for his universal pre-K plan with a tax increase, a proposal that was effectively killed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, James acknowledged this political reality: “Mayor de Blasio thought you could out-organize Albany. But that’s not how it works. In New York City, we can amass a crowd in a minute,” she said. But in Albany, “they’re isolated, and what happens in Albany stays in Albany.” James, who spent a decade in the state’s capital, knows this from personal experience.

A number of people I spoke to in New York political circles, who didn’t want to be identified because it could complicate their relationship with James, expressed concern that the public advocate can take a "my way or the highway" approach to management, but they also spoke of James’ charisma and ability to win tough battles. (James’ press secretary, Aja Worthy-Davis, dismissed these criticisms in an email. “She has a strong understanding of her own positions, and she's not afraid to fight for what she believes in,” Worthy-Davis wrote. “That's always a quality that's going to rub some people the wrong way — but being consistently principled is something most people respect, and it's a quality she has in spades.”

James’ supporters have consistently referred to her as an effective politician who manages to stay visible in her community and demonstrate a high level of focus. James describes herself as “grounded” and “religious,” and a passionate Brooklynite. “I bleed Brooklyn,” James said. “That’s why I fight so hard to maintain its character, its soul.” Brooklyn’s people and political culture are an inextricable part of James’ identity.

On May 2, I visited Fort Greene’s Brown Memorial Baptist Church, where James is a fixture on Sundays. Before I could even greet her, she gave me a big wave and a smile. From her seat at a table of dignitaries, including District Attorney Kenneth Thompson and U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke, James leaned in eagerly, quietly taking in each of the awards being presented that evening, and each of the thank-you speeches. The Legacy Awards, founded in 2013, are given out at a gala dinner run by the church’s heavily black and female congregation, and honor women and youth from the church and community. This year’s recipients included Una Clarke, a former member of City Council, and Pearl Nkosi, a South African–born, college-bound high school graduate who founded a program that teaches life skills to poor girls in South Africa.

James’ outspokenness on issues of development and gentrification has allowed her to avoid an explicit focus on the role of race in her own career. Though her church and neighborhood are among the centers of black cultural life in the borough, when I asked her about the distinction of being the first black woman to hold citywide office, James demurred. She insisted that she looks at problems first and foremost from the perspective of “a New Yorker trying to make ends meet,” and she has a habit of talking about labor and even housing issues, which disproportionately impact minority communities, in economic, class-based terms. In fact, when I asked her to reflect on the issue of race, she ended up offering a suggestion aimed at the young women of New York instead: “My advice to all little girls is to dream big. Use your voice to make a difference, and to roar.”

Even in official settings, James shows off her style of retail politics. At the opening of a City Council session in May, before the call to order, James rose from her throne-like seat at head of the chamber, waved, and gave a shoutout to the players and coach of the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus basketball team, who were downtown to receive an award. She seemed to relish the opportunity to greet them, reminding them how important it is to graduate high school.

James made similar gestures to the leaders of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, which was being recognized for its work to end gun violence. After roll call, when official business begins, she presided with ease. But her role is largely symbolic, her voice brusque and to-the-point as she moves through legislative proposals and, one by one, asks for the members’ votes. This procedural, neutral moderator is quite a different role from her previous one as councilwoman, in which she argued for or against the merits of legislative proposals. And it may be a part of her new responsibilities as public advocate, but for James, getting to sit at the head of the Council chambers isn’t really the point of the job.

Although every previous outgoing public advocate has left words of advice for his or her successor, written and left in a sealed envelope in the desk drawer, Bill de Blasio did not. No hard feelings, said James. She explained that she maintains a cordial relationship with the mayor, who often advises her over dinner. Perhaps the mayor did not feel the need to give advice to his close colleague and fellow Democrat — after all, given their relationship, James probably knew firsthand what she was in for when she got elected. But it’s also possible de Blasio realized there was nothing he could have told her anyway. Given the new political realities of New York City, James’ job is essentially a blank slate. Bill de Blasio used the public advocate role to position himself as the anti-Bloomberg, and rode that persona to victory in 2013. For James to prove that the role isn’t just a stepping stone, she’ll need to combine the coalition-building skills of her Brooklyn roots and the adversarial zeal of an expert litigator. If she can strike just the right balance, “public advocate” is unlikely to remain the last line on her résumé.

Nyasha Laing is a lawyer, writer, and media commentator. She lives in Brooklyn.

Walker Esner is a portrait photographer. He was born and raised in Brooklyn.

Mélanie Duault is a food and lifestyle photographer. Originally from Paris, she now lives in Bed-Stuy.

Also in this issue

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Summer arrives at Coney Island. Photos by Mike Hicks

Hari Kondabolu Walks Into a Bar

A community organizer turned comedian finds a home in Brooklyn. By Sam Ghitelman