Who is Letitia James? New York's first black AG who hopes to take down the NRA

The long-term political operative has a history of working within both the criminal justice system and Democrat establishment 

Justin Vallejo
New York
Thursday 06 August 2020 23:58 BST
Letitia James on what began her career in criminal justice system

As a public advocate, Letitia James made her name going after New York's landlords. As a candidate for attorney general, she made her campaign going after one of the city's most famous.

"This campaign was really never about me, or any of the candidates who ran," Ms James told supporters when accepting the party's nomination in 2018.

"It was about the people, but most importantly it was about that man in the White House who can't go a day without threatening our fundamental rights."

The so-called "GET TRUMP agenda" earned Ms James the ire of Donald Trump as she became the first African American woman to hold the state's top prosecutor job.

"[She] does little else but rant, rave & politic against me. Will never be treated fairly by these people," Mr Trump said in a tweet, or what Ms James has called a badge of honour, shortly after she took office.

Since then, the long-term Democrat politician has delivered on the campaign promise to investigate the president, launching an investigation into the Trump Organisation in 2019.

On Wednesday, she filed a lawsuit that would disband the National Rifle Association after an 18-month investigation she says found widespread fraud and wrongdoing.

But while the 61-year-old today sits near the top of the criminal justice system in New York, her road there began near the bottom as a 14-year-old in Brooklyn. Ms James, who grew up as one of eight children, often tells the story of how she spent her days in criminal court after her brother was falsely accused of stealing a bike.

"I was a young girl in criminal court, and everyone in the courtroom, except the defendants, did not look like me and I can always remember a court officer who told my mother to sit down and to shut up simply for asking the question, where is my son," she told WBLS in February.

"And I vowed at that point in time, to never allow any mother or grandmother to be disrespected in a courtroom and that the scene that I saw, that the faces that I saw, would obviously reflect more the city that I love and the state that I now represent."

That motivation, she says, began her career in criminal justice.

She put herself through Lehman College and Howard University School of Law and worked as a public defender before joining the administration of former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who before becoming New York Governor was known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" for his focus on financial crime and corruption.

As Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Brooklyn Regional Office, she assisted the Civil Rights Bureau in their investigation of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy.

After entering politics and sitting on City Council as member for the 35th Council District in Brooklyn for almost 10 years, her path to higher office was cemented when she defeated former state Senator Daniel Squadron to become the Democratic nominee for public advocate of the New York.

The post is considered a political springboard, her predecessor in the role was current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Ms James used the position to sue his administration about a dozen times.

In her campaign for Attorney General, allies used that public advocate record as evidence that she was an "outsider". It was in response to party-wide enthusiasm for anti-establishment change following the ascendance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Andrew G Celli Jr, who worked with Ms James when she was Assistant Attorney General, told The Washington Post that she was "very aggressive and very much her own woman".

"She was the establishment candidate -- doesn't mean she's an establishment person," he said.

But after a long political career "clawing" her way to a seat at the table, Ms James didn't shy away from using her political capital to become the state's top prosecutor.

"In May, I was the progressive darling, and now I am the Establishment," she said in a 2018 profile in New York Magazine.

Ms James continued that there were a lot of individuals who want to tear down the system, "but I fought and clawed and scratched my way to the table, and now all of a sudden people want to question my independence".

That aggression and independence, formed within the justice system and supported by the Democrat establishment, now has the National Rifle Association in its sights.

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