Eliot Wyatt illustration of Person in the news Letitia James
© Eliot Wyatt

Three years ago, when she was campaigning to become New York’s attorney-general — a post never previously held by a woman of colour — Letitia “Tish” James took umbrage at suggestions she was under the sway of the state’s powerful governor, Andrew Cuomo. It seemed a reasonable suspicion: Cuomo, after all, had endorsed James and opened his fundraising network to her.

James responded forcefully. “I’m unbought and unbossed,” she said, borrowing a line from Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress and a personal hero. If anyone doubted her independence, the attorney-general has now proven it in devastating fashion.

In January, she revealed that New York had undercounted the Covid-19 fatalities of nursing home residents by as much as half, upending the heroic narrative about Cuomo’s leadership in the pandemic’s early days. Then, on Tuesday, her office released the results of a five-month investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against the governor. That morning, some New York political operatives were still betting that Cuomo would skate by, as he has for months since his first accuser came forward. 

By evening, his allies had scattered under the weight of evidence that James’s investigators had marshalled in a 168-page report. A three-term governor who has bestrode the Empire State like a king for the last decade is now drained of power and facing possible impeachment. James is talked about as a possible successor.

“Quite frankly, because she is a woman of colour, I think a lot of people have underestimated Tish James, and every single time, they’ve paid the price,” says Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the city council. “And that includes Governor Cuomo.”

Cuomo is not the only New York alpha male James has been pursuing. Working with Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, the attorney-general has been investigating former president Donald Trump’s family business. In July they filed criminal tax fraud charges against the Trump Organization and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.

James, 62, is the descendant of former sharecroppers from Virginia and South Carolina. She is unfailingly described as “lovely”, but also private. She is unmarried and a devout churchgoer. “I’m still just a girl from Brooklyn,” she said in her 2018 victory speech. 

She traces her determination to become a lawyer to a childhood encounter with the legal system after her brother was falsely accused of a crime. “When I looked around the courtroom, all the defendants and all of the individuals — the family members — looked like me. But everyone in a position of power did not,” James said in a public interview last year. “There was something really unbalanced and unfair about that.”

After graduating, James earned a law degree at the historically black Howard University in Washington, DC. She then went to work as a public defender, representing tenants against predatory landlords and poor families. Her political career began in 2003 when a Brooklyn seat on the city council opened after the Democratic incumbent was murdered at City Hall. His brother ran to replace him. He was beaten by James in a triumph for the fledgling Working Families party, a progressive group founded only five years earlier. “Tish has been a progressive before there were progressives,” Quinn remarks.

James went on to become the first woman of colour to hold citywide elected office when she succeeded Bill de Blasio, the current mayor, as public advocate in 2014. One achievement was legislation preventing companies from asking new hires about their previous compensation — a tactic that has been blamed for perpetuating pay disparities for women and minorities. “She was always looking out for people most in need whether they were the loudest in the political system or not,” says Travis Terry, president of Capalino, a top city lobbying firm.

The attorney-general’s job only came up after Eric Schneiderman resigned following reports of domestic and sexual abuse. To the apparent delight of New York voters, James railed against Trump as an “illegitimate president” who should be removed from office.

Before Cuomo, her term thus far has been defined less by one big case than a series of them on many fronts. She has sued Google and Facebook for anti-competitive behaviour, the National Rifle Association for financial corruption, the New York City Police Department over its handling of protesters, and celebrity chef Mario Batali and his business partners for sexually harassing their female workers. “She doesn’t shy away from bullies,” says Sochie Nnaemeka, the Working Families Party’s New York director.

Still, the Cuomo case was particularly daunting. The subject matter is fraught and the governor, who has strenuously denied ever inappropriately touching anyone, worked to weaken the investigation. First, he pushed for a friendly judge to be included. When that failed he smeared the probe as politically-motivated. 

James stood her ground and shrewdly tapped two highly-respected outside lawyers, Joon Kim and Anne Clark, to conduct the investigation. When it came time to deliver the findings, the attorney-general was sober but forceful. “I am inspired by all the brave women who came forward,” she said. “But more importantly, I believe them.”

joshua.chaffin@ft.com

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