NEW YORK (AP) — Democrat Jumaane Williams, New York City’s elected public advocate, is running for governor, making the self-described activist perhaps the most progressive contestant yet to get into a race already featuring two formidable and potentially history-making candidates.
Williams, a former City Council member who serves as a public ombudsman in his role as public advocate, shared his plans with The Associated Press before his campaign announcement Tuesday.
“I’m usually pushing and tugging at someone who has the levers to get it done,” Williams said. “At some point, you have to stop looking to other folks and say, ‘I’m going to do the best I can for the people of the state.’ And for me, that’s running for governor now.”
He faces Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who took office after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, and Democratic Attorney General Letitia James, whose investigation of the allegations prompted Cuomo’s resignation.
Williams, 45, said what he offers Democratic primary voters — and Hochul and James don’t — is a record of challenging Cuomo, even when it was politically inconvenient. He said even before the harassment allegations emerged, Hochul should have spoken out about what he described as a generally toxic culture in Albany.
“We have a vision that runs against just incumbency protection, against status quo and for taking political risks on behalf of the people and presenting a vision, unabashedly about that. And that vision is what we’re going to run on and we think we’ll be successful,” he said.
In 2018, Williams ran for lieutenant governor against Hochul and lost. While Hochul was Cuomo’s loyal running mate, Williams said during that campaign that he would use the largely ceremonial job to challenge Cuomo rather than serve as a rubber stamp.
That same year, Cuomo was also one of James strongest allies as she sought the attorney general’s office. He endorsed her and headlined a fundraiser on her behalf.
After the harassment allegations emerged, both Hochul and James said they believed his accusers.
When asked if he was implying that Hochul was part of a generally toxic environment at the state Capitol, Williams said, “Clearly, there was a different vision that the lieutenant governor had, but I do again think that we would have been better off if there was a lieutenant governor that was expressly saying what was wrong and speaking out.”
Hochul, 63, became the first woman to serve as New York governor after succeeding Cuomo in August. The Buffalo native quickly began running for the office in her own right, making frequent visits to New York City, rich with voters and deep-pocketed donors.
Hochul says she was unaware of Cuomo’s alleged behavior, and was never part of his inner circle. When she was sworn in, she promised a different tone in office, more transparency and ethics reforms.
James, 63, is the first woman elected as New York’s attorney general and the first Black person to serve in the role. She, like Williams, hails from Brooklyn but has greater name recognition and has proven she can win a statewide campaign.
Hochul or James would be the first woman elected governor. Williams, if he won, would be the second Black man in the office after former Gov. David Paterson.
Williams said he thinks James has been doing “a good job” as attorney general, but thinks his vision has been “really consistent” in comparison to the others.
James’ campaign said in a statement Tuesday that the attorney general “is running a change-making campaign for governor” that has seen “a groundswell of support from New Yorkers.”
“Throughout his career, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has been an important leader on issues from police reform to housing and we welcome him to the race,” the statement said.
The son of Grenadian immigrants, Williams has served as public advocate since 2019. In that job, he can investigate citizen complaints and use the bully pulpit of his office to push for change, but he lacks power to set city policy.
In that 2018 lieutenant governor primary, Hochul defeated Williams by 7 percentage points. He won more votes in Manhattan, Brooklyn and two counties elsewhere in the state but Hochul swept every other county.
This time , Williams said he thinks he’ll be successful because he’s more well-known. He said he aims to build a more robust campaign team and fundraise more than he did in 2018.
Williams is the most unabashedly progressive candidate to jump into the race. He’s often seen wearing a “Stay Woke” button on his lapel and has been arrested several times for civil disobedience at demonstrations against immigration enforcement and police misconduct.
Williams has been criticized in past political campaigns, including his 2018 race against Hochul, for his 2013 comments saying he was personally opposed to abortion. Williams later said he supported a woman’s right to access an abortion, saying, “that’s what choice is about.”
“You can have whatever belief you want but government has to make sure that women have the right to safe, legal, affordable abortions and those are under attack right now,” he told the AP.
In a campaign video he posted online Tuesday to kick off his campaign, Williams addressed his diagnosis at a young age of Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations.
Williams, speaking in a voiceover, said the diagnosis never defined him.
“But it has represented a truth about my life and my work,” he said. “I’m always moving.”
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