Feb 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Progressives see N.Y. AG as potential Cuomo challenger

New York Attorney General Letitia James is seen speaking during a news conference.

Letitia James. Photo: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York Democratic strategists, operatives and progressives are viewing state Attorney General Letitia James as an appealing primary challenger to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, they tell Axios.

Why it matters: The dynamics of New York politics are complex, especially when your last name is Cuomo. But the governor has been criticized recently for his handling of the coronavirus, and James is no stranger to picking big fights.

Her bombshell report about how the coronavirus rocked New York's nursing homes focused on the issue Cuomo rode to a heightened national profile during the past year. James also has targeted Donald Trump with an investigation into his real estate empire, as well as Facebook, Google and the National Rifle Association.

  • "You need to be less extreme but still to the left — but center enough — to get the party moderates," one Democratic operative who works on local races told Axios.
  • Neither James' nor Cuomo's offices responded to requests for comment.

Between the lines: Several operatives said Democrats can't make the same "mistake" they have in the past, as one put it, and nominate a white, liberal woman. 

  • When Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon challenged Cuomo in 2014 and 2018, they both got blown out.
  • One New York political operative pointed to Cuomo's favorability ratings as evidence the governor is still loved by New Yorkers.

Background: James is no pushover.

  • And she's a Black woman at a time when the Democratic Party publicly calls that constituency the backbone of the party.
  • “There’s a real sense that people are ready to see the back of Andrew Cuomo,” said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist who served as special adviser to Cuomo in 2014-15. “The question is: How afraid are they to admit it in public?”
  • Del Percio said of James: “She is fierce. No one’s going to tell her to wait her turn.”

Some New York Democrats previously harbored concerns James was too close to Cuomo, but she's changed minds with her actions.

  • "I’ve been really impressed with her," said Teachout, who also once challenged James for attorney general. She cited James' leadership on antitrust issues and "her powerful and important truth-telling report about nursing homes."

Another person to watch: Jumaane Williams is an activist and local elected official in New York City.

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