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The rise of "Hakeem" and "Tish": from Central Brooklyn to national prominence

To a good number of people in and around Central Brooklyn, they're simply "Hakeem" and "Tish," charismatic, capable lawyer-politicians who've shown up at so many events and functions that they seem familiar.

To political observers around the city, state, and country, they're now New York Attorney General Letitia James and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, House Democratic Caucus Chair.

Those are powerful positions: other than Special Counsel Robert Mueller and House impeachment managers, James has been best positioned to investigate President Donald Trump, given that his companies and foundation conduct business in New York. Jeffries, fifth in the House Democratic leadership, is poised to rise even higher once senior leaders retire or step aside.

James, in many ways, has a bigger job, and a tougher one. After all, she's got to run a vast department, while also pursuing policy reforms discussed during the campaign (cleaner government, voting reform) and, not without risk, targeting Trump.

Jeffries, a legislator rather than an executive, has more freedom to focus on his rhetoric and his Democratic party wrangling.

What's next?

They both have big futures. Previous state Attorneys General, like Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer, have gone on to become Governor. James, as Public Advocate was expected to pursue the 2021 mayoralty, the surprise resignation of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman positioned her to run for a statewide position.

January 2012 photo of Jeffries by Tracy Collins
Now James is a viable candidate to succeed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, should he not run for re-election,  or for a Cabinet appointment should a Democrat win in 2020.

Jeffries, who's periodically been mentioned as a potential mayoral candidate, has never seriously pursued such an office. Now he's positioned to rise in the House hierarchy or, quite possibly, contend to represent New York in the Senate if and when Sen. Chuck Schumer retires.

See predictions that he'd become a VP candidate or the House's first black speaker, or Schumer's comment to the Times that Jeffries has "limitless possibilities." One Congressional colleague likened Jeffries to Barack Obama, and told Politico he could become president.

Strengths and flaws

Their big futures relate to public presence layered on top professional chops. Jeffries, a former corporate litigator with a preacher's touch, is a powerful but controlled speaker; he can extemporize better than nearly all peers.

His flaw, perhaps, is the ability to rationalize in the way he did regarding Atlantic Yards; he describes himself as a "pragmatic progressive" and has fended off criticism (see Gothamist profile and hints of a primary in New York magazine profile) from the party's left flank.

June 2009 photo of Letitia
James, by Jonathan Barkey
James, less disciplined and thus even more genuine, started at Legal Aid and has since been a public servant of sorts, though she came up as a Brooklyn Democratic Party regular. Her flaw is an occasional tendency to go on flights of fancy--the spotlight's surely imposed some caution--as well as her uneasy navigation of loyalty to the state's Democratic hierarchy.

She's faced tougher press, perhaps because her statements potentially conflict with her position, unlike with Jeffries.

N.Y.’s New Attorney General Is Targeting Trump. Will Judges See a ‘Political Vendetta?’
, the Times reported 12/31/18, suggesting that her "strident attacks on the president could potentially threaten the legal standing of cases that her office brings against" the president and associates. Indeed, a contributor to the Lawfare blog on 1/2/19 suggested James should recuse herself.

Rising in the state

From City & State's The 2019 Power of Diversity: Black 100, published 12/8/19, regarding the most powerful black leaders in the state:

1. Letitia James
State Attorney General
Letitia James is the attorney general of New York, but her influence stretches across state lines. “Tish” has successfully sued to block President Donald Trump’s attempt to deny green cards and visas to immigrants who seek to use public benefits, held Trump accountable for entangling his foundation with his 2016 presidential campaign and filed a motion to dismiss the president’s attempt to challenge a state law that allows certain congressional committees to request his New York tax returns.
This year has been a whirlwind for the attorney general. She’s one of 47 attorneys general who’ve signed on to investigate Facebook for “anti-competitive” behavior, and she filed a cease and desist against two companies pushing DIY rape kits. Recently, James has found herself in a legal tussle with the National Rifle Association over whether it has the power to prevent state investigations from seeing documents subpoenaed from its ad agency in a challenge to the organization’s nonprofit status. In November, she monitored early voting polling locations in Nassau County to counter reports of voter intimidation and improper challenges to voters’ signatures.
2. Hakeem Jeffries
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Chairman House Democratic Caucus
One of the many Democrats on the front lines of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has found himself battling the White House at every turn. Whether speaking in support of the Equality Act or reminding people that the founders didn’t want “a king, dictator or monarch,” the Brooklyn congressman made sure his voice was heard in 2019.
Jeffries introduced The Eric Garner Excessive Use Of Force Prevention Act of 2019, taking national the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold bill that was proposed in Albany. Recently, Jeffries helped introduce The Lower Drug Costs Now Act with the goal of driving down the increasing prices of prescription drugs. In the spring, the House Democratic Caucus chairman teamed up with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer to reintroduce a bill that would decriminalize marijuana use.
The congressman landed in some hot water – but refused to apologize – for calling Trump the “Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” voicing the frustration and anger echoed by many of his constituents.
Also note who's coming up behind them.

3. Eric Adams
Brooklyn Borough President
With the buzz about a possible 2021 mayoral run getting louder, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has kept his name and face in the local news media this year by speaking out against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for a new jail in Brooklyn. The former police officer has been on a never-ending quest to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the black community – including his recent call for a cop who punched a subway fare evader to be put on desk duty. Over the years, he has advocated for better policing and an improved de-escalation process while also calling for an end to the violence that has plagued some parts of Brooklyn.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams has attended to issues big and small, including investing in new boilers for Mitchell-Lama housing developments. He has also called for a task force to investigate the increase in black youth suicide attempts. With an expected crowded pool of candidates vying for City Hall, expect Adams to become an even bigger name in 2021.
Also note other Brooklynites, including 13. Laurie Cumbo, New York City Council Majority Leader; 14. Errol Louis, Anchor and Host of NY1's "Inside City Hall"; 19. Yvette Clarke, Brooklyn Congresswoman; 57. Ingrid Lewis-Martin, Deputy Borough President, Brooklyn Borough President's Office; 76. Bertha Lewis, Founder and President, The Black Institute.

More on James

See City & State's 12/8/19 profile, The year of Tish: Letitia James made a national name for herself going after Trump. But is she “Cuomo’s A.G.”?

The conclusion is that, she hasn't pushed hard on state corruption issues nor pushed steadily for statewide public campaign financing, leaving a question going forward.

Also see City & State's 12/8/19 interview, Q&A: Letitia James is one of them now: The AG on going from public advocate to the head of law enforcement.