Letitia A. James is a talented politician. Her terrific interpersonal skills, keen eye for the camera and ear for messaging, and a preternatural instinct for navigating the state’s cutthroat politics have served her well. Leveraging her base in Brooklyn and her background as a public defender, she won a seat on the New York City Council, and then, as the city’s public advocate, springboarded herself to statewide office. In 2018, she became the first woman and Black attorney general.
Unfortunately, these instincts generally have not served her well in her first term. But overall, she has been capable and effective.
Only the naive would believe that politics can be scrubbed from one of the most powerful offices in the state. James’ elected predecessors — Eric Schneiderman, Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer — were intensely ambitious. But at a time when trust in governmental institutions has collapsed and bad faith is assumed, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, who can bring high-profile criminal prosecutions and punishing civil litigation, must be especially careful. James hasn’t been.
Her lawsuit claiming millions of dollars in fraud by NRA leaders exposed self-dealing top executives, an important part of the AG’s charity and nonprofit oversight. But her further effort to impose the state’s “corporate death penalty” on the NRA was thrown out in court as too extreme, with a risk of infringing on the free speech rights of organization members. The office has not appealed.
James has not provided satisfactory answers as to how a confidential list of donors to a nonprofit headed by possible GOP 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley was leaked recently. James told the editorial board that an internal investigation determined that a switching of software systems caused the security break. While James said the confidential records of many nonprofits were exposed, she could not explain why those of Haley’s organization seemed to be the only ones disclosed.
James’ extraordinary role in the investigation of sexual harassment complaints against Cuomo, which led to his resignation as governor as the State Legislature started impeachment proceedings, raised her profile nationally. But a careful reading of the report spurs concerns about overreach. At a news conference, James claimed Cuomo “sexually harassed multiple women, and in doing so violated federal and state law.” But James made no referrals to federal or state prosecutors regarding the complaints of the 11 women listed in the report. No criminal charges have been filed against Cuomo; two lawsuits are pending.
Cuomo filed an ethics complaint against James and seeks the release of evidence he says is exculpatory. The outcome of that complaint and the pending civil cases could provide more clarity. But James’ fumbled gubernatorial run, launched shortly after Cuomo resigned, undermined her credibility. Her other well-publicized effort is a lawsuit against the Trump Organization which demands punishing sanctions against former President Donald Trump and his family. While the AG's complaint is strong, her public sparring with Trump is unnecessary.
Ambition aside, under James’ tenure, the AG’s office has done important work, leading multistate litigation to punish opioid manufacturers and distributors, and ensuring that settlement funds are used for treatment programs. She kept the office focused on penalizing construction firms that dumped debris in Suffolk County, an acute problem that needs continued enforcement. And she has rightly required Long Island real estate firms to take actions designed to stop racial steering in housing sales. James said that in a second term she would focus on whether some local zoning laws that stop new housing construction are exclusionary.
James, 64, has a multipronged program to improve public safety, including increasing psychiatric beds to treat those with mental illness, expanding pretrial services for those awaiting disposition of their cases, and amending the Raise the Age law to allow bail for crimes committed with a gun. But she is late in the game in espousing it. She needs to take the lead on this issue and use her statutory authority to present the legislature with a “program bill” that could spur changes.
Republican Michael Henry, 42, is a commercial litigator with almost no political footprint. He says James is “weaponizing” the attorney general’s office, citing the handling of the Cuomo probe. He said it would be a “tough decision” on whether to withdraw or continue the AG’s lawsuit against the Trump Organization.
Henry said he would evaluate whether to continue to defend some provisions of the state's new gun permitting law, which has had some of its key elements struck down by two federal courts, rulings he says are unwinnable on appeal. Continuing the lawsuit, he said, would be a waste of resources.
Acknowledging that New Yorkers are overwhelmingly pro-choice on abortion, Henry said he would defend the state’s expansive laws, regardless of his personal views which differ.
Henry praised James for enforcing fair housing laws but said he would see whether abysmal conditions in complexes operated by the New York City Housing Authority constitute discrimination. Additionally, he seeks to streamline the office's regulatory oversight of insurance and financial services. But Henry had little command of the AG’s role in enforcing environmental laws.
Henry’s ideas on invigorating the office are appealing. But he has little of the experience needed to competently manage this enormous public law firm nor the needed clout to get his changes accomplished.
Our concerns about James are considerable, but on balance surmountable. Newsday endorses James.