Jacob Kornbluh, national politics reporter for Jewish Insider, interviewed New York City Public Advocate Tish James who is running for New York Attorney General.
Q: If you had just one opportunity to pitch your candidacy to undecided voters, what would it be?
James: “I have a history of fighting. I have a history of standing up for communities. I’ve represented Crown Heights for 10 years. I fought for kosher food, universal food. I fought for childcare vouchers. I’ve stood up with my former residents in Crown Heights and in Borough Park and in Williamsburg against any acts of hate. And so what we need now more than ever is someone who understands the needs of New York City, and someone with a proven record of accomplishments.”
Q: How do you see your role as AG, in particular, fighting for the issues that you have fought for as a City Councilmember and as Public Advocate in a statewide position?
James: “The office of Attorney General obviously represents state agencies. You are the people’s lawyer. You also have an enforcement role, an advocacy role, and a role with respect to affirmative litigation. And so all of these areas again reflect the work that I’ve done in the office of Public Advocate — handling over 32,000 constituent complaints, using the law to protect vulnerable populations, advocating on behalf of communities, and in my days as the City Council member, working together to build bridges and not walls, and working together to address the needs of all communities, and standing up against hate and letting people know that we will not be divided.”
Q: In 2014, you created this Hate Crime Task Force. Have they issued any recommendations?
James: “We did have a Hate Task Force, and primarily it was strengthening the laws, not only in the state but in the city of New York with respect to how we deal with hate crimes. It was also sensitizing members of law enforcement, and about developing collaborations with other communities and particularly going to schools and educating individuals in respecting the differences of others. It was really critically important. And at a time when we are seeing discrimination, at a time when we’re seeing increased numbers of hate, it’s really critically important that we enforce the laws. It’s important that we use the law both as a shield and as a sword in areas where individuals seek to divide us and seek to discriminate against people simply because of their religion.”
Q: How would you tackle the rise in anti-Semitic incidents?
James: “We look forward to working with the district attorneys in all 62 counties. We also look forward to working with the Civil Rights Bureau of the Attorney General’s office, to basically send a message to New Yorkers that there will be a zero tolerance policy for hate and discrimination against any group. And that the office of Attorney General, who understands hate, who has felt the sting of racism, that it will not be tolerated, and that we will enforce the law to the fullest extent.”
Q: Across the state, in several townships and villages, there’s been a lot of complaints about religious discrimination, if it’s the Eruv or in school districts where Jews were being singled out and discriminated against. How would you address this?
James: “I think clearly, with respect to discriminating against individuals on Shabbat, and ignoring the religious tenets of someone’s religion obviously will not be tolerated and the law will protect that individual. Passing regulations and laws that discriminate against one particular group, we will challenge those laws. And whenever there are acts of hate, we will stand together with the Jewish community and we will urge law enforcement all across the State of New York to investigate and to seek out the perpetrators. Again, in the State of New York, under the leadership of Letisha James as AG, we will have a zero tolerance policy for hate and discrimination.”
Q: You have been an outspoken supporter and defender of Israel. You’ve also visited the Jewish state. Can you talk a bit about your personal experience visiting Israel, and how do you see using that experience when in this position as AG.
James: “I am a proud supporter of Israel, I have always been a proud supporter of Israel, even on the NYCERS (New York City Employees Retirement System) Board, the pension board where we have invested in Israeli bonds. I have visited Israel. And it’s really critically important that we support the only democracy in the Middle East, and that we stand behind Israel each and every time. I think it’s important that we talk about peace, and that we talk about understanding, and of course, every year I look forward to marching in the [Celebrate Israel] parade, demonstrating my support and solidarity.”
Q: Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that prohibits state companies to engage with those who support the BDS movement. How would you enforce that law?
James: “I think, if I’m not mistaken, that his executive order speaks to individuals who do business with the State of New York. The state will not do business with any company that supports the BDS movement. And I support him in that regard as well. We will be studying his executive order, and looking at its ramifications and its enforcement.”
Q: Talk a little about your past, your relationship with the Jewish community.
James: “I represented the Crown Heights community for 10 years. I’m an honorary Lubavitch. I’m very close to the Crown Heights Jewish community Council — I consider them family.
I was involved and helped in the City Council to get funding for the Jewish Children’s Museum, and am very close to Devorah Halberstam, as well as a number of rabbis, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Chanina Sperlin and others. I also have been working very closely in Williamsburg. Rabbi [Moshe David] Niederman and I date back at least 10, 15 years and in fact, I look forward to helping Rabbi Niederman every year during Passover, as I go to the Navy Yard and help distribute food.
I’m also very close with the JCRC of New York and have spoken on many occasions at JCRC and believe in all that they do in helping individuals, Holocaust survivors and assisting senior citizens, who unfortunately are struggling with poverty. I’ve also worked very closely with Assemblymember Dov Hikind, Senator Simcha Felder, former Councilman David Greenfield, and others, and I’m very close to Rabbi Moshe Wiener in Coney Island. And so Brooklyn has supported me all throughout the years, and most recently I’ve extended my reach to other parts of the City of New York. So I consider myself a very close friend of the Jewish community and will continue to maintain close relationships with the Jewish community.”
Q: You have stated that one of your roles as AG would be to fight President Trump and investigate his finances. Do you think it’s appropriate for a member of the opposite party to go after a political opponent?
James: “No, by no means. I think what’s important is that individuals, including the President of the United States, obey the law, and respect the rights of all Americans and all New Yorkers, and that individuals not be afraid of government. And that’s what’s important here, that we respect the rights of immigrants, that we respect the rights of people of color, that we respect the rights of the Jewish community, that we respect all rights. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who are afraid of this president and his policies. And it’s important that the Attorney General enforce the law and protect individuals from harm.”