Gotham Gazette

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Letitia James Seeks Second Term Against Challenger Michael Henry in New York Attorney General Race

Letitia James and Michael Henry

Since Attorney General Letitia James dropped her short run for Governor and announced her bid for a second term as New York State’s top legal official, she has spent limited time on the campaign trail. James, a Democrat whose work as attorney general has elevated her to national prominence, has had commanding polling and fundraising leads over her little-known opponent and, in a break from her fellow statewide incumbents, has declined to even debate him.

Her Republican challenger, commercial litigator Michael Henry from Queens, is running as a political outsider on a platform based on fighting street crime, corruption in Albany, and the rising cost of living.

James is seeking four more years based on what she sees as a series of accomplishments including defending the state's gun laws, abortion access, and environmental protections, as well as taking on former President Donald Trump and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

After more than two years of pandemic life and crime increases, typically-secure Democrats, including Governor Kathy Hochul and a host of congressional candidates, are feeling heat from their Republican opponents. While polling in the attorney general race has been limited, there is some indication that it has narrowed as well. The race has proceeded with relatively little public attention for a statewide office even for a contest with an incumbent running.

James has led in fundraising and polling throughout the election cycle against Henry, an unknown name in New York politics who is riding a wave of public dissatisfaction that has made Democrats uneasy. Hochul, James, and other Democratic incumbents have been seeking to shape the narrative around reproductive rights and the health of democracy while responding to anxiety around guns and violence.

The Attorney General is tasked with leading the state Department of Law and the hundreds of lawyers it employs to advise government decisions, defend the state in legal proceedings, and uphold the rights of New Yorkers. The role as the state's attorney involves the day to day protection of individuals as wage-earners, consumers, investors, and philanthropists, and litigation on issues relating to civil rights, public health, and the environment.

James became the first woman to be elected New York Attorney General and first woman of color elected statewide in New York when she won an open race in 2018. She won that election after a term as New York City Public Advocate, when she was the first woman of color to win citywide, and a decade representing part of Brooklyn in the City Council. Running on the Democratic and Working Families lines, James is backed by some of the state's biggest labor unions, civic organizations, and a host of moderate and progressive Democratic elected officials.

Henry owns a New York City-based law firm that deals in creditor bankruptcy and federal Perishable Agricultural Culture Commodities Act claims. He has garnered relatively little institutional support outside of securing the Republican and Conservative Party ballot lines, and endorsements from many Republican officials and law enforcement unions.

As Attorney General, James has used the office to investigate and sue former President Donald Trump, the NRA, and pharmaceutical companies fueling the opioid epidemic, among others. A report her office released last year found then-Governor Andrew Cuomo had serially sexually harassed members of his staff and others and helped lead to his resignation shortly after.

On the campaign trail, James has touted her work to curtail gun proliferation, lawsuits attempting to dissolve the NRA and hold gun companies liable for shootings. She recently sued Trump, his businesses, and members of his family for alleged fraud. While Trump was president, James initiated cases to block a number of his administration’s policies, including attempts to roll back environmental protections, abortion coverage, public benefits for immigrants, and many others. And James sued the NYPD after widespread brutality during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.

As the state's attorney, James is also working with Hochul to defend new restrictions on concealed gun carry, recent absentee ballot expansions, and other policies.

Many of these cases will become the responsibility of the winner of this year’s election.

"I've spent my career fighting to make life better for New Yorkers," James said in a campaign ad released last week, "whether it's taking down violent gun and drug rings to keep our streets safe, protecting the rights of women, putting money back into our communities, ravaged by opioids, or standing up to corrupt politicians."

Her opponent has criticized her for backing changes to the state's bail law in 2019, which he blames for an increase in crime in recent years. That refrain is common among Republicans and moderate Democrats, including GOP gubernatorial nominee U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin and Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams, though there is no evidence linking bail reforms with increases in violent crime.

"You got what you wanted, it failed," Henry said of James' support for 2019 bail changes in an interview Monday on Fox 5 New York.

He also chastised James for not cracking down on pay-to-play politics, particularly involving Governor Kathy Hochul, who has raked in millions of dollars in campaign donations from entities with state business.

"Public corruption needs to be treated like the crime that it is," he said.

James' advantage as an incumbent with name-recognition is heightened in the deep-blue state, where Democrats hold all statewide offices and supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Those dynamics, along with Democrats' significant voter-enrollment advantage, have only strengthened since 2002, the last time a Republican was elected to statewide office.

Through early October, James has raised roughly $10 million and spent $7 million, according to the latest filings, significantly more than the $400,000 Henry raised and $257,000 he's spent.

But recent polling has shown the gulf between Democrats and Republicans narrowing ahead of this election, and Henry, by some accounts, appears to be in the vicinity of striking distance.

A Siena College poll of likely voters in October showed James' lead narrow to 11 points, down from 16 in a September poll.

While Henry himself is not a known quantity, the topics he is campaigning on – crime and rising costs – are among the issues voters are most concerned with, according to recent polls. Meanwhile, both Trump and Cuomo have repeatedly criticized James, attacks that could impact her standing among some voters, even if she retains a strong Democratic base.

"I've been focused on my message discipline, I focus on the issues that are important to the people," he said on Fox. "In addition to crime, corruption and cost of living, in our ethnic communities education is a big issue. So I focus on what transcends party affiliation."

As he’s assailed James and her fellow Democrats, Henry has offered little in the way of policy specifics or ideas for how he would run the Attorney General’s Office differently.

Henry said he would use the office's bully pulpit to advocate the repeal of the 2019 bail reforms and the Less is More Act, a parole reform that limits incarceration for technical violations. He also said he'd introduce program bills in the State Legislature and ally with district attorneys and federal task forces to crack down on crime, without offering details.

The issues discussed on his campaign website are crime, corruption, and the deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19.

The site lists few details on how he would use the powers of the Attorney General's Office to address his priority issues. His campaign would not provide further details on his crime, government ethics, or economic agenda, nor share information on his positions in any other areas.

"Of course, he has positions," wrote Candice Giove, Henry's campaign spokesperson, in an email response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry.

When asked to elaborate, Giove reiterated one of Henry's other grievances with James: her refusal, so far, to agree to a debate.

"Letitia James doesn't want New Yorkers to see the clear contrast between Michael Henry's vision to focus on New York's crime, corruption and cost-of-living crises and hers, which has been to focus on her own political future," Giove wrote.

Indeed, James is the only statewide official running for reelection this year who has not agreed to a general election debate with their opponent. She has made few media appearances, and declined an interview invitation from Gotham Gazette (Henry's campaign expressed interest in an interview but has yet to schedule one).

Like Hochul and other Democrats, James has appeared to respond to polling with overtures to voters concerned about crime. On Monday, she and Hochul appeared side by side to announce an increase in the use of the state's Red Flag Laws, which had passed under Cuomo but were criticized for being underutilized and strengthened by Hochul and the Legislature this year. The announcement came with a $4.6 million increase in the Attorney General's budget to support state police seeking extreme risk protection orders.

Last week, James indicated bail reform was among a range of issues that should be examined in the next legislative session to address public safety concerns. Standing next to Hochul on Monday, James reiterated that she believes it is appropriate to examine bail reform and all other pieces of the criminal justice system as needed, but clarified her position.

"To be fixated on bail reform without regards to looking at data, I think, is a misstep," she said.

Early voting is from Saturday October 29 to Sunday, November 6. Election Day is November 8.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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