Public Advocate Letitia James Blazes New Trail (+Q&A)
NEW YORK—At first glance, New York City’s new public advocate almost seems like an extension of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio. They have similar histories of fighting for the common man and share the goal of fixing the city’s critical need for more affordable housing.
But with more than 53,000 New Yorkers in homeless shelters every day, advancing an agenda of more homes for more city residents is just good governing. Letitia James also supports the mayor’s Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian fatalities to zero—again just basic protection of citizens.
But upon closer examination, James is fully and unapologetically her own person.
A native New Yorker who was born, raised, and still lives in Brooklyn, James has come up through the ranks of public service and the world of law. Known by her nickname, Tish, she is a graduate of the Howard University School of Law and CUNY’s Lehman College. James began to work for the public as an assistant public defender in the Legal Aid Society. Later she went on to work as a top-level aide in the New York state Assembly and then as an assistant attorney general for New York state in Brooklyn. She was elected to the city council in 2003 and served there until she was elected to the public advocate’s office last year. Her reputation as a fighter for the everyday New Yorker grew all along.
Throughout the years, she also came to be friends and colleagues with de Blasio. Since the public advocate’s role is to serve as a watchdog for the citizenry on all fronts, the relationship has often been raised as a potential roadblock to effectively advocating in the public interest.
James thinks her personal relationship with de Blasio is no impediment to the task at hand.
“I know the media has been preoccupied with this relationship,” said James at her Manhattan office last week. “I don’t see it as a conflict. I’ve got a job to do, and I’m not here to win a popularity contest. We’re adults and we can separate our friendship from responsibilities that are required of me as the public advocate of the city of New York.”
She has already disagreed bitterly with the mayor in her few short months in office. James criticized how snow cleanup was handled as New York was battered by repeated storms and historically low temperatures this winter. She called for basic changes in the city’s approach to dealing with snowstorms.
“It’s really not about friendship,” said James. “It’s about the public.”
In addition to disagreeing with the mayor about leaving the schools open, James said that older New Yorkers were physically and economically put in harm’s way. Many found it impossible to shovel their sidewalks on time and faced fines.
According to James’s office, the Department of Sanitation issued about 7,500 fines for improper snow removal between Jan. 1, 2014 and Feb. 4, 2014. The number surpassed the 5,000 tickets handed out throughout the entire 2013 snow season, prompting James to introduce legislation to change how New York snow cleanup work operates, with more volunteers and paid help for snow cleanup.
Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City said the move is indicative of her style.
“I think what it shows about Tish is that she’s very grassroots,” said Sackman on Thursday. “She’s very much got her pulse on how you would define community, and that’s how she’s always operated. She’s got a sense of how things are for everyday New Yorkers. She thinks about how to be a voice for them and affect change.”
The everyday realities that impact New Yorkers, such as snow removal, are often not flashy, but are vital.
“Here we were in the midst of probably the worst winter any of us can remember,” said Sackman. “It’s not always the sexiest of issues, but if you can’t clear your walk you’re not only a danger, you put others in danger, too.”
In the long run, Sackman thinks it will come down to consistency and action.
If James has one strength that is often mentioned in her public introductions, it is her talent for getting things done. Though she has already taken a stance on a number of issues in her few months in office, she said that if she had to pick one issue to focus on it would be the city’s affordable housing crisis.
“As you know, tonight 53,000 individuals will go to sleep without shelter, a third of them are children,” said James. “So clearly, that is our focus and we will be working with the administration to advance the mayor’s affordable housing agenda.”
She has also turned her attention to schools and filed a lawsuit against some 45 school co-locations approved by the Bloomberg administration. De Blasio promised to review the co-locations and in late February gave a green light to most. Nine of the co-locations were canceled, one was reduced, and three are still under review.
But James wants to step on the brakes. She said she’d heard “horror stories” during a meeting earlier this month with community education councils and parent-teacher associations from all five boroughs. Parents told her of a myriad of issues, including children having breakfast as late as 10 a.m., classroom sizes exceeding 30 students, and some students having classes in trailers.
“We were told that some schools still have trailers, so we’re going on a trailer tour,” she said. “These are schools where co-locations are being proposed. How could you co-locate a school when there are children in trailers?”
Rapid Fire Q and A With Letitia James
Epoch Times: Favorite spot in New York City?
Letitia James: Prospect Park.
Epoch Times: Best New York City moment?
Ms. James: Staten Island Ferry, going past the Statue of Liberty, being fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by my mom. I was maybe 8—I thought I was going on a really far trip.
Epoch Times: Most interesting thing in your fridge right now?
Ms. James: There isn’t anything in my fridge right now. Maybe water. Some food from last night. Takeout food from all these events I attend; people giving me goodie bags with food. I think I have four or five plates.
Epoch Times: Team dine out or order in?
Ms. James: Team dine out, definitely. I believe in contributing to the economy of all the restaurants in my former district and throughout the city.
Epoch Times: Favorite type of restaurant?
Ms. James: Barbecue.
Epoch Times: If you could have any other career in the world, what would it be?
Ms. James: Teacher. K through 5.
Epoch Times: What’s your drink at Starbucks?
Ms. James: A chai.
Epoch Times: Favorite song on your playlist?
Ms. James: I’m old school. Luther Vandross. Anything Luther Vandross. And Phyllis Hyman.
Epoch Times: Last show you binge-watched?
Ms. James: “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” One entire Saturday I watched it straight through in the snowstorm. It was kind of crazy. Then yesterday I was criticizing them because they represent all negative stereotypes of African-American women. But they’re entertaining.
Epoch Times: Do you have a signature color?
Ms. James: I wear a lot of black, but I like burnt orange.
Epoch Times: If you had $1,000 to go on a shopping spree?
Ms. James: I would probably spend it on somebody else. I’m not a big shopper. Probably something for the house, like a lounge chair or a desk.
Epoch Times: One thing people probably don’t know about you?
Ms. James: I sing. My first career was I did a couple off Broadway plays. I would love, if I had time, to get a singing gig somewhere. Sing jazz, R&B, sing some gospel at a bar somewhere. I would love to do that, I would love to teach, I would love to do some child care.
I love ice cream. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I haven’t dated in a while. I love Ben and Jerry, so I guess I’m in love with two men. I’ll even go international, Häagen Daaz, if that’s a name.