This is the first in a three-part series examining the major candidates running in New York’s Democratic primary for governor. Primary Day is June 28.
If Jumaane Williams had picked up a bit more support in his upstart Democratic run for lieutenant governor four years ago, the outspoken Brooklyn activist-turned-politician might be running the state.
Instead, he fell by less than 7 percentage points to the incumbent, Kathy Hochul, who campaigned as former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s running mate and succeeded him last summer after a hail of sexual harassment allegations drove him to resign.
Now, Williams is again taking on Hochul, this time in this summer’s Democratic primary with the keys to the Executive Mansion on the line.
His campaign has been slow to lift off the ground, and he faces a staggering financial disadvantage against Hochul, a moderate who has proved to be a potent fund raiser in her trailblazing bid to become the first woman elected New York’s governor.
Williams, the New York City public advocate, has trailed badly in limited public and internal polling in the race.
Campaigning with a shoestring budget, he has appeared hampered by family challenges: his daughter was born prematurely in the winter, and his wife, India, received a cervical cancer diagnosis last year.
But in a race that has but one leading progressive, Williams — a colorfully clothed, bike-riding, fast-talking liberal who wears a “STAY WOKE” pin on his lapel — is well situated to scoop up left-wing energy fermenting this spring.
Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island centrist, is also staging a long-shot challenge to Hochul in the primary.
“Suozzi and Hochul occupy some of the same political space,” said Steven Cohen, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “Jumaane has at least some space to operate in.”
Still, Cohen cautioned that Williams faces a steep uphill battle for votes in the New York City suburbs and upstate, where he is less well known.
Williams, who was one of Cuomo’s most vocal critics, has sharp attack lines at the ready for Hochul. He argues the new governor is too green, too beholden to her donors, too resistant to raising taxes, and too tepid in her approach to housing and crime.
She represents, in his telling, the status quo.
“We need a New Deal moment right now, and that’s not what we’re getting,” Williams, 46, said. “We’re getting a governor who says we have to return to normal, even though we know normal didn’t work. It worked for her donors, but it didn’t work for most New Yorkers.”
Presenting the core of his campaign pitch in an interview, Williams suggested he would be a “governor that would shut down the budget because we didn’t have a billion dollars for gun violence prevention and victims services.”
“Instead, you had a governor shut down the budget for a billionaire in Buffalo and for bail reform,” Williams said, referencing Hochul’s unpopular deal reserving $600 million in state funds for a new Bills stadium, and her popular push to overhaul the 2019 bail reform law.
His campaign pledges include commitments to work toward building 1 million affordable housing units across the state, to invest $1 billion in gun violence prevention and to bring universal health care to the state.
Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the New York Working Families Party, said Williams has “put forward a bold agenda that comes from listening to people for years as an organizer.”
The Working Families Party has backed Williams, but other key endorsers, including the Brooklyn Democrats, have lined up behind Hochul. Nnaemeka, a longtime Williams ally, praised him as a “remarkable communicator” who can “build across lines of difference.”
A son of immigrants from Grenada, Williams was born and raised in New York City, attending public school. He was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD, and dreamed of becoming an actor.
He studied at Brooklyn Tech and earned degrees at Brooklyn College, where he got involved in campus politics, and then became a community organizer and ran an affordable housing organization.
In 2009, Williams ran for City Council, viewing a post in local government as the extension of his housing advocacy. He beat the incumbent Councilman Kendall Stewart and represented the Flatbush area of Brooklyn for almost a decade.
He proved uniquely productive in the Council, passing dozens of bills by the time he ran for statewide office against Hochul in 2018.
Hochul, tethering her campaign to Cuomo despite private friction with the then-governor, ran attack ads highlighting Williams’ waffling positions on LGBTQ issues earlier in the decade. Williams lost by about 100,000 votes.
“I’m exceedingly proud of how we lost the lieutenant governor’s race,” Williams said, noting he would have been less proud to have run Hochul’s campaign. “That is a primary difference, I think, in how we view this.”
Williams has expressed personal opposition to same-sex marriage in the past, and he abstained from a 2014 vote on a Council bill allowing trans New Yorkers to change the sex listed on their birth certificates, later apologizing.
“I should have been louder on marriage equality, and I should have been clearer on marriage equality,” said Williams, adding that he is proud of his work with Black trans New Yorkers. “I’ve done the work to show that it’s not just a change in words, but actually a full change.”
The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a prominent progressive group launched by LGBTQ activists, endorsed Williams for lieutenant governor in 2018. The club backed Hochul in the governor’s race after a close vote among its members.
Williams has earned a reputation for the purity of his principles, but he can also seem a careful tactician.
In the interview, he gave indirect responses when questioned on whether the city’s police budget should be reduced, saying at turns that the “problem isn’t that our law enforcement budgets don’t have enough money,” and that the “law enforcement budget has only gone up.”
He said other agencies need more funding, but did not say that the police budget should contract. In last year’s mayoral race, Williams named Maya Wiley, a proponent of aggressive NYPD cuts, as his first choice.
Williams gave a secondary ranked-choice nod to Eric Adams, who captured the race after running on a pledge to reform but fully fund the Police Department. (He declined to rank Hochul and Suozzi in the governor’s race, saying, “We’re going for full Williams.”)
Even as he hammers Hochul on public safety, he has avoided criticizing the mayor, who speaks fondly of the public advocate and said in November that he planned to endorse a candidate in the governor’s race.
“I like Jumaane, and we are fortunate to have some great candidates,” Adams told reporters. When Williams privately asked him for support that month, Adams did not rule it out, saying he wanted to see how the race shaped up.
The mayor is a close ally of Hochul, and there has been little daylight between the two on crime, housing or transportation policy.
Williams may be jostling for an endorsement that observers see as unlikely to come, or he may simply be offering a courtesy to another Black official who has long advocated for working-class New Yorkers, and who remains popular in communities of color.
Asked to assess the mayor’s performance on public safety, Williams began by answering a different question.
“I would say my biggest problem is that the governor has just been absent in this space,” he began, later adding, “I have worked with the mayor on violence issues for many years. And I have expressed the concerns I have with some of the things that he’s pushed forward.”
An Adams endorsement is just one of a range of possible race-bending events that Williams can grasp for with three weeks to go.
But Williams has an enormous amount of ground to cover.
In an Emerson College poll of the race conducted in early May, Hochul picked up 45% of the vote, Suozzi scored 12% and Williams collected 7%. An internal poll from Suozzi’s campaign showed Hochul receiving 46%, Suozzi garnering 20% and Williams coming in at 12%.
At the end of May, Hochul had a $19 million war chest, according to Board of Elections records. Williams’ clocked in at a paltry $130,000.
Even many politically active New York progressives might look past the race. But Nnaemeka argued they should not.
“This is a moment,” she said, “to decide what kind of New York we’re building.”