Two New Yorkers, vastly different but both aggressive in their own way. She, Letitia “Tish” James, blasted through social barriers by becoming the first black woman to be elected New York’s attorney general. Soon, she will have the power of her office to become one of President Trump’s main legal nemeses, to go after him where it could hurt the most: in his hometown.
During the campaign, James, a Democrat, said she intends to aggressively investigate Trump’s businesses and finances. On the night of her victory, she stood in front of supporters in Brooklyn and all but declared a war against Trump: “I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn.”
Now, many eyes are on James, a former public defender who defied her father’s wishes by becoming a lawyer instead of marrying a plumber. At 60, she would be at the helm of investigations that could personally affect the president of the United States. The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. In several tweets criticizing the New York attorney general’s office, Trump said the agency will soon be headed by someone “who openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda.”
James’s bluntness about Trump is not unheard of, as Democratic and Republican state attorneys general become more partisan and use their office to file lawsuits against the other party, said Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political science professor. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R), for example, often joked that when he was attorney general, he would get up in the morning, sue President Barack Obama and go home.
Republicans probably would accuse James of operating her office based on partisan politics and not the rule of law, said Nolette, who studies how attorneys general have used and expanded their power. The reality, he said, is a combination of both: “There’s no taking the political considerations out of these lawsuits.”
James’s ascension to New York’s top legal office comes amid mounting legal threats against Trump from multiple fronts. His campaign, his company, his charity and his inaugural committee are all under investigation by federal and state officials, including James’s predecessor, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood.
James is now part of an energized group of Democratic attorneys general who have turned courtrooms across the country into battlegrounds against the president’s agenda on immigration, sanctuary cities, the environment and health care, to name a few issues. Democratic attorneys general, who will now occupy more seats than Republicans, have filed more than 60 multistate lawsuits against the Trump administration — a record number, Nolette said.
But New York, by virtue of being located in the same state as the president’s businesses and charities, is the most important, Nolette said.
The groundwork has been laid for James.
New York has more than 200 legal actions against Trump and his administration. On Tuesday, Underwood announced that Trump has agreed to shut down his embattled charity after the attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of using his foundation for his personal and political benefit. The agency is also investigating whether Trump’s business practices in New York violated the emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from taking money from a foreign state. And Underwood, who has accused Trump of abusing his pardon power, has advocated legislation that would allow New York officials to charge someone who has been pardoned by the president over a federal crime.
James, who has built a reputation for going after who she calls “the worst landlords in New York City,” said among her first priorities is investigating Trump, the landlord in chief. She said she will look into whether the Trump family violated the rights of tenants in New York to enrich themselves. The New York Times reported that the Trump family created a phony business to mark up the cost of purchases for their father’s buildings, allowing them to raise rents.
James was born and raised in Brooklyn. Her father was a maintenance man. Her mother scrubbed floors before working her way up to customer service. They wanted their daughter to marry and have children, but James wanted more.
“I was a tomboy and into sports. I was into books. I was not interested in getting married,” James said.
When she was about 10, she saw a black woman on the subway and decided she wanted to be just like her. Someday, she recalled thinking, she would also dress in a suit and pantyhose, and she would carry a briefcase. As a teenager, she spent many days in a courtroom, watching her brother go through the legal system over a false bike theft accusation, she said. None of the lawyers looked like her, but nearly all of the defendants did, so she vowed to pay her way through college and to one day walk the halls of Howard University School of Law.
James became a public defender. One of her sisters became a New York police detective. At home, the joke was that her sister would lock people up, and James would get them out.
James first entered politics in 2001, after a few years as an assistant attorney general. She ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in Brooklyn, but the man who defeated her was shot and killed by a political rival two years later. She ran for the vacant seat and won, and served on the council for nearly a decade. In 2014, she became New York’s public advocate, the city’s second-highest elected office and a watchdog of sorts for the people.
“For the consuming public, it wasn’t always clear what the public advocate could do for them, and I think Tish made it really clear what the public advocate could do for them,” said Anthony Crowell, dean of New York Law School and a counselor to Michael Bloomberg when he was the city’s mayor. “Tish did it as a platform of advocacy in sort of every sense of the word.”
James pushed the limits of her office by filing a record number of lawsuits on behalf of tenants, seniors, students with disabilities and foster children, some of which put her at odds with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat. The results were mixed. There had been victories, such as securing more heating for tenants in freezing New York apartments. But James also had been forced out of some of the high-profile cases after the court found she had no legal standing to sue — something her Republican opponent in the attorney general race, Keith Wofford, raised during a debate in October.
Wofford, a New York lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment.
James also had been accused of being overly litigious, though she said she regrets nothing.
“I don’t apologize for taking legal risks on behalf of New Yorkers and stretching the boundaries of the law to protect the rights of individuals being abused,” James said.
Friends and colleagues say she tackled issues with fervor, whether they involved keeping library services in Brooklyn, calling out officials from Bloomberg’s administration for a failed response to a snowstorm, suing a mortgage company over predatory lending to black and Latino victims, or lobbying for police body cameras.
“Her experience as a lawyer is representing individuals, and that, to me, is hugely important change,” said Daniel O’Donnell, a New York State Assembly member. “She didn’t come out representing corporate America.”
During the primary election, James emerged as the establishment candidate following an endorsement and fundraising boosts by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). Progressives critical of Cuomo raised concerns about James’s independence from the governor. George Albros, leader of the New York Progressive Action Group, which endorsed one of James’s primary opponents, did not respond to requests for comment.
Andrew G. Celli Jr., a New York City lawyer who worked with James when she was assistant attorney general, dismissed notions that she lacked independence.
“If you want to see how much of an outsider she is, look at the way she behaved as a public advocate. She was very aggressive and very much her own woman, and set up as a counterbalance to Mayor de Blasio,” Celli said. “She was the establishment candidate — doesn’t mean she’s an establishment person.”
James called Trump a “street fighter” and said she looks forward to a “very spirited relationship.”
“I look forward to the first tweet,” she said last week. “I’m going to consider that a badge of honor.”
And on Wednesday, it happened.
David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this article.