Tish James comes in with a bang

Tish James. (NYC Mayor's Office)
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Letitia James may have problems as head of the city's underfunded, largely powerless public advocate's office. But if her first day in office is any indication, attracting attention won't be one of them. 

She helped set the tone of Bill de Blasio's inauguration, delivering a fiery indictment of the Bloomberg era that the new mayor seemed compelled to try to temper somewhat in his own speech. Then she wasted no time in initiating a new controversy, and in raising new questions about her credibility, by falsely claiming credit for a New York Times series on homelessness that formed a basis for her inaugural speech and for a public appearance that followed the ceremony. 

At an inauguration party after the speech at City Hall, James promised to keep watch over the new mayor and the new comptroller, with the help of her new "B.F.F." Dasani Coates, the 12-year-old homeless girl who was the centerpiece of the Times series.

“From time to time we’re going to visit Bill de Blasio and make sure he stays on track," James told a crowd of supporters at a reception on the 10th floor of 7 World Trade, as she held Dasani's hand on stage.

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Dasani declined an offer to speak, but James said they’d also visit the city’s new comptroller Scott Stringer “to make sure you get some money, all right?”

The public advocate's race was barely noticed during campaign season, overshadowed by the crowded race to succeed Michael Bloomberg, but James' rhetoric was in some ways predictive of the winning formula that de Blasio would end up hitting on. 

Nearly a year before de Blasio’s campaign released a campaign ad featuring the candidate’s afro-wearing teenage son talking about stop-and-frisk, at an event in Harlem in March 2012, James rallied support on the issue.

"Eighty-eight percent of the people that have been stopped and frisked are in school, in church, they work, they're professionals,” she said.

The Bloomberg administration “would criminalize our brothers and our sisters and our children."

She went on to say, “my cousin, my brother, my neighbor, they have all been stopped and frisked and they have done absolutely nothing.”

James, who has never been a particularly adept fund-raiser, was heavily reliant on her message to propel her campaign. (In the spring of last year, her campaign fell so short of funds that she reportedly stopped paying staffers and consultants, amid rumors that she would drop out of the race, which pit her against better-funded Democrats in State Senator Daniel Squadron and former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani.)

At a roundtable discussion with reporters after the election, James’ consultants said they stuck to a simple formula.

“We spoke to the base of the Democratic primary and we spoke to the base in that Democratic primary who we believe our message would resonate," said her consultant Luis Miranda. “So that certainly we would talk to African-Americans and certainly we would talk to Latinos, certainly we would talk to black and brown. But our message was strong with white liberals throughout the city of New York.”

"The message has been consistent throughout my public career," James told Capital at the time, adding, "I wasn't appealing to any particular constituency group. I was appealing to New Yorkers, obviously, who want to get past 12 years of the Bloomberg era.”

That message dovetailed nicely with de Blasio's change campaign.

But after her election in November, James made it clear that she was as intent on being a watchdog as a partner in government to the new mayor.

“I refuse to go along to get along," she told supporters at a victory party near the Gowanus Expressway on Election Night. "I will raise my voice loudly … and I will be the fierce champion of working-class New Yorkers.”

"We made a lot of promises during the campaign," James told Capital after her speech that night. "It's really critically important that we honor those commitments. And that's why as the public advocate, I'm going to keep my eye on Bill de Blasio. ... Although he is my friend, it is important that he honor his commitment to address income inequality to the city of New York.”

Later, when I asked James about how she would work with de Blasio, she said, "He and I fundamentally agree on moving the city past 12 years of the Bloomberg administration. Once you get past that broad agenda, the question is, when we get into the weeds and whether or not there'll be an agreement.”

She said the goal is to "keep an eye" on the next mayor, and "[make] sure he honors his commitment to move the city past the Bloomberg era.”

On Wednesday at the City Hall ceremony, it was James who stuck most closely to that campaign script, saying New Yorkers "live in a gilded age of inequality," and disparaging Bloomberg's record, as the outgoing mayor sat stone-faced nearby.

Her dramatic delivery made the speech more memorable than most of the others, but her stagecraft with Dasani also came at a price. An editorial in the New York Times said she had "made a prop of a 12-year-old girl."

And James' subsequent claim that she helped advance the Times story that brought Dasani to national attention was summarily debunked by the paper, who said she hadn't even served as a source. (James responded by saying she hadn't meant to imply she was directly involved, shortly after her own spokesman admitted the claim that she helped put the story on the front page was "hyperbole.")

Her boast about the Dasani story only furthered some lingering questions about James' veracity. The week before she had told Capital that she was present at a Brooklyn meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. After other sources suggested she was not present, James conceded she did not attend the meeting.

During the campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported that James had lied about her age for the entirety of her career in public service, telling the paper as recently as July that she was 50 years old, when, in fact, she was then 54. "She hasn't given me her real age. I've asked," her spokesman told the paper.

She later conceded she was 54.