Letitia James Takes Officeby Signe Shackelford
By the time Letitia James arrives at Mike’s Restaurant in Fort Greene, she is running an hour behind. But she doesn’t settle at her table until she’s greeted several patrons, all of whom treat her with near reverential respect. She is coming from a senior center, where “one poem became two poems became ten, and I couldn’t leave.” On November 4, James won an overwhelming 77 percent of the vote on the Working Families Party ticket to claim the 35th District’s City Council seat, representing Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
She had lost her first bid in 2001 to James E. Davis, the Democratic candidate, who took 48 percent of the vote to her 42 percent. In a surprising and tragic turn of events, Davis’s murder in City Council session this July left the seat open halfway through the term. James, who was serving as State Assemblyman Roger L. Green’s chief of staff at the time, recalls that she was reluctant to run again. “It wasn’t a decision I made. It was in response to a petition of the community that circulated, they posted flyers all over the neighborhood, they came to my house, they came to my church, they called Roger Green, they called the Working Families Party and said they wanted another option. They said they wanted Tish, that girl who ran two years ago.”
And so in September, again backed by the WFP, James officially entered the race, where her main competition was the deceased councilman’s brother, Geoffrey Davis, who ran as a Democrat. James is quick to point out the differences between the 2001 and 2003 campaigns—the former was only five weeks long. She characterizes this year’s effort as an intensive grassroots effort financed and supported by her neighbors throughout the district. And she describes her primary donors as “people from the neighborhood…residents giving five dollars here, ten dollars there.” These donations, and no doubt others, eventually added up to a formidable $150,000 fund, the maximum allowed in a City Council election.
That grassroots style of campaigning correlates directly with James’s involvement with the Working Families Party. Founded in 1998 by what she describes as “liberal progressive” members of the community, the WFP is the first party since the 1970s to succeed in backing a candidate to local election against the two major parties. According to Bill Lipton, the head of James’ campaign, the candidate held broad appeal among members of the party. Lipton estimates that the WFP is comprised of over half people of color, 60 percent union members, with a core contingency of strong liberal progressive members. He cites her appeal to “a broad cross section of working class, poor folks, and also progressive folks who earn a little more” as the reason for her success in the 35th District. James also recognizes her appeal to the diverse community and calls it a driving force behind her desire to serve a district she describes as a “tapestry”:
We’ve got a significant number of members of the labor movement, and a significant number of people who are members of the working class. Low, moderate, and middle-income families are what constitute the 35th District. We’ve got million-dollar brownstones, African Americans, Carribeans, a large Orthodox community, Hispanic community, white community, gay, straight, old, young, everybody. And we have to transcend race, class, religious differences, and focus on what brings us together is our need for good government, good schools, and goods and services so that we can maintain the quality of life. And we do it, if I must say so, rather well. I think we’re the most dynamic district in the city.
James describes her political aspirations, like her professional experience, as having roots in social justice. Growing up one of eight children, and “being a woman of color, having to overcome obstacles,” she says, means “I tend to identify with people who are on the outside, and people who need government.” In a district that she describes as “majority minority,” James, although she’s never held elected office before, seems to have the experience necessary to defend her constituents’ concerns in the city council. A self-described “social worker by nature, and an attorney by profession,” James hopes to achieve this by serving on the land use, finance, housing, and education committees in the council. Most importantly, she emphasizes, she hopes to “insure that the economic development projects address the needs of the community, including the concerns of the residents and provide a fitting compliment to the community.” As James rushes off from Mike’s Restaurant to another appointment, one gets the impression that she will run her council office much like her grassroots campaign, directly engaging with the community that called on her to serve.
Signe Shackelford is a writer based in Brooklyn.