OPINION: AG James proved herself a champion of women, and at the same time, a slayer of male political giants who do wrong.
Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that he will resign as the 56th governor of New York in two weeks. Cuomo’s stunning political downfall came at the hands of a Black woman State Attorney General named Leticia James, who has been fearless in her pursuit of justice no matter who and how powerful her adversaries may be.
Donald Trump is another name that comes to mind; like Cuomo, he too, was once a powerful New Yorker, who was legendary for being a bully and womanizer. And James has been relentless and focused in her leadership on making sure that Trump is brought to justice on a variety of state matters related to his business practices as well as his personal taxes.
Although the news media has rightly focused on the accusers of Gov. Cuomo and years of alleged behavior from his office of bullying, threats and intimidation of political enemies and friends alike. The big story is that James, a Black woman, effectively brought down a man who is a son of political privilege and power, and is the eldest son of the beloved 52nd governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, one of the longest-serving governors in the 1980s through early 1990s.
Most people would not take on a Kennedy, a Bush, or a Cuomo. All political dynasties led by powerful and wealthy (white) men — but James did not flinch.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes questions from reporters during a recent press conference at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Letitia “Tish” James, who formerly served as New York City’s public advocate and a city council member, knew that taking on Cuomo in New York could be a career-limiting move, but she forged ahead with the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him anyway. James assembled a top-notch team, and she let them do the investigation (over 170 people were interviewed), and she let the chips fall where they fell.
Cuomo’s takedown took just two weeks. A quick end to a meteoric career rise from a revered political family. Cuomo even married Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s 7th child, and they have three children (daughters) together. Cuomo emerged on the political stage from the 2020 pandemic as a superstar governor for his daily briefings on the pandemic, and then came under scandal due to allegations about the poor handling of nursing homes and the reporting of deaths of residents.
James’ decision to move forward on Cuomo says a lot about where we are as women and as women of color in American politics. Twenty years ago, there were very few women state attorneys and attorneys general. And for Black women, there was only one before James, Kamala Harris, who is now the nation’s vice president.
The political risks for a woman who may want to run for higher office are enormous if she does not play ball with the men around her. What makes AG James so powerful is that she simply doesn’t care about those risks and she has been unequivocal in her support of issues that impact communities of color, as well as women.
State Attorney General Letitia James (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
How this all ends for James is interesting to opine. She is now likely a serious contender for New York governor in 2022, where she will run in a crowded Democratic field led by the new governor in waiting Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul. But make no mistake, her bold action on behalf of women in New York State is going to buy her a lot of political currency in a primary run.
The bigger issue for me, however, and for us as women of color, is if what happened in New York State will make a difference for all women, not just white women. All of Governor Cuomo’s accusers were white and female. When we look at the national headlines, against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and others, the vast majority of the alleged victims are white women.
Does that mean we as Black women are not subject to sexual harassment? Of course not. What it means is that we as women of color are still not heard when these things happen and we are still not seen.
Clinician Apryl Alexander in a recent article for The Colorado Sun, titled, “Why too few Black women and girls report sexual violence,” writes:
“Approximately one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before age 18 and one in five Black women are survivors of rape. For every Black woman who reports a rape, at least 15 Black women do not report to police; though two-thirds report to informal systems, such as family and friends. For Black women, there are a number of reasons they do not report — fear of retaliation from the person who harmed and their community, shame, loyalty to their race in cases of intraracial sexual violence, and due to other experiences of oppression in their lives. Coming forward could mean insults, name-calling, and threats to physical safety. Even when Black women do report, trials take years (disrupting their lives) and do not guarantee convictions.”
Ms. Alexander’s point is well taken. We often do not have the protections that white women do. The media covers us differently. Just look at the allegations against R. Kelly and how the women and girls he allegedly violated and assaulted were not believed. Or they were blamed. Or their families were blamed for selling their daughters for money. It’s the same with other prominent Black men like Bill Cosby or Russell Simmons.
A woman holds a sign as she participates in a rally calling to protect black women October 16, 2020 near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Black women are conditioned not to speak out against Black men lest they put them into the hands of the criminal justice system. When we are harassed by powerful white men at work it is even more complicated. Consider actress Lupito Nyong’o’s accusations against Weinstein, which he denied most vigorously as if he could not possibly find her attractive.
This feeds into the oldest of myths and stereotypes about Black women and our sexual desirability by white men of power.
Bottom line: Leticia James is changing all of that. Just like Rep. Cori Bush in the U.S. Congress, when Black women lead through the experience of their life lens, policy changes happen and new doors of opportunity are opened. AG James has proven herself to be a champion of women, and at the same time, a slayer of male political giants who do wrong.
That is a powerful one-two punch as James leans further into her first term and seeks to grow her political fortunes down the road.
Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”
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