Letitia “Tish” James became the first woman and first person of color elected to the powerful post of New York attorney general on Tuesday, inheriting a portfolio of high-profile litigation from her predecessor including challenges to Trump administration policies and a probe of the Trump Foundation.
James, a Democrat, who as New York City public advocate showed a taste for litigation to vindicate the rights of city residents, will now become the state’s top litigator starting in January.
James appeared to lead her Republican challenger, and Ropes & Gray partner, Keith Wofford by more than 1 million votes two hours after polls closed Tuesday evening, according to statewide election results from the Board of Elections. The race was called by NY1 more than 90 minutes after polls closed.
The position is another step up for James, who had just begun her second four-year term as the city’s public advocate earlier this year. She was the preferred candidate of the State Democratic Committee after former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in May amid allegations of domestic abuse.
James will now replace Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who was chosen by the Legislature to serve the rest of Schneiderman’s term.
Among her top priorities will be reducing public corruption in state government and continuing the state’s ongoing practice of litigating against policies and regulations from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.
James previewed the tone of her plans for the office during a victory speech in Brooklyn Tuesday night.
“New Yorkers, we can spot a con man. We can spot a carnival barker and a fear monger a mile away. And he should know, we here in NY — and I in particular — we are not scared of you,” James said of Trump. “As the next Attorney General of his home state, I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn. And I will hold him accountable with the unbending power of the law. And that goes for anyone looking to sow or solidify corruption in this state, whether on Wall Street, or in Albany.”
James has said on at least two occasions that she’s already spoken with Democrats in both the State Assembly and Senate about granting more power to the Attorney General’s Office to probe cases of public corruption. The office currently has to receive a referral from a state agency to investigate and prosecute charges against a public official. James wants the office to be able to pursue those cases independently.
That isn’t necessarily a change from what we’ve seen from the last two attorneys general elected: Schneiderman and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Both made combatting public corruption a priority during their tenure as the state’s top lawyer, but neither were granted additional power by the Legislature to do so. James is confident about her chances to at least begin the conversation about giving her office a permanent referral for such cases, she has said.
“I’ve already begun discussions with [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] as well as the state Senate,” James said at a debate in September. She said the same during a debate against Wofford last month.
Then there’s the case of the other Republican in the race: President Donald Trump. This year’s statewide elections were less about the Republicans running for office in New York and more about what Democrats would do to oppose the Trump administration if elected.
James has said she will continue the cases brought over the past two years by Schneiderman and Underwood, who has been busy during her roughly six months in office. She has filed a lawsuit against the Trump Foundation, continued litigation against the U.S. Commerce Department’s decision to ask about citizenship on the 2020 U.S. Census, and even taken on pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic.
Those cases will now be passed on to James, who has said she intends to go in the same direction as Underwood’s office in litigating against the federal government, particularly when it comes to issues that could directly impact the residents of New York.
The election also places her in one of the most powerful offices in the country in terms of its position to bring litigation against Trump, his family and his company. The state Department of Taxation and Finance has said it’s investigating Trump’s past business dealings, including a scheme devised with his family to inherit money from his father while avoiding state taxes. The arrangement was first reported by The New York Times, and quickly followed by investigations from the tax departments of both the state and New York City.
It will also be the first position in which James will have unquestionable power to bring civil litigation in matters that concern the state. An appellate court decided last year that James couldn’t bring litigation on her own as New York City public advocate, which is a relatively new position in city government. She was elected to the office after serving on the New York City Council for more than a decade.
While serving as public advocate, James was involved in a handful of lawsuits against public officials and entities. One alleged that the New York City Education Department invested in a faulty system to track the Medicaid-eligible services of students with disabilities. James claimed the system did not adequately monitor those services, which caused the city to miss out on Medicaid reimbursements. That litigation is ongoing.
Another lawsuit claimed New York City and the state were poorly managing the foster care system by mistreating children and failing to place them in homes. The litigation ended in a monitor being placed over the program and a settlement, which was ultimately thrown out by a federal judge.
James has been criticized during both the primary and general election campaigns this year of being too close to Cuomo, who has come under scrutiny for having ties to public officials convicted on corruption charges. Cuomo has since tried to distance himself from people like his former top aide Joseph Percoco, who was convicted of a bribery scheme earlier this year.
But James has pledged to be independent from Cuomo, and has even said she will not hesitate in pursuing claims against him if they’re warranted. Cuomo endorsed James for the position days after she expressed interest in running.
Before she entered politics, James started her career more than two decades ago as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society. She will now become the state’s public defender in all matters that deal with state and federal law.
Wofford thanked his supporters in a statement released late Tuesday.
“Although this was not the outcome we wanted, I am grateful for those who put their confidence in me to get the job done,” Wofford said. “I wish Letitia James the best of luck as New York State Attorney General, and hope she will be an independent voice of law & order for the state of New York.”
James is set to be sworn in as the next state attorney general at the beginning of January.