ALBANY, N.Y. — Tish James is running for governor of New York. She just isn’t acting like it.
Six weeks after the state attorney general declared her candidacy, her campaign website contains fewer than 150 words. She has only made a handful of public appearances. And she’s yet to appear publicly more than 12 miles north of New York City.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, by contrast, has been making as nearly half a dozen public appearances a day, landing regular endorsements and setting fundraising records ahead of the June Democratic primary.
Despite dominating news cycles for months because of her office’s investigations into former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August, James has been less of a public presence in the campaign’s early weeks than any other recent gubernatorial contender. She has kept a busy schedule of closed-door meetings with potential supporters. But unlike the rest of the field, she has avoided holding events that could earn her appearances on the local news and clarify her policy ideas.
The attorney general recently went a month without putting out an advisory for an event anywhere in the state and has conducted only one TV or radio interview since launching her campaign.
“It’s a little bit bizarre. I would have thought she would have come out like a cannon,” said Republican political consultant Bill O’Reilly, who had top campaign roles in the past two gubernatorial elections in New York. “It’s almost as though she’s taking a Rose Garden strategy, and Kathy Hochul’s too strong for that … It’s a really competitive primary, she’s behind in public polling, and Hochul’s traversing the state every day.”
James’ campaign doesn’t seem concerned about what people like O’Reilly think.
“In a short time, there has been tremendous excitement and enthusiasm behind Attorney General Letitia James’ change-making candidacy for Governor,” campaign manager Gabby Seay said in a statement to POLITICO. “Already, Attorney General James has picked up endorsements from dozens of elected officials and organizations who recognize that the only candidate who can deliver transformational change in this race is Attorney General James.”
Hochul’s state office and campaign have put out advisories announcing 60 public events in New York since James launched her candidacy on Oct. 29, as well as an additional 10 public events on Zoom. She has been in nearly every major media market, and usually several times.
In the first few days after entering the race, James appeared at eight downstate stops helping local candidates in the run-up to last month’s Election Day. She released her voting schedule on Election Day.
In the five weeks since, she has released an advisory for only one event anywhere in the state, a stop in White Plains last week where she received an endorsement from a county executive who had already publicly expressed interest in being her running-mate. She appeared on NY1 that night — which appears to be her lone TV or radio sit-down over the entire campaign — and hasn’t put out an advisory for a public appearance since.
Both Hochul and James attended the annual SOMOS convention in Puerto Rico in early November, hobnobbing with fellow New York Democrats. And both appeared at events over the past month that occurred behind closed doors or with no advance advisories.
James’ campaign shared a list of more than 50 such events since late October. She attended the “Annual Bernie Catcher Thanksgiving Ecumenical Service”; delivered the “CCNY Stanley Feingold Virtual Lecture” and a guest lecture at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs; and participated in multiple fundraisers for state legislators.
But, due to her near-total lack of engagement with the media so far, it has been impossible to begin analyzing James’ positions on hundreds of issues, ranging from local bridge construction plans to questions of statewide tax policy.
It has long been the norm for New York‘s non-incumbent gubernatorial candidates to unveil policy platforms immediately after declaring their candidacy. It took Andrew Cuomo two days from his 2010 launch to release the first 214-page volume of what would be a long series of books detailing his policy proposals. And nobody who paid a sliver of attention to the first days of activist and “Sex and the City” actor Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 campaign was left unaware that she wanted to raise taxes on the rich and spend more money on the subways.
James’ campaign kick-off, in contrast, contained nothing specifying what she would do differently from Hochul. Her launch video on Oct. 29 promised she would “stand up to the powerful,” “be a force for change” and fight for “good paying jobs.” Nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been said by most gubernatorial candidates in recent decades.
The first press release showing where James differed from Hochul arrived on Nov. 20, when she said the state needed to take “bold action” to fight the pandemic. After a few more press releases, James provided more depth during an appearance on NY1 last week: She opposes vaccine mandates like those imposed by the governor because some people are still hesitant about receiving the shot, and she thinks there should be a mask mandate.
But there weren’t many specifics in this short portion of a brief interview. Does she think Hochul should unilaterally impose a mask mandate, going even further in testing the limits of executive power than anything ever done by Cuomo? Or does she think that the state Legislature should take the lead? And is the mandate she’s proposing as all-encompassing as Cuomo’s, or would it simply apply when it’s convenient — for example, would indoor dining still be allowed? Who would be tasked with enforcing a plan likely to meet with widespread resistance in parts of the state?
With such major questions unanswered, it’s perhaps not surprising that James garnered very little press after the interview.
Similarly, it has become the norm for first-time gubernatorial candidates to find whatever piece of good news they can in their early fundraising totals then tout it far and wide as an indication of their viability. Nixon received national attention for a release proclaiming that she had set a record for small donors on the first day of her campaign; Rep. Lee Zeldin helped build the perception that he’s the frontrunner for next year’s GOP nomination by announcing that he had rapidly raised $2.5 million. Hochul’s campaign shared numbers last month that indicate she’s receiving donations at a record-shattering clip.
Meanwhile, the James campaign is trying to lower expectations.
“I believe we should not be focused on fundraising but that we should be focused on individuals right now who are struggling to put food on the table,” the candidate said when asked about the subject at the White Plains event.
Like Hochul, James can mobilize the powers of her current office to get press. But her state office has recently operated a lot like her campaign. Since she first released a damning report in August accusing Cuomo of sexual misconduct, every subsequent update about the investigation has been released to the world via nothing more than a press release.
James’ office announced last week that she was proposing a state fund to pay for women who live in parts of the country that limit abortion to travel to New York and receive the procedure. That idea was announced in an email that omitted major details, such as how much the state should spend or who would be eligible. It received relatively minimal attention until the Albany Times Union ran a column on Tuesday that noted that inquiries on the unanswered questions were “met with silence” by James’ office.
Even without regular engagement with the media, there are plenty of options for James’ candidacy to get its message out and accelerate quickly. She remains very popular with organized labor, and enough unions endorsing her and arranging volunteer efforts could provide quite a bit of momentum. Her ongoing criminal investigation into the Trump Organization could very well put her on the front page of every paper in the world at a crucial moment in the campaign.
So far, however, the attorney general hasn’t turned a year in which her actions dominated headlines into an improvement in the polls. In a January survey from the Siena College Research Institute, 52 percent of Democrats viewed her favorably and 8 percent unfavorably; in numbers released by Siena on Tuesday, she polled at 56-18. Hochul rose from 29-13 in March to 57-18 this week, and now has an 18-point lead in the horserace.
And time is running out for the other candidates to change the dynamics before Hochul’s widespread characterization as the “early frontrunner” shifts into something more definitive, letting the incumbent make a stronger case to donors and endorsers who have remained on the fence.
The calendar is getting close to the point in December when most people will stop thinking about politics for a couple of weeks. In January, coverage of state politics will focus on Hochul’s State of the State address and budget proposal. And if James or another candidate can’t dent the incumbent governor’s early edge by the time the party convention is held in the first weeks of February, then the state Democratic Committee could throw its endorsement — as well as its organizational and fundraising powers — behind Hochul.
“Six months goes very quickly in a campaign,” Siena spokesperson Steve Greenberg said. “It’s 180 news cycles, but it goes quickly and there’s not a lot of time, given the fact that all of these candidates have work to do to reach out to the electorate and tell the voters who they are … Every day a candidate is not out there meeting with voters is one of 180 that gets crossed off.”
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