Politically, it’d be hard for an opponent to get to James’s left: She was the first candidate to win an election in New York on the liberal Working Families Party line, and she waged fights at City Hall on behalf of poor tenants, victims of domestic and gun violence, and people of color disproportionately affected by the police department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy—those who, in her words, had been “invisible for far too long.”
It is that record of activism, and that connection with voters in New York City, that James is leaning on to distinguish herself from Teachout, who grew up in rural Vermont, practiced law in North Carolina, and has never held public office. James’s allies frequently note that Teachout is not admitted to the New York bar. (Teachout told me that that will be fixed by the election.)
“Zephyr has never represented anyone but herself,” Harlem Assemblywoman Inez Dickens told me. “How she can represent an entire state like New York—ethnically, racially—it’s impossible. She’s never done it before.” (In response to Dickens, Teachout cited her early career work on death-penalty cases: “I represented the most hated people in society,” she told me.)
James has said she would continue the lawsuit against the Trump Foundation and wants the state legislature to give the attorney general power to bring criminal prosecutions without the governor’s sign-off. But she has focused more broadly on the Trump administration’s policies—on women’s rights, immigration, gun violence, and the environment—than on the president himself. And she has stressed her relationships with other powerful Democrats in New York to argue that a concerted effort by the entire state government to push back on the White House would be more effective than the attorney general doing so by herself.
James is benefitting from the support of Cuomo, the Democratic state committee, and several powerful unions, all of which are helping her raise money and could make the difference in what is expected to be a low-turnout primary on September 13. But at a moment when progressive voters are turning away from insiders, that establishment backing could also be a burden.
“I definitely think she opened the door for Zephyr to claim that outsider mantle,” said Christina Greer, a political-science professor at Fordham who is neutral in the race. James is also supporting Cuomo’s reelection against the challenge from Nixon and has repeatedly defended the governor’s record and rhetoric against criticism from the left. “Obviously this is a strategic choice that she is well within her rights to make,” Greer said. “But some people see it as abandoning her progressivism.”
James dismissed the suggestion she had compromised her independence. “I’m not going to change how I view the world, or how I feel, or my passion simply because this governor decided to support me,” she told me. “I am not going to surrender my progressive credentials to anyone. I refuse. I will always be a champion for change and for progressive causes in the city and in the state. I will not back down from any fight.” She shifted her focus to the Republican in the White House: “What I am is a street fighter, and that’s the only thing that Donald Trump respects and understands.”