Letitia “Tish” James is looking to make history by becoming the first Black woman to hold statewide elected office in New York state. James recently spoke with EBONY about her historic run and how she plans to take on the president if she wins and how she will help Black and Brown voters.
EBONY: Why did you decide to run to replace former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after he resigned, especially since the previous November you were re-elected as New York City’s public advocate?
James: I had set my eyes on running for mayor in 2021. That was the plan, but then things changed. As I traveled and spoke to individuals throughout the city, including my neighbors, [there] was just this fierce urgency of now, particularly since my immigrant neighbors were under attack, hiding in the shadows of government. The voices of a number of my former law professors who talked about civil rights and the training we received at Howard University were cemented in my mind. [They told us we] were trained to be social engineers. When my immigrant neighbors were fearful, shaking and asking for guidance, it was at that time that I decided to run for office. We are at a critical juncture of history in this country.
What is it about your message that you think has resonated with people ahead of the midterm election?
My record speaks for itself. I am a former public defender, I’ve represented countless number of individuals in the criminal justice system. On any given day, week or month, I’ve run into people I’ve represented. I’m a former city council member, so I’m known in parts of Brooklyn, I’m a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Brooklyn regional office. [And being] public advocate has elevated my position. As people examined my history, they have basically urged me and are propelling me forward in my campaign for attorney general.
What would it mean to you to be the first African-American woman to be New York state attorney general?
When I ran for city council, I was the first candidate to win as an independent in over how many years. When I opened up the regional office in Brooklyn, there had not been anyone of color who had held that position, and then when I ran as public advocate, I became the first woman of color to win a citywide seat. … [If I win,] I would be the first Black woman to hold the position of attorney general in New York and the first woman of color to have won a statewide election.
All of that is great for history books, but the bottom line is that I stand on the shoulders of giants … I don’t take this for granted and I don’t take this lightly. I also know a lot of people with large titles who have done absolutely nothing. For me, the question is and has always been, “When you are blessed and elevated to this position, what are you going to do to improve the lives of others?” That is what I’m focused on.
What is the most important issue you’ve have heard from prospective voters?
President Donald Trump and the threat to our democracy and our values. The fact that his policies have reversed all the progress that we made under President Barack Obama and others. There’s an issue of public corruption in New York state; I will seek to restore confidence and integrity in public service. The foreclosure crisis is not behind us, students debt is a major issue, health care is a challenge since they repealed the individual mandate, people are having a difficult time with premiums that have increased and are often times deciding to go without medicine because of the costs, resulting in premature death and gun violence. The NRA holds [itself] out as a charitable organization, but in fact, [it] really [is] a terrorist organization. Women’s rights . . . in New York, we have not codified Roe v. Wade, and last but not least, equal pay for equal work. We can address the feminization of poverty in the state.
If you do win in November, what message do you have for the Black voters who may be concerned with policies that have left them disenfranchised?
I will put on the forefront of my legislative agenda and in my advocacy position to reform the criminal justice system to bring justice to Black and Brown people and to reverse a perverse economic development machine that has preyed upon the misery of Black and Brown people in New York. Last but not least, I look forward to working in legalizing cannabis and to end the drug war on Black and Brown people, which has been an abysmal failure.
Why is it important for people to go out and vote?
Because our ancestors died for that right. They died, they bled and they sacrificed for that right to vote, and we cannot take it for granted. The power is in our hands; we’ve just got to stand and vote in quiet dignity, defiance and resistance for all that is happening in our nation. We have to take back our nation and recognize the power that lies within.