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James' candidacy changes dynamics of Dem race for governor

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks on

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks on Aug. 3. Credit: Getty Images / David Dee Delgado

ALBANY — Letitia James' entry into the governor race completely changes the dynamics of the Democratic primary, sets up multiple constituency battles within the party, impacts other potential candidates and gives her a chance to make history, experts said.

James, New York’s attorney general, announced Friday she will run for governor, taking on Gov. Kathy Hochul in a Democratic primary — and possibly others.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone are among those said to be considering running. James' decision might impact whether any of the others jumps in, as well as what electoral strategy each candidate pursues.

"Basically, it will just open everything wide open," Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who works mostly with Republicans, said.

"It’s going to show a lot of division within the Democratic Party: Progressive versus moderate. Upstate versus downstate. Suburbs versus city," Dawidziak said. "You’re going to have a lot of long-simmering tensions play out in the primary."

James, 62, a Brooklyn resident, enters the race with a profile raised by her investigations of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — which led to his resignation in August — and former President Donald Trump.

She has a downstate base in Brooklyn — New York City voters typically account for 50-55% of ballots cast in a Democratic primary. She will be challenging Hochul from the political left and even highlighted her progressive credentials in her kickoff statement.

But she is taking on a sitting governor, who has rolled up a lot of endorsements and good poll numbers even though she’s been on the job just two months since Cuomo stepped down.

"She’s earned it," Jay Jacobs, state Democratic chairman, said recently of his endorsement of Hochul, the 63-year-old Buffalo Democrat.

Hochul served eight years as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor but was never close with him — he even publicly tried to persuade her to run for a different office in 2018. She’s traveled the state repeatedly and knows the communities and the issues, Jacobs said. Plus, he believes she could win support from moderate and progressive Democrats.

She had a moderate reputation as a one-term member of Congress and Erie County clerk but has moved steadily to the political left upon being elected lieutenant governor in 2014.

"I anticipate there will be many, many people running," Hochul said Friday during an event outside Elmira. "I am looking forward to a very robust campaign."

The new governor has been traveling seemingly every day since taking office — and shrewdly. The Buffalo News recently reported nearly two-thirds of Hochul’s public appearances have been downstate as she seeks to raise her profile.

Hochul is New York’s first woman governor. But James’ supporters point out she has a chance to be the first Black woman governor in U.S. history.

James is a formidable candidate, but is still taking a risk, said Robert Spitzer, a professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.

"Hochul has been working very hard, has been raising a lot of money," Spitzer said. "If she thinks Hochul is a pushover, I think she’s making a mistake."

A key could be which candidates the major unions — always a huge factor in Democratic campaigns — support. Some could sit out the primary. But backing from, say, teachers’ unions or SEIU/1199, the powerful health care workers’ union, could swing the race.

"Chances are no matter who comes out of the primary, the unions are going to back that Democrat in the general election, so they can take a wait-and-see attitude on this," Dawidziak said.

Further, James' run for governor creates a wide-open race for her current job.

Among those mentioned as possible candidates are Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzales and State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria). Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and favorite of many progressives, already has filed a campaign committee for running for the office. She previously ran unsuccessfully for governor, attorney general and Congress.

Finally, there’s the question of whether a heated Democratic primary would hurt the party and help whoever emerges on the Republican side, which also features multiple candidates, including Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Many Democrats downplay such a scenario, noting the party has a 2-1 enrollment advantage over the GOP and hasn’t lost any election for any statewide office since 2002.

"Certainly everyone has a right to choose to primary," said Jacobs, who this fall urged other Democrats to refrain from challenging Hochul and instead rally behind the new governor. "I’m just hopeful the party comes out of it strong."

Editor's note -- An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the region that typically account for 50-55% of ballots cast in a Democratic primary.

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