Can Tish James Get Real Estate’s Backing in the Governor’s Race?

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Attorney General Letitia James officially announced her run for governor Friday, a day after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was charged with forcibly touching an aide in the governor’s mansion. 

“New Yorkers need a governor who isn’t afraid to stand up to powerful interests on behalf of the vulnerable,” she said in a statement. “Throughout my career, I’ve taken on big forces and New Yorkers know I will never back down when it comes to fighting for them. Today, I am proud to announce my candidacy for governor of New York so we can bring transformational change that uplifts all New Yorkers.”

SEE ALSO: ​​In San Francisco’s Elections, Commercial Real Estate’s Future Is on the Ballot

James, a former New York City councilmember and public advocate, helped bring down Cuomo’s governorship in August by issuing a damning report with allegations of harassment and improper touching by a dozen of his current and former female employees. The question is whether that is enough to win her the governor’s race — or the support of the real estate and business community. Support from labor unions is another open question, but she has already gotten the endorsement of the Transportation Workers Union International, which represents most of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rank-and-file workforce. 

“Does that make her distinctive, being a Cuomo killer? Is it enough?” asked political consultant Hank Sheinkopf

He pointed out that many potential donors may not feel comfortable spending against Gov. Kathy Hochul, because she is an incumbent and likely to remain in office. Developers, landlords and all kinds of people who do business in New York State may want to stay in the good graces of the governor, who has already gotten high marks from the real estate industry. 

“If you’re in the construction business, do you really want to take on an incumbent governor?” asked Sheinkopf. “If you’re in healthcare, do you really want to take on the governor?”

While Hochul doesn’t have Cuomo’s reputation for vindictiveness, Sheinkopf argued that the Buffalo native was tougher than she looked. 

“People will question whether she has the stomach to fight,” the consultant explained. “But anyone who thinks Kathy Hochul is a pushover is foolish.” 

Hochul’s electoral base is upstate, which means that she’d have to win over the suburbs and at least some New York City voters to win the gubernatorial primary, he said. The most recent poll on the 2022 race, released two weeks ago by Marist College, showed Hochul ahead by 14 percentage points. In a three-way race between Hochul, James and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, 44 percent of potential voters said they would support Hochul, while 28 percent would vote for James. 

Williams is unlikely to win any of the real estate industry’s support in the election — thanks to his strong support for stronger rent regulations and opposition to the 421a tax abatement for new developments — but James could, depending on how she plays her cards. 

“There was a fair amount of trepidation about her from the real estate community before she became attorney general because she was opposed to Atlantic Yards [as a council member],” said one real estate insider, who did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the governor’s race. “But I think there’s been a good relationship built between her and the community as AG. There was sort of an evolution on her part.”

He felt that her approach to enforcement — and to the Cuomo report — had been level-headed and thorough, rather than overly punitive. 

“The AG has a tremendous amount of enforcement power and the challenge there is to be judicious and thoughtful so as not to weaponize law enforcement,” said the real estate industry observer. “She took a much more thoughtful and prudent approach to the job. It’s such a small percentage of the industry that is affected by enforcement from the AG’s office so it hasn’t registered that she’s out targeting landlords.” 

Ultimately, some people in the industry may end up donating to both campaigns. 

“I bet there’s a fair amount of support for Hochul and [James],” said the exec. “People will be hedging their bets.” 

Rebecca Baird-Remba can be reached at rbairdremba@commercialobserver.com.