Excited by James’s tough-talk about Trump, many New Yorkers anticipated she would eagerly fill the larger-than-life profile.
It didn’t play out quite as they expected.
Supporters who expected her to burst out of the gate in an amplified version of Tish the Public Advocate said they were initially frustrated. Some activists for marginalized communities say they thought her office wasn’t as responsive to their causes as they had hoped. James had already announced she wouldn’t don Spitzer’s moniker as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” but some liberals expected more in the way of financial oversight.
“I think as a councilperson and as public advocate, she was one of the most aggressive, outspoken people on many of the progressive priorities across the city,” director of New York Communities for Change Jonathan Westin said in August. “And I think we’ve seen her role as AG take a bit of step back from who she was as a councilmember and public advocate.”
“I know there’s some good staff and some good people; I’m just not seeing a lot of movement on taking on the financial influence in New York,” he said at the time.
Former staff members of the AG’s office say they worried that James’s focus on challenging the Trump administration came at the expense of more prosaic, but no less important, matters closer to home. It wasn’t a question of whether the office’s many veteran attorneys were covering the office’s bread and butter duties (decidedly less sexy work like auto insurance fraud and defending the state in regular lawsuits), said Amy Spitalnick, who was a communications director for Schneiderman and continued on in that role and as a senior policy advisor when Underwood took over.
“There’s so much that office is doing — and I suspect that’s all still happening,” Spitalnick said, also in August. “It’s just a question of whether you’re prioritizing, publicizing and owning it like you do with the Trump stuff.“
James had promised to tackle corruption at the highest levels of state government. But the support she enjoyed from the governor contrasted with the fireworks that marked the Cuomo-Schneiderman relationship, which included repeated attempts at one-upsmanship, accusations of spotlight stealing and even jabs about physical appearances.
“We would make stories, news and press outside of him, which he hated,” a former Schneiderman staffer said last summer of Cuomo. “He was constantly worried about what we were doing. He never has to worry about what this [James] office is doing, and more importantly, it’s a little more of a command and control, at least that’s the perception people have.”
That perspective traveled quietly among Democratic circles during the first two years of her tenure, but James, in her January interview with POLITICO, offered a tantalizing clue that things were about to change. What Albany’s chorus of ex-officials saw as an unshakeable Cuomo alliance, she explained, extended mainly to countering the Trump administration.
“Governor Cuomo and I have had a common enemy in the federal government and its treatment of New Yorkers,” she said. “And I would remind individuals that I am an independently elected official, and I take my job seriously. And the tension between Governor Cuomo and I, if there is any tension, we keep it between the two of us.”
Within days of that interview, the book on James would begin a new chapter, with the release of the nursing-home report. And some of the same people who were skeptical of her now say they admire her independence.
“The word political sleeper comes to mind,” said one Democratic operative within the Cuomo administration who watched James’s trajectory for the past several years. “She will do exactly what she has to do, nothing more, nothing less. Some say she plays checkers not chess, but I don’t think that’s fair. She’s savvy, thoughtful, tough and loyal — all those qualities make for a good attorney general.”