Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, became the latest Democrat to enter the 2022 race for governor.
On a weekend swing through Southern California, Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, wooed corporate donors to join a new fund-raising initiative aimed at helping her become the nation’s first Black female governor.
Closer to home, Gov. Kathy Hochul — her campaign accounts already swelling with more than $11 million — waded into Ms. James’s political backyard on Sunday, preaching from the pulpits of Black churches in vote-rich Brooklyn and Queens about the scourges of the coronavirus and gun violence.
Two days later, Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn, New York City’s public advocate, formalized his bid for governor, using a campaign launch video to position himself as an activist with the most authoritative claim to the race’s increasingly crowded left lane.
“Without courageous progressive leadership, the way things have always been will stand in the way of what they can be,” he said in the video.
Three months after Ms. Hochul’s unexpected ascension as the state’s first female governor, next year’s Democratic primary contest is now veering toward something New York has not seen in decades: a freewheeling intraparty battle among some of the state’s best-known political figures.
The race, which has played out in recent weeks from the beaches of Puerto Rico to West Hollywood, Calif., and will culminate in June, will test traditional racial, geographic and ideological coalitions in a liberal stronghold, setting up one of the most high-profile Democratic primary battles in the nation as a midterm election year arrives.
“Like me, so many people are going to grapple with this really, really hard,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president.
The melee in the making has already inspired a mix of anticipation and wariness among party leaders.
For some left-wing officials and activists, the profusion of possible nominees has stirred memories of this year’s mayoral primary, when they struggled to coalesce around one candidate, and Eric Adams, a relative moderate, triumphed. This time around there is a real commitment, officials say, to unite behind one contender early — most likely Ms. James or Mr. Williams — though that may be easier said than done.
More moderate leaders are voicing worries, too, warning that after this month’s stinging electoral losses for Democrats in New York and across the country, nominating someone seen as too far to the left could put the party’s hold on Albany at risk. Some have pointed to the losses to argue for their own brands of politics.
Steven Bellone, the Suffolk County executive who is thought to be considering a number of statewide offices, said the drubbing his party took on Long Island “was a message to the Democratic Party.” He added: “If our party is not sounding the alarm now, in advance of the midterms, I think we’re in for a very tough time ahead.”
The tensions were on vivid display just after Election Day as New York’s political elite — including every potential candidate but Mr. Williams — decamped to the humid, booze-filled beaches of Puerto Rico for an annual postelection junket of lobbying, politicking and partying.
After months of shadowboxing, it proved to be a surreal campaign in miniature, as Ms. Hochul, Ms. James, and Mr. Bellone schmoozed under palm trees alongside two more potential Democratic candidates: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Representative Thomas Suozzi. Contenders met surreptitiously with City Council members, party activists and union leaders in what amounted to high-powered focus groups fueled by piña coladas.
Ms. James, for her part, offered fresh indications in Puerto Rico that she intends to run to the left of Ms. Hochul while building a base that, her allies hope, will be broader than that of Mr. Williams.
She referred to herself as “the face of the Working Families Party,” New York’s leftist alternative to the Democratic line. She literally dropped a mic after a stem-winding campaign appeal to Bronx Democrats gathered in a makeshift club, who roared their approval. And the next morning, Ms. James turned a breakfast hosted by labor unions into a de facto campaign rally.
“Join the O.G. team,” Ms. James said at a Working Families Party gathering. “Her name is Tish James.”
Ms. Hochul showed her political power in other ways. She threw a lavish soiree in a ballroom overlooking the ocean, where labor leaders and business lobbyists fought for the governor’s ear between bites of passed hors d’oeuvres, and Mr. Adams showed up, a few days after Ms. Hochul made a cameo at his victory party.
In an interview in a private room at a beachfront hotel — which was briefly interrupted when Ms. James walked in — Ms. Hochul warned that the general election in the governor’s race could be competitive; Representative Lee Zeldin of Long Island is considered the leading Republican candidate. She urged her party to focus on matters of public safety and economic growth, among other priorities, after Democrats lost badly across New York.
“They have concerns about where our party’s headed,” she said. “They want to make sure that the mainstream principles of our party prevail.”
For now, though, it is the left-leaning and Brooklyn-area lanes of the primary that appear most crowded. As many as three candidates — Ms. James, Mr. Williams and Mr. de Blasio — could ultimately run: all boasting of deep ties to the progressive-left movement, and all from that borough.
“I’m supporting Jumaane because I think he has real potential to fire people up,” said Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller-elect. Calling both Mr. Williams and Ms. James “really compelling leaders,” he also emphasized that “it’s important for progressives to get on the same page in the governor’s race and to rally around one candidate.”
Allies of Ms. James had hoped that Mr. Williams, who garnered 47 percent of the vote running against Ms. Hochul as lieutenant governor in 2018, would skip the race, wary that the two candidates would siphon votes from one another.
An in-person meeting between Ms. James and Mr. Williams to discuss the race last month, before either had formally entered, ended with both still moving toward a run, according to three people with direct knowledge of the meeting. Representatives for both candidates declined to comment on the meeting, which was first reported by City and State.
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“I personally prefer not to have two friends from Brooklyn running against each other,” said Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, chairwoman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
She added: “It’s a historical time for the state to have a woman, and it would be even more historical to have a Black woman, so I think this is the year of the woman for the state.”
Mr. de Blasio, another left-leaning Brooklynite who leaves office at the end of the year, would only make matters more complicated if he formally entered the race. And he is taking clear steps to do so.
In recent weeks, he has quietly summoned top political advisers to Gracie Mansion, according to allies, and recently created a campaign committee to begin raising funds for a potential statewide bid. In Puerto Rico, he warned that when Democrats “try to be Republicans-light, we almost always lose.”
“It’s quite clear I want to continue in public service,” Mr. de Blasio said. “The State of New York needs a hell of a lot of work.”
The mayor also asked for a lunch with Dennis Mehiel and John Catsimatidis, two stalwart donors who have both supported Ms. Hochul, to ask for help funding polling and other research to guide his planning, according to people familiar with the discussions and Mr. Catsimatidis.
“He’s evaluating things,” Mr. Catsimatidis said. “You always give respect to the people you know 25 years. Do I agree with everything he does? Absolutely not, but I tell him the truth.”
Ms. Hochul, of Buffalo, has worked aggressively to shore up her standing in the five boroughs, but she undoubtedly stands to benefit if that downstate vote is split among New York City candidates.
In the meantime, Ms. James appears to be intently focused on narrowing Ms. Hochul’s fund-raising edge; the governor is on pace to set a fund-raising record by year’s end after announcing on Friday that she had already cleared $10 million in checks since August.
Ms. James and her team have scheduled a campaign briefing with donors over Zoom on Wednesday.
Ms. James’s swing through Southern California included an “exclusive briefing and round table” on voting rights with corporate leaders in Soho House in West Hollywood and a flurry of meetings around a newly formed “Tish James Leadership Circle,” which has begun soliciting contributions between $5,000 and $25,000.
Dominique Shelton Leipzig, a partner at Perkins Coie in Los Angeles leading the initiative, said she was hoping to capture national interest among corporate leaders and others in Ms. James’s work on civil rights and her potentially historic candidacy.
“We feel confident that there are many like-minded people around the country that look to New York as a harbinger of where we are headed,” she said. “We feel confident that we will be raising substantial funds for A.G. James.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.