There came a point in the long dark year of 2020 when it appeared that American democracy might crumble. The politicians sworn to protect and represent turned their backs and lined their coffers as a deadly virus ravaged the country. Congress bickered, the president lied, the death toll rose. The election, it seemed, might be rigged. Even the protesters who streamed into the streets over the summer had little power to manifest the change they so urgently demanded. The righteous would die and the wicked would profit. Help was not coming. No one would appear to save us.
Yet in August, Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, called a press conference to announce a bold lawsuit, one of a fleet of investigations into corporate and political corruption rolled out by her office over the summer. Cleverly exerting power using the state’s nonprofit bylaws, James would take on the National Rifle Association, aiming to respond to corruption in the powerful gun lobbying group with something more than a reprimand. The organization, she proclaimed, must be dissolved “in its entirety.”
In a steely, matter-of-fact tone, James listed the misdeeds of NRA executives: the private jets that shuttled to and from the Bahamas, the fancy meals, the millions in padded salaries—actions that James, in a carefully chosen phrase, referred to as “looting.” When she opened up the floor to questions, a reporter challenged the very premise of her action: Why target the organization, alongside the erring executives and leadership? It was a particularly aggressive move, the question seemed to imply, for an official not even halfway through her first term in office.
James appeared nonplussed. “We follow the facts and the law,” she said.
It’s an understated statement that might also serve as an apt descriptor of James’s political philosophy. A Brooklyn native, James has spent her career as a public servant within the institutions of her home town, working as a public defender before earning a City Council seat, eventually serving as the city’s Public Advocate. Working inside systems requires both toughness and optimism, and James’s trajectory is underlined by a belief that the courts coupled with a steady hand can be a tool for justice. In a moment where it might seem that real transformation is limited to the fiery domain of activists and organizers, forcing the hand of those in power, James’s existence offers an important alternative. Progress, too, can come from within.
Throughout the terrible year, James has been a constant presence as she’s used the power of her office to push for progress in all directions. She challenged and successfully blocked the longstanding ICE practice of arresting undocumented immigrants near state courthouses, and pushed to remove a question assessing citizenship from the census. She’s lead a lawsuit challenging Facebook’s anticompetitive practices and taken on the Sackler family’s profiteering from the opioid sales. On President Trump, her office has been particularly tenacious, following an investigation into the Trump Foundation, which resulted in Trump paying $2 million in court-ordered damages and dissolving the organization, with a large civil investigation into violations at the Trump Organization.
As Trump has manipulated and maneuvered, James, in turn, has blocked each of his volleys, most recently supporting a shift in the state’s double jeopardy law to ensure that the president cannot pardon himself while in office. “The Trump Administration, as you know, is handing out pardons like it’s candy, but that does not absolve him of liability in the state of New York,” she said.
James is the first woman and first Black person to be elected as New York attorney general. “It sounds good, but it’s nothing more than a historical footnote,” she said. With her workday starting as early as 5:30 in the morning and ends “after the Last Word on MSNBC,” James has spent the last months in constant negotiations to maintain some form of boundaries. “During these last 10 months I’ve attended more funerals than I want to remember,” she said. “Mostly virtual funerals and it’s been a struggle.”
For James, it’s been impossible to separate her own lived experience and the struggles of her community with her ongoing policy work. “When I walk in my neighborhood and I hear my neighbors who are facing eviction seek me out asking for help, and when I see more and more children on the streets during school hours who can’t access their schoolwork because they don’t have access to the internet: That not only galls my soul, but it puts fire in my belly.”
It is almost ironic that it is James’s identity as both outsider and insider—an “alien voice at the table of government,” in her own words—that has presented her as a champion for the Trump era. “The president represents an existential threat to everything I believe in,” James said. “So for me, this is personal. His administration has been an affront to the rule of law. And all that I did is all that I know and that’s to stand up and fight back. When I took this position a lot of people didn’t believe I was qualified for it. And I think, given these last two years, it’s demonstrated that what New York needed was a scrappy attorney general who was not afraid of bullies and not afraid to stand up in the face of power.”
And in the last months of 2020, James did just that: stating her intention to sue if the vaccine isn’t distributed properly in New York and leading an amicus challenging the legality of two anti-abortion bills in Tennessee. It is the content of the actions, along with a broader implication: Someone is watching, ready to hold power to account.