Lt. governor candidate takes break from trail to go on trial

Councilman is charged with blocking an ambulance during January protest

By Stephen R. Groves and David Klepper
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — New York politicians are infamous for ending their political careers in jail. But Jumaane Williams is taking the unusual step of actively courting legal trouble while still on the campaign trail.

The New York City councilman took a break from his insurgent campaign for lieutenant governor Tuesday to appear at a court­house in Manhattan, where he is standing trial this week for blocking an ambulance during a January protest over the detention of a prominent immigrant rights activist.

Sixteen other people arrested by police during the demonstration avoided a trial, entering into agreements with prosecutors that will probably lead to the charges being dismissed.

Not Williams. The Democrat wanted a trial, he said, to hold authorities accountable for their actions during the protest.

“I’ve always said that the more privilege you have, the more risk you have to take,” he said outside the courthouse. “I thought it was important that someone step forward and say we’re going to have our day in court with this issue.”

The charges could carry up to a year in jail, though it is unlikely that Williams would serve time if convicted.

Williams, who has been on the city council since 2009, launched his campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul a few days after his arrest. They face off in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13.

Hochul, a former member of Congress who was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to run for lieutenant governor four years ago, has spent her first term as a cheerleader for his administration, highlighting its accomplishments and traveling around the state to represent it at ceremonial events.

Williams sees his potential role differently, as a possible check on Cuomo’s power.

“Someone has to step up, step out, step forward and say the emperor has no clothes, and in Albany that’s been missing,” he said Tuesday.

This week, Williams and Cynthia Nixon, who is running against Cuomo in the Democratic primary, endorsed each other.

Like Nixon’s challenge, Williams’ run highlights the tension between establishment Democrats and progressives tired of what they say is a lack of progress on liberal priorities.

Hochul leads Williams in recent polls — though she doesn’t enjoy the commanding lead over Williams that Cuomo, seeking his third term, has over Nixon. A Siena College survey released Tuesday indicates that Hochul leads Williams by 9  percentage points among likely Democratic voters.

Since New York voters elect the governor and lieutenant governor independently, it’s possible that Williams could win even if Nixon loses, creating a potentially awkward Cuomo-Williams ticket for the fall election.

Williams first came to public prominence in 2011 when he was detained by police, along with another city official, while attending Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade. Williams is black and he said he believed he was stopped because of his race.

In his first term on the council he was a critic of the police department’s “stop and frisk” tactic, which involved stopping mostly young, black men on the street and searching them for weapons.

Throughout his time in office, he has been a regular at demonstrations on liberal causes, especially on matters of immigration or police misconduct. He has been arrested several times for civil disobedience at demonstrations.

Williams said he and other protesters blocked the ambulance carrying activist Ravi Ragbir as a last resort to prevent his deportation. During his arrest, an officer pinned Williams to the hood of a car.

He termed Ragbir’s detention a “kidnapping” and said he hopes the trial will reveal wither the city’s police department, which is barred by city policy from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in many instances, was secretly collaborating.

“It was important that one person went to trial . to try to find out as best we can, who was in charge on Jan. 11,” said Williams’ lawyer Ron Kuby.

Hochul’s campaign declined to comment on Williams’ case but released a statement to the AP saying she was pleased with the results of Tuesday’s poll, saying it shows “that the people of New York are happy with the record of accomplishments the governor and lieutenant governor have achieved over the past four years.”

Williams, though trailing, still has a chance, said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg.

He said the low number of voters who have an opinion about the candidates for lieutenant governor give him a shot. One he intends on taking, no matter how the court case goes.

The trial is expected to conclude this week.