The Litigator: How Letitia James gave the public advocate’s office some teeth
As far back as she can remember, Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James was a negotiator.
Growing up in Brooklyn as one of eight children, she negotiated on behalf of her sisters and on behalf of her brothers. Eventually, she says, she started negotiating on behalf of her neighbors and others who found themselves in trouble – always pushing, insisting and hammering her point until eventually the person on the other side would just give in.
To James, it was obvious: She was destined to become a lawyer.
In one instance, her younger sister – who is now an NYPD detective – and an even younger niece were locked in a teary battle over a doll. The solution? Go into her sister’s bedroom to get another doll, so each girl could have one.
Of course, in the real world resources aren’t always so plentiful. And one of the many lessons James learned in the more than 10 years she’s spent working her way up through Central Brooklyn politics under the guidance of then-state Assemblyman Albert Vann is that the fight for equity and fairness is always about resources.
“That was the focus,” she says now, sitting in a coffee shop a few blocks from the Clinton Hill brownstone she has owned since 2001. “It was expanding the pot of resources, and the only way to do that is through the political framework … by electing more and more individuals of color to fight for a larger share of the pot.”
The nature of the public advocate’s job – with its broad definition in the city charter – is that each person who steps into the office must define it for themselves. By and large, observers remark that James has shaped the role as a lawyer – with a litigator’s eye and an attorney’s toolkit. She has filed more lawsuits than her recent predecessors and authored more legislation than all the previous public advocates combined. But listen to James talk about her approach, and she focuses less on legal action and more on pragmatism: Get the results, whatever works.
“It's really all about the outcome,” says James, the first African-American woman elected to citywide office. “If you can achieve ... an open meetings law through litigation, congratulations. If you can do it through legislation, congratulations. If you can do it through negotiations, congratulations. But the bottom line is, you achieved it.”
“It's not just saber rattling. I wanted to put some teeth behind (the public advocate’s office)"
In her view, expanding the public advocate’s stable of lawyers and recruiting volunteers from firms around the city – a strategy she adopted to make up for the office’s comparatively small operating budget and which has gained notice from legal scholars and political analysts alike – has been a way of broadening her impact and upping her negotiating power.
By filing lawsuits and getting the media attention that goes with pushing the judicial envelope, she has increased her clout at the negotiating table, she says. The threat of legal action has prompted some city players to quietly resolve issues in cases where she would otherwise have met resistance, according to James.
“A lot of people do not like ... the publicity,” she says. “It's not just saber rattling. … I wanted to put some teeth behind it, and now we've put some teeth behind it.”
Legally, the 11 lawsuits filed by her office have met with mixed results, and in some instances James’ office has been removed from cases when judges found that she lacked the legal standing to sue. The city charter does not explicitly give the public advocate the power to bring lawsuits on behalf of citizens, and Eric Lane, a Hofstra Law School professor who headed the 1980s commission that revised the city’s charter and defined the public advocate’s role, says that the office was never intended to be a source of legal action against the city.
James herself points to a series of settlements won by her office as a result of lawsuits, as well as an August state Supreme Court ruling that she believes affirms her capacity to sue when the city isn’t meeting its obligations to the public.
“I got into politics the old-fashioned way. I earned it.”
Her office has won, among other victories, public access to certain school administrator meetings and more heating for tenants in freezing NYCHA apartments. It’s still fighting for air conditioning on school buses used to transport children with disabilities and for Department of Education accountability for what James says has been a failure to track the needs of students with disabilities. Beyond that, the majority of issues her office brings to the attention of city agencies are resolved outside of the public eye, she says.
“She has a vision for the office that is definitely informed through the lens of her role as a lawyer,” says Anthony Crowell, who worked with James when she was a city councilwoman and he was counselor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and who has since hosted James as a speaker at New York Law School, where he is now dean. “There’s a public interest lawyer that lives inside her, and I think that she has seen how to be a public interest lawyer through the office of the public advocate.”
Letitia James timeline (click to enlarge)
It’s a description that James enthusiastically endorses.
“We use the law as a means to get past all the bureaucracy of government ... to get past all of the naysayers and all of the people who put up countless excuses,” she says.
It was stories of public interest law victories during the civil rights movement that inspired James to go to the Howard University School of Law, she says. After being passed up for a job as a New York City prosecutor, she became a public defender, eventually winning a string of cases defending abused women who had taken matters into their own hands.
Suffering from burnout, as she describes it, she jumped at the chance to join Vann’s office as his counsel. The state assemblyman’s message of community empowerment and his determination to win better services for less fortunate city communities resonated deeply with James, who had grown up in a predominantly Italian and Irish section of Park Slope, and who had long been troubled by the segregation and inequities she saw in the areas around her, she says.
With Vann, James ascended through the ranks of Central Brooklyn politics – an institution on the outside of, and often at odds with, the Brooklyn Democratic establishment, she’s quick to note. Working with the assemblyman, she spent years taking trips up I-87 to Albany, working on causes and campaigns all over Brooklyn. When the borough’s Democrats helped elect Eliot Spitzer, the Brooklyn delegation suggested that James would be a good pick to head a new borough office for the attorney general, she says. There, she helped target housing and hiring discrimination as well as consumer fraud.
“I got into politics the old-fashioned way,” James says now. “I earned it.”
After James made a failed run for City Council in 2001, the winner of the race, City Councilman James E. Davis, was killed by a political rival at City Hall as he was gearing up for re-election in 2003. When the Democratic Party threw its support behind Davis’ brother, James ran against him on the Working Families Party line, and won.
In her decade on the council, and in her time as public advocate, James says she has focused most of all on affordable housing, homelessness, and other issues affecting women and girls. Throughout it all, even now as public advocate, James has continued to take on pro bono law cases on the side – her way of giving back to the community and honing new skills, she says.
Interestingly, the purpose of the public advocate’s office – which has existed in its current form only since 1994 – goes beyond the desire to provide an institutional check on the city’s massive bureaucracy. According to Lane, the charter commission executive director, the position was originally intended to provide local elected officials with a path upward into higher citywide office, including to the mayoralty.
So is James laying the groundwork for an eventual mayoral run?
Observers note she is out on the streets in every corner of the city for in-person events more than many elected officials. This, of course, has the political advantage of making her a familiar face to an ever-growing portion of the city’s voters. James says that it’s just her way.
“I don't like offices. I don't like being in ivory towers. That's just not who I am,” she says. “I prefer to be in a playground or a park. Or walking the street. You'll find me, on days when I'm off, just literally walking these streets up and down by myself. In my sneakers, a ponytail, and just talking to people. And just getting a sense of the needs of New Yorkers.”
“I don't like offices. You'll find me, on days when I'm off, just literally walking these streets … in my sneakers, a ponytail, and just talking to people.”
Frank Seddio, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, describes James as a consummate politician who’s well positioned for a future run – although he stops short of saying for what.
“She really, really has made this business a vocation. It’s not just a job. She likes politics. She lives, eats and breathes it,” he says. “Her training here will make her well equipped to hold other positions. … I suspect she has a bright future. She’s smart. She listens. She takes advice. And she implements things with thoughtfulness and consideration.”
Seddio said he was particularly impressed by James’ sense of purpose and apparent lack of ego when she spoke with him about – and decided against – a possible run for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office after the death of Kenneth Thompson. Seddio says he thought James would have won.
Of that, James says that she didn’t consider a run. “That was considered by others,” she says. “But what's so wonderful is that so many people are talking about me. So many people other than me. Which is good.”
This cycle, at least, James is running for reelection, but she acknowledges there are other possibilities on the horizon.
“I think the office of public advocate offers you a wide range of opportunities, and that you should decide which avenue, which route, you want to pursue,” she says. “I'm not there yet. Right now I'm just enjoying the office of public advocate, expanding its role, stretching the envelope, and serving the interests of New Yorkers who oftentimes are unheard.”
Betsy Gotbaum, who served as public advocate under Bloomberg, warns that it’s problematic to treat the public advocate’s office as a launchpad for the mayoralty. ”The problem with it being the training ground is the mayor needs to be a manager – at least know how to manage. There’s not a lot of opportunity to manage stuff in the public advocate’s office,” she says.
Asked about Gotbaum’s words, James bristles.
“Maybe the comments refer to our current mayor and not Letitia James?” she says. “Because I think there's a lot of opportunities available after the office of public advocate. After my term ends, I don't know which route I'm going to take, but the opportunities exist and that there's no limiting me or anyone who serves in the office. I'm a fearless girl, and I believe that in my heart.”