Letitia James Doesn’t Need to Run for Governor to Grab the Spotlight

Letitia James took the convention stage just before lunch, hours before the Democratic State Convention’s main attractions were to appear, to accept a nomination for re-election as New York attorney general.

She delivered an impassioned speech on Thursday, focusing on her broad efforts to pursue justice on behalf of New Yorkers, especially in her investigations revolving around former President Donald J. Trump and former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

She scarcely mentioned Mr. Trump or Mr. Cuomo by name. Nor did she discuss her brief, abandoned bid for governor, a decision that she said was based on her desire to continue her unfinished work as attorney general, which includes her office’s inquiry into Mr. Trump and his family.

The impact of that choice was hammered home just hours after Ms. James spoke on Thursday, as a judge ruled that her office would be allowed to interview Mr. Trump and two of his children in her civil investigation into the family’s business practices.

“When I was elected attorney general, I vowed to act without fear or favor to hold the powerful accountable, whether Republican or Democrat, in the public or private sector,” Ms. James said. “To be unbought, to be unbossed and unrelenting in the pursuit of justice and to stand up and speak up for the interests of everyday New Yorkers.”

Ms. James, a Democrat from Brooklyn, jumped into the race for governor in late October following Mr. Cuomo’s resignation. She was initially seen as the most formidable challenger against Gov. Kathy Hochul, who had been unexpectedly elevated from lieutenant governor.

Ms. James’s campaign hoped to garner national support by highlighting the potential for her to make history as the first Black woman to become governor in the country. But she dropped out in December, crowded out from the race by Ms. Hochul, who consistently led in early public polls and amassed an overwhelming fund-raising edge.

Ms. James has not officially endorsed Ms. Hochul in the governor’s race, and mentioned her only in passing in her speech on Thursday.

Ms. Hochul, for her part, praised Ms. James as “a national leader in fighting for justice, in fighting against Donald Trump-ism every place it rears its ugly head.” She added, “She’s been out there for us and I’m so proud of her.”

The race for attorney general was once expected to be a highly contested one, with as many as five candidates mounting campaigns after Ms. James announced her candidacy for governor. But they all dropped out in swift succession as soon as Ms. James abandoned that bid, clearing the field for her re-election.

Even with no major opponent, Ms. James gained a torrent of not-so-surprising endorsements over the past few weeks, from organized labor, from lawmakers on Long Island and from most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.

At the same time, rumors began to swirl that Mr. Cuomo was entertaining thoughts of running for attorney general against Ms. James, who he has incessantly blamed for his downfall.

Ms. James’s office oversaw an investigation that found that a slew of sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Cuomo were credible; he has denied the accusations. Their feud briefly spilled over onto the convention floor on Thursday, with the crowd applauding after Ms. James offered a passionate defense of the investigation.

“It has become clear the former governor will never accept any version of these events other than his own,” Ms. James said during an 18-minute speech in a Midtown Manhattan hotel. “And to achieve that he is now claiming the mantle of victim, disgracefully attacking anyone in his path, pushing others down in order to prop himself up, but I will not bow. I will not break.”

She sought to directly link Mr. Cuomo to the former president, whom Ms. James has repeatedly challenged in court as attorney general: “I will not be bullied by him or Donald Trump.”

Indeed, the convention was replete with reminders of the dramatic upheaval that the New York political landscape has undergone in less than a year.

Ms. James accepted this year’s nomination in the same hotel ballroom in Manhattan where Mr. Cuomo celebrated his election victory in 2018. Mr. Cuomo was not invited to the convention on Thursday, and his spokesman recently denied that Mr. Cuomo was interested in running for attorney general.

The Cuomo-free convention made for a rare sight.

His father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who served three terms, dominated conventions in the 1980s and 1990s. Andrew Cuomo later cast a shadow over the 2002 convention, when he famously withdrew his candidacy for governor on the eve of the event, acknowledging he did not have a path to victory against the party’s favored pick, Carl McCall. In 2006, he won the party’s endorsement for attorney general as he mounted a political comeback before being elected governor in 2010.

Most of the party’s establishment, however, appears to have turned the page on Mr. Cuomo, who governed through ruthless tactics that left him with few, if any, political allies when he decided to resign or risk impeachment.

“I haven’t heard anyone say his name and I think people are looking forward,” Pat Ryan, a Democrat and the executive of Ulster County, said shortly before Ms. James’s speech. “People don’t want us dwelling in the past.”

Mr. Cuomo’s absence would have gone largely unacknowledged at the convention on Thursday had it not been for Ms. James’s speech, in which she also accused the Cuomo administration of lying to obfuscate the true extent of pandemic-related deaths in nursing homes.

Her comments appeared to be the culmination of pent-up resentment following weeks of escalating attacks from the Cuomo camp, which has repeatedly denounced the investigation — which he authorized — as unfair and politically motivated just as Mr. Cuomo weighs how to re-enter public life.

Indeed, after Ms. James’s speech, Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, released a statement that accused her of being “a serial liar who continues to dodge answering a single substantive question about her sham report.” Mr. Cuomo’s lawyer said last week that he intended to file a professional misconduct complaint against Ms. James.

On Thursday, Ms. James described herself as “the people’s lawyer,” thanking the delegates “for giving me the opportunity to carry your flag and to be your candidate to continue this work.”

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