Can Jumaane Williams Make it as Governor?

The Public Advocate explores a run

This week, Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, opened a campaign committee to run for governor in 2022.

“What I would like to bring is a different way of doing politics—is not just testing the wings, not just using toxicity, egos—and making decisions based on what’s best for the individual, what’s best for the people of the city and the state,” Williams said on NY1. If he wins next year, he would be the most unabashedly progressive politician to ever govern the state, and the first in living memory to emerge from the activist wing of his party.

Williams, of course, does not have a clear path. He will have to defeat the incumbent, Kathy Hochul, who was the lieutenant governor until Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace last month. Hochul has every intention of running next year, having hired a campaign team and launched a robust fundraising operation. Though Hochul spent almost two terms in Cuomo’s shadow, never disagreeing with the imperial governor, she has been adept at distancing herself from Cuomo since the sexual harassment scandal, purging the state of top aides and agency heads, including the architect of Cuomo’s disastrous Covid policies, Dr. Howard Zucker. Voters may not judge Hochul, the state’s first female governor, all that harshly for failing to challenge Cuomo for all those years. In truth, they probably hardly thought of her at all.

But Williams, rightfully, seems to believe he can win next year. He won a competitive citywide election and he has run statewide already, competing against Hochul for lieutenant governor in 2018. The Williams 2018 campaign seemed like a bit of a lark when it was first announced, coming before the actress Cynthia Nixon made public her own intentions to run. Williams and Nixon were not initially a ticket; later, they became a natural one, scoring the endorsements of just about every left-of-center, non-labor organization in New York, including the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. Williams was more successful than Nixon, coming within seven points of beating Hochul, even though Cuomo’s campaign blitzed the airwaves all summer with tens of millions in ads supporting both himself and Hochul. Though Williams raised well under $1 million—an exceedingly paltry sum for a statewide race—he was able to beat Hochul in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Williams ran up the score in his home borough, winning 63 percent of the vote.

Williams has many strengths as a candidate. A former city councilman who was based in East Flatbush and now lives in Bay Ridge, Williams has strong ties to the borough’s working-class Black communities. He has held elected office since 2010 and is one of the best-known municipal elected officials. In the early years of his career, he established himself as a fierce critic of Michael Bloomberg’s NYPD and an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street. An initial ally of Bill de Blasio, Williams later distanced himself, and never drifted far from the vanguard of the Left, even as city politics rapidly shifted in the Trump years. Williams is the rare mainstream Democrat who is revered in alphabet left NGO circles, won’t elicit eye-rolls in DSA meetings, and can stroll down Flatbush Avenue or Farragut Road with people calling his name. Jonathan Westin, the longtime leader of the activist group New York Communities for Change, probably put it best, tweeting that Williams “is one of the only candidates that could unite the progressive left and working class communities of color across the state.”

There is an easy argument to make that if Williams had any serious interest in running for mayor this year, he’d probably be getting ready to move to Gracie Mansion right about now. Eric Adams beat a weak field by dominating in the middle and working-class Black neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Williams, the child of immigrants from Grenada, would’ve had little problem competing there. And unlike Adams, who struggled mightily to win votes from New York’s growing class of affluent, educated voters, Williams would’ve probably crushed the competition in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg, and Astoria. It is not difficult to imagine a universe where Williams, not Kathryn Garcia, wins the New York Times endorsement—a progressive candidate of color with a deep political track record is just what the editorial board wants—and has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crucial backing months before Maya Wiley, if Wiley remained in the race at all. Williams could’ve scooped up much of the combined Garcia-Wiley vote and that might’ve been the race.

But a run for mayor would’ve risked the citywide job he currently has, a post that launched both de Blasio and Letitia James, now the state attorney general, to higher office. Since Williams won the special election for public advocate in 2019, replacing James, he can serve out another eight years after he wins in November. The post is unique to New York City and has little formal powers, serving as a mostly toothless watchdog over city agencies. The public advocate’s office is an excellent launching pad because it allows the occupant to win plenty of headlines—as a citywide position, it’s taken seriously by the press—while dodging all blame for whatever ails the five boroughs. In some sense, it’s like a glorified congressional seat: all prestige, little tangible power. If Williams runs next year, he won’t sacrifice his position as public advocate because the next citywide municipal election will be in 2025.

Can Williams really beat Hochul? On one hand, it really depends on James. The attorney general, once a staunch Cuomo ally, oversaw the investigation that ended Cuomo’s political career. She is a rumored candidate for governor and if she runs, Williams’ path might be foreclosed. Both are Black politicians from Brooklyn, but one holds a statewide perch of serious consequence and the other does not. James possesses Williams’ strengths as a candidate without a few obvious weaknesses. To win statewide in a competitive primary, especially against an incumbent, cash and institutional ties are essential. James is the only insurgent who can peel large labor unions away from Hochul. James has her own progressive bona fides, but has gradually shifted towards the political center since her days as a City Council firebrand. Activist organizations are of less value in a race that covers 62 counties and could cost $10 million or more. James is not a prodigious fundraiser, but she can attract labor PAC and real estate cash in a way Williams probably can’t. Among certain wealthier white liberals and suburban moderates, a state attorney general is a more attractive option than a candidate who proudly brands himself as an “activist” elected official.

But let’s say James doesn’t run. A gubernatorial bid carries its own risks for her. She’d have to give up her position as attorney general to challenge Hochul in a race that could grow bloody next spring. James is not young—she’s 62—but she has enough time left in her career to wait out Hochul or one of New York’s senators. Perhaps she decides Kirsten Gillibrand, who flopped in the 2020 presidential race, is an easier mark. A race without James opens up pathways for Williams, which is why there is an exploratory committee in the first place. Brooklyn’s Democrats are still his for the taking, as are Manhattan’s. Hochul beat Williams in the rest of the city in 2018, but it’s not hard to fathom Williams growing his vote share in Queens, with its potent socialist bloc in the west and working-class Blacks in Southeast Queens who might break for Williams over Hochul.

The trouble for Williams, though, is that 2022 won’t be like 2018. In 2018, Hochul was the little-known running mate of a polarizing titan, Cuomo. Tim Wu, the famed legal scholar who now works in the Biden administration, also beat Hochul in Manhattan when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. The Buffalo area native was a softer target then. Now she is governor, growing her name recognition in New York City and winning enough goodwill by not behaving like a boorish megalomaniac. Hochul’s thin track record may work to her advantage; Williams can slag her for once being a conservative member of Congress who villainized undocumented immigrants, but that was over a decade ago. She’s been a liberal in good standing for at least the last five years. In a Williams-Hochul showdown, it’s likely the heavyweight labor unions in the state—1199 SEIU especially—will stick with the incumbent, showering millions on her re-election bid. If unions uniformly side with Hochul, William might not even have a sizable advantage with Black and Latino voters in New York City. And there’s the reality that Black voters tend to side with incumbents over insurgents, no matter the race of the candidates.

Beyond a cash disadvantage and union opposition, the greatest challenge for William might be a lack of activist fervor. The activist groups that make up the professional left are important validators for Democratic campaigns and can collectively lend a decent—if not overwhelming— number of volunteers. The WFP is excellent at taking over a select few campaigns and helping them fundraise and Williams would have access to their national online list. In 2018, running against Cuomo’s lieutenant governor was a great cause for the broad Left, the kind of campaign you had to care about. At the time, I was running for office myself, and Nixon-Williams was the buzzy, important campaign all credible progressives wanted to support and be around. I endorsed both candidates and even met with Williams. Making a statement against Cuomo was considered, rightfully, very important. It was understood Nixon could only go so far, but Williams had a real chance of actually beating Hochul and becoming lieutenant governor. Nothing would’ve been richer than watching Cuomo, come 2019, trying to govern with one of the most popular progressive politicians in New York City at his side, calling him out at every turn. The excitement around this effort was palpable.

I’m not sure that great wave will be there for Williams again. The activists and NGOs will endorse him, but Hochul does not make the same kind of foil or villain. There is a close to zero chance that DSA, which was reluctant to engage in a statewide race in 2018, will support him again. It’s hard to imagine the same energy following a Jumaane for governor bid against Hochul, who is neither greatly known nor reviled. What issues will he seize on? Hochul’s past as an immigrant-hating, Medicaid-cutting congresswoman is fair game, but then so will be Williams’. If Hochul is genial, she’s also a politician who wants to win, and that will mean dredging up old facts, like that Williams, as a city councilman, once appeared to oppose same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose, failing as recently as 2013 to affirm, on the record, he backed either. Williams evolved on both issues and the large constellation of activist organizations accepted this, choosing to move on. The trouble for Williams is that a governor’s race will be the most high-profile campaign he’s ever attempted and with Roe v. Wade in legitimate danger at the Supreme Court, Hochul will not hesitate to make abortion rights a top issue next year.

There are other candidates threatening to run, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Congressman Tom Suozzi. All, including Williams, are waiting to see what James does. Williams is arguably, after James, the most viable of all these Democrats and his future is bright. It’s possible that he decides, at the last minute, to either shelve a statewide campaign altogether or do what he did in 2018: run for lieutenant governor. The 2018 campaign was canny, setting himself up for greener pastures, and a 2022 bid for the post may make a good deal of sense because the incumbent, Brian Benjamin, is so weak. Benjamin, a former state senator from Harlem, ran for city comptroller this year and finished third in his own district. Williams would probably demolish Benjamin in Brooklyn and Manhattan, even if the former state senator gets a serious boost from Hochul’s fundraising operation.

Unlike Benjamin, Williams has already run statewide, performing well in the liberal, rural precincts of the Hudson Valley and the Albany area. A Williams-Benjamin showdown could very well turn into a rout. If Williams has gubernatorial or mayoral ambitions, he should know the lieutenant governor’s post isn’t the worst place to hang out. Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor when he defeated Ed Koch statewide in 1982. Like the public advocate, the position has little formal power. It does, however, offer a healthy amount of time for strategizing and politicking. For now, Williams has what most in politics crave: options.