In recent days, Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, has given every public indication that she is thinking about running for governor.
Over the course of the past week, she courted business and civic leaders, delivering a much–analyzed speech in which she described a vision for the state that extended well beyond the duties of her current job, and declared that “there is no upstate or downstate way to make government work.” She schmoozed with Democratic leaders in Brooklyn and the Bronx, addressed a League of Conservation Voters gala in Manhattan and campaigned with a Westchester County legislator.
But it was behind closed doors at an event on Thursday for Ulster County Democrats in Kingston, N.Y., that she offered what appears to be the most candid assessment to date of her political future: She has a big decision to make, and she intends to make it soon.
“You might be wondering about my future plans — just saying,” Ms. James said, to whoops and applause, according to a recording of the event obtained by The New York Times. “The question for me really boils down to this: What is the best way that I can make transformational change in the State of New York?”
“I don’t know the answer,” she continued, in remarks that were also reported by The New York Post. She added later, “That day is coming very, very soon.”
Yet the public actions and private conversations of Ms. James and those around her in recent weeks leave little doubt: She is taking serious and accelerated steps toward a potential run for governor, according to interviews with more than two dozen New York Democratic officials. Her entry into a contest in which Gov. Kathy Hochul is already running would instantly elevate next year’s primary into an expensive, high-profile and closely watched intraparty battle.
“I don’t think anybody would question: Would she be capable of running the state?” Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, said of Ms. James’s deliberations. “The question is, will she run? Is she running? And I think that’s what’s on the mind of every political insider at the moment.”
Behind the scenes, Ms. James and her allies have made it clear to donors, elected officials and other Democratic power brokers that she is weighing a bid and is nearing a final decision. Her team is close to making additional political hires, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
“I have not made an ultimate — I have not made a decision,” Ms. James said in a brief interview on Thursday, quickly rephrasing in an apparent effort to avoid suggesting she had made a determination about her plans.
“A number of individuals have approached me with respect to running for higher office,” she said, even as she repeatedly insisted that her focus was on her current job.
But asked to characterize those conversations, Ms. James did not shy away.
“That I should consider it because of my leadership, because of my ability to speak truth to power, because of my experience and because of my ability to unite the state,” she said. “I’m still focused on the office of attorney general, but I thank them for their comments.”
Her comments came after she spoke briefly at a gathering of the Brooklyn Democratic Party at Junior’s, a restaurant known for cheesecake and political events.
The scene there offered one of the most vivid illustrations yet of how the Democratic primary has begun to take shape in the past week, with the nascent contours of a campaign trail coming into view.
Ms. Hochul, the state’s first female governor, was there as well, part of her breakneck public schedule as she also moves aggressively to try to cement a huge fund-raising advantage in advance of the primary. She spoke before both Ms. James and Jumaane D. Williams, New York City’s public advocate, who announced this week that he had formed an exploratory committee and was considering his own run. (“Great job as public advocate!” Ms. Hochul cracked wryly.)
Ms. Hochul, Ms. James and Mr. Williams made the rounds through a room packed with party activists and elected leaders who clamored for selfies and hugs in between bites of scrambled eggs and sips from precariously balanced coffee cups. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also thought to be weighing a run, also dropped by, a day after he and the others were at a gathering of Bronx Democrats.
It is possible that Ms. James may not ultimately challenge Ms. Hochul. She does not have a history as a strong fund-raiser, though her allies are hopeful that as the potential first Black female governor in America, she would attract national attention and support should she run. She would also have to give up her current job to run for governor, and she might prefer to seek another term as attorney general instead — boosted, perhaps, by the attention her recent activity has attracted
A representative for Ms. James declined to comment for this article.
Each day brings fresh signs that the governor’s race is shaping up to be competitive and complicated.
Ms. Hochul enjoys significant good will from many New Yorkers, ascending to the governorship after Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in disgrace after an independent investigation released by Ms. James’s office found he had sexually harassed 11 women.
Since taking over, Ms. Hochul, a native of western New York who is seen as a moderate, has forged ahead with several policies that are popular among many left-wing leaders. She has been a constant presence in New York City as she seeks to shore up her standing downstate, and she named a lieutenant governor, Brian A. Benjamin, who represented Harlem in the State Senate. She is also poised to benefit from the power of incumbency, including the ability to complete critical projects across the state, which would give her a concrete record to promote.
“The people I hear from who have long waited for a woman to be governor are very clear that they are going to be supporting her,” Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick of Manhattan said of Ms. Hochul.
Ms. Glick said she had heard next year’s race described as akin to a contest for an open seat. “I wonder if that would have been a comment that would have been made if it was a man,” she said.
Mr. Williams, who, like Ms. James, is from Brooklyn, is beloved by many on the left, and some officials who are close to both worry about whether one would siphon votes from the other if they were both in the race, though their political bases are hardly identical.
Other Democrats, including Representative Thomas Suozzi of Long Island, have taken steps toward a possible run.
Then there is the Cuomo factor: The former governor has an $18 million war chest he could deploy to meddle in the race, and he has already attacked Ms. James, despite initially backing the independent investigation himself. She used the first part of her recent speech to business leaders to sharply rebuke his attacks and to defend her own work.
“You could tell, when the speech started, that everyone perked up, stopped what they were doing, were very focused on what she had to say, which is very rare in those rooms,” said Assemblywoman Nily Rozic of Queens, who praised Ms. James for having “set the record straight.”
At the Ulster County event, the crowd grew rowdy as Ms. James reached her crescendo.
“So just stay with me and pray with me,” she said. “And stay tuned.”
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