Excited by James’ harsh talk about Trump, many New Yorkers expected her to eagerly fill out the larger-than-life profile.
It didn’t go quite as they expected.
Supporters who expected it to burst out of the gate in an expanded version of Tish the Public Advocate said they were initially frustrated. Some marginalized community activists said they thought their office was not responding as well to their concerns as they had hoped. James had already announced it wouldn’t attract Spitzers Nicknamed “Wall Street Sheriff,” but some Liberals expected more financial control.
“As a councilor and public advocate, I think she has been one of the most aggressive and open people about many of the city’s progressive priorities,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York’s Communities for Change in August. “And I think we’ve seen her role as an AG take a step back from what she was as a councilor and public advocate.”
“I know that there are some good employees and some good people. I just don’t see much movement in taking over the financial clout in New York,” he said at the time.
Former employees of the AG’s office said they feared James’ focus on challenging the Trump administration was at the expense of more prosaic, but no less important, matters closer to home. It wasn’t about whether the office’s many seasoned attorneys were covering the office’s bread and butter duties (decidedly less sexy work like fraud on auto insurance and defending the state in regular lawsuits), said Amy Spitalnick, communications director at Schneiderman, and drove in that role and continued as senior policy advisor when Underwood took over.
“There is so much that the office does – and I suspect that all of this will still happen,” Spitalnick also said in August. “It’s just a question of whether you prioritize, publicize, and own like you do with the Trump stuff.”
James had promised to fight corruption at the highest levels of government. But the support she enjoyed from the governor contrasted with the fireworks display that marked Cuomo and Schneiderman’s relationship. This included repeated attempts at one-upsmanship, allegations of theft of headlights and even Bumps over physical appearances.
“We’d be doing stories, news and press outside of him that he hated,” a former Schneiderman employee said of Cuomo last summer. “He was always concerned about what we were doing. He never has to care what it is [James] Office does, and more importantly, it’s a bit more of an order and a control, at least that’s the perception people have. “
That perspective moved quietly in Democratic circles for the first two years of her tenure, but James offered a tantalizing hint in her January interview with POLITICO that things were about to change. What Albany’s chorus of ex-officials saw as an unwavering Cuomo alliance, she explained, extended mainly to combating the Trump administration.
“Governor Cuomo and I had a common enemy in the federal government and its treatment of New Yorkers,” she said. “And I want to remind individuals that I am an independently elected civil servant and that I am serious about my job. And the tension between Governor Cuomo and me, if there is tension, we keep it between the two of us. “
Within days of that interview, the book on James would start a new chapter with the release of the nursing home report. And some of the same people who were skeptical of her now say that they admire her independence.
“The word ‘political sleeper’ comes to mind,” said a Democratic agent within the Cuomo administration who watched James’ trajectory over the past few 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 is savvy, thoughtful, tough, and loyal – all of these qualities make a good attorney general. “