This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.
Jumaane Williams, a New York City organizer-turned-city-councilman, often resists the label of “politician.” Instead, he likes to call himself an “activist-elected official.”
Those aren’t empty words. In January, Williams was thrown onto the hood of a car by the NYPD and arrested alongside fellow city councilman Ydanis Rodríguez while protesting the deportation of Ravi Ragbir, an immigrants’ rights leader who was targeted for deportation by ICE. Now, he’s running for the lieutenant governor’s seat to try to capture an even bigger platform.
While Cynthia Nixon has made waves since she announced her primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo in March, she’s far from the only person trying to shake up the current administration. Lieutenant governor is often seen as a ceremonial position, but Williams wants to change that. Williams’ bid to unseat Cuomo’s running mate, and current Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, could potentially put Cuomo in an uncomfortable and rare position if he wins: governing alongside an outspoken activist who has often been at odds with his agenda. It’s also starting to look like a not-so-unlikely reality—one early poll has Williams in a near tie with Hochul, while Nixon still trails Cuomo.
I spoke with Williams about Cuomo’s administration, his own style of governance, how he hopes to change the role of lieutenant governor, and, of course, where in New York he thinks the amorphous “upstate” region starts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You describe yourself as an “activist-elected official.” Can you talk about how you would bring that spirit to the office of lieutenant governor if you’re elected?
One of the negatives that people used to point out was that “You’re too much of an activist.” I would say “Thank you very much, I’m very glad that you noticed that!” Now people see that this is the type of energy that’s needed, but before it used to be a difficult thing and I wanted to be able to show that you can be a productive activist-elected official as well. We were very successful in doing that.
It’s usually the activists and the community organizers who move the ball forward and force elected officials to do what’s necessary and what’s equitable. And that’s the energy I want to bring into this position as lieutenant governor—it’s a position that many people don’t think about that has a lot of power just because of where it is. The type of activist energy that I bring to the table will really help move this whole state forward.
Most people do see it as more of a ceremonial position. What are some specific things you want to accomplish that Kathy Hochul has not?
In many states, lieutenant governor is an elected official with a very specific role. In New York it’s been fashioned into a rubber stamp position, cutting ribbons for a particular governor. Ribbon cuttings are fun so I don’t want to take them away, but I do want to also add substantive parts to the job. Many people think that the governor picks lieutenant governor, they don’t realize that it’s something you can run for in the primary. I’ve been pushing that I don’t want to be any one governor’s lieutenant governor, I want to be the people’s lieutenant governor.
It would be great if the lieutenant governor sat on different regional boards. Most importantly, I want to make sure that I use the bully pulpit to point out issues that are wrong or not working properly. We just saw what happened during the Joe Percoco trials—now what if there was a lieutenant governor for the past eight years that didn’t let that issue fall? When I travel across the state, the issues of housing and homelessness are tremendous. What if there was a lieutenant governor that’s pointing that out and pointing out very palpably the type of money that the gubernatorial mansion and Republicans receive? Developers and big landlords are very much connected to the homelessness and the housing crisis that is happening here.
New York City has a position called the public advocate. Their role is just to do just that, and I believe that this lieutenant governor’s position can be the people’s advocate across the state.
Some of the issues you’ve drawn attention to are weaker policy areas for Cuomo. Assuming he’s re-elected, is there anything else that you would really want to push him on? Are there areas where you would work with him?
I’ve often said that I believe the current governor has earned himself a primary. I’m very happy that’s happened because we have a choice now. I don’t expect that I’ll be casting my vote for this current governor. If it does so happen that it is this governor, I’m not oppositional for opposition’s sake. So if we’re working on something, the purpose is to get things done, not to be oppositional. To the extent that that’s not happening, or that we’re hearing lip service, like in the case of housing, which is probably one of the areas that he’s most palpably failed on, or transportation, or criminal justice reform—when those things are occurring, someone has to be there to say the emperor has no clothes. Someone has to be there to present the alternative, to point out that there’s really alternative facts being said and it’s not backed up by real policy or real change.
Before your time on the City Council you worked as an activist on housing rights, which is one of Cuomo’s core issues. But as you’ve said, he’s very good at making big housing proclamations yet doesn’t follow through.
I think you’ve just described Governor Andrew Cuomo on a whole host of issues. Tremendous proclamations, not a lot of follow up. I also believe that he puts on a progressive cloak whenever he thinks it’s politically viable to do so and then he takes it off when it’s no longer needed. That’s not the type of leadership that’s needed in 2018. It’s important that real progressives—not people who check the political winds to see which way they’re blowing, but the people who actually created the political winds—those are the folks that need to take up the mantle to help move us forward. Because it’s easy to make a proclamation, but it’s hard to get the work done. We see this over and over again and the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
How do you feel about Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo? Are you planning on teaming up with her?
I’m excited that the governor is getting a primary challenge he deserves. I know there are some other folks who are talking about also jumping into the race. I’m excited because we both have similar messages that travel well together. But right now I’m focused on my campaign and my assumption is that she’s focused on her campaign. Everyone is just trying to get their footing together, so some of that conversation is going to happen further down the line.
What do you think about the recent IDC reunification? Do you still think those members need to be voted out?
The IDC, instead of helping strengthen the Democratic voice to get some of these things passed, caucuses with Republicans. When I heard about the reunification, you know the song that goes, “We heard it all before?” That’s really what came to my mind because the same thing happened in 2014 and it didn’t work out.
I get the impression that they weren’t concerned about how many Democratic votes were in this Senate, but are most concerned about how many people will vote for them in September. And again, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The governor spent seven or eight years saying there’s nothing he can do about reunification. Then, in the middle of the night, he waves of magic wand, and poof, there we go. It just so happened that he waved his magic wand after some $150 billion dollars was passed [in the state budget] and after he’s left Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black woman, out of critical discussions. Again, we see this over and over, we should not be surprised. That’s one of the reasons I felt that my voice would be important in the lieutenant governor’s position.
You spoke about how when you first started working as an “activist-elected official,” people were questioning your tactics. Do you feel like people are seeing the value of working at that intersection more since Trump’s election?
I sometimes joke, I feel like people stole my rhyme book because all the things that many of us were saying have been adopted by people who were not as supportive beforehand. And that’s a good thing. It’s also frustrating because if we were doing this before, we might not be in the orange madness that we have now. So my hope is that the lesson will be, let’s do this before it’s too late. Let’s keep pushing forward not only when it’s politically popular, but all the time, because we are actually morally correct and the other side is factually wrong. We have those things on our side but for whatever reason, we’re sometimes too afraid to just grab and push forth.
I was a Bernie delegate. It was very hard to be a Bernie delegate in New York City and now I see everybody taking pictures with Bernie Sanders, and it’s like whoa, where was everybody when it actually mattered? On the right, people unfortunately believed in the message of bigotry and hatred. We had a person that was tapping the opposite of that and it was difficult to get that message across.
I always say, we’re focused on the orange man in the White House and the Republicans who are supporting him. But we have to be honest with ourselves, there’s a lot of people who laid a fertile groundwork for him to come to power and they were not all Republicans. In our nation, there are Democratic people who sit as governors, mayors, city council members, that, for decades, have allowed certain things to fester. We need to make sure everyone is being held accountable.
One example of your blend of activism and politics that stands out is when immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir was detained by ICE, you were arrested after trying to block the police from taking him away. In what ways do you think the NYPD is complicit in facilitating these actions?
That was a great example of why we need activist elected officials. If myself, Ydanis [Rodríguez], and a number of other people weren’t there, Ravi wouldn’t be here. There were a lot of people asking why we were there, saying that we shouldn’t be doing this. And some of those same folks have been the people asking for Ravi to stay. So that’s the type of energy that we need especially for the time frame that we’re in.
To your question, I am happy that we do consider ourselves a sanctuary city. Comparatively speaking, we absolutely are, and I’m proud of what we’re trying to do here with the NYPD and this administration. But there are a lot of gaps that need to be closed.
I didn’t take the plea deal that they offered, I’m taking my case to court. The argument was that they were enforcing local law. The question is, what happens when local law has the effect of assisting ICE? That concerns me because by enforcing local law you are assisting in Ravi Ragbir’s deportation. Maybe not intentionally, but it was happening. I hope that the type of energy that was used to prevent Ravi’s deportations is used in every immoral deportation that occurs. So there are of questions that need to be answered, including what will be the role of the NYPD during that type of civil disobedience.
Most of your time in politics has been in New York City, but it’s obviously much more conservative upstate. What are your plans for making inroads outside of the city?
I got to tell you, again, I’ve just been shocked every time we got outside of New York City, how many of the issues are the same. The differences are usually the structure of the local government, and how many people—liberal, conservative, Democrats, Republicans—point to the gubernatorial mansion for the lack of leadership. With that said, we’ve picked up a whole slew of endorsements across the state, more than I thought we’d have at this point.
I was reading one of Cynthia Nixon’s interviews recently and she stepped into a New York minefield when she was asked where “upstate” starts and answered that it was around Ithaca. Where do you think the region starts?
[Laughs] I got to tell you, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. For us, the Bronx is upstate.