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James says she'd be an independent Attorney General, despite ties to Cuomo

Tish James
Democratic candidate for Attorney General Tish James

The Democratic frontrunner in the primary race for Attorney General, Tish James, said if elected she’d be independent of her political ally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

James, who is in her second term as New York City’s Public Advocate, was nominated by the state Democratic Party to be its candidate. She has appeared frequently in public with Cuomo, who’s seeking a third term as governor. She recently made a trip with the governor and other elected officials to Puerto Rico to help storm survivors.

"Today we join with our great governor, who has led the way," James said, at a gun control rally with the Cuomo June 11.

James is facing three Democratic primary challengers, Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, Buffalo attorney Leecia Eve, and Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.

James is African American, and along with Eve, who is also black, could become the first African American woman to hold statewide office in New York. Her opponents say James is too close to Cuomo, but James says that’s not going to be a problem if she becomes Attorney General. She spoke to public radio and TV when she made a stop at the Saratoga Race Track.

"I’ve been independent all my life, just by the nature of who I am," James said. "I’ve been counted out for a very long time and people have continued to underestimate me and I continue to over perform."

Cuomo is known to have a strong personality, but James says she has an "even stronger personality."

In the past few months, several former associates and aides to Cuomo have been convicted of bribery and bid rigging, and two former majority party leaders of the legislature were convicted in retrials on corruption charges.

James said Cuomo should not have shut down a commission on corruption, formed under the state’s Moreland Act, before its work was finished, and she said as Attorney General she would seek new laws giving her more power to investigate corruption in state government.

"The office of the Attorney General should have the power to investigate without the approval of the governor of the state of New York," James said. "It’s absolutely critically important."

Teachout has called for the head of the state ethics panel, which is controlled by Cuomo, to resign. James says she would go further and scrap the troubled Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE , altogether.

"I would throw out the whole system and start again," James said. "And give it actual teeth and independence."

James started her career with the Legal Aid society, and has worked as a counsel for the state legislature. She was also an assistant attorney general under former AG Eliot Spitzer and was a member of the New York City Council.

She said as New York City Public Advocate, she’s had success getting laws passed, including a measure to ensure equal pay for women, and has filed a number of lawsuits, against the City of New York and even against the Cuomo administration’s policies dealing with disabled children in foster care.

She said her critics say she has turned the Public Advocate’s office into a mini-Attorney General’s office, and she wears that as a "badge of honor."

"Each and every day, I wake up, I go to my office I sue somebody and then I go home," James said. "And I look forward to doing that in the office of Attorney General."

Not every lawsuit James has initiated has been successful. Some were thrown out by judges, saying her office lacked the standing to bring the legal actions.

James said she would vigorously continue the numerous lawsuits that interim Attorney General Barbara Underwood is currently pursuing, including civil and criminal lawsuits against the Trump Foundation, saying it’s "critically important." She said consumer fraud is "a major issue" in this state and she would fight against it. And she said she would bring the "full force and strength of the law" down on any agency or any person who harasses anyone because of their gender or race.

James is technically the frontrunner in the race, and she’s won many endorsements, including from major unions. But a recent Siena College poll put her support at 25 percent, with 42 percent of Democratic voters undecided.

All of the candidates joined the race relatively late, after Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned. Schneiderman is accused of physically abusing several women that he dated. Schneiderman said he was engaged in consensual role playing.

James said she’s taking nothing for granted, with public appearances and announcements nearly every day this summer.

"I’m running like I’m 20 points behind," she said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.