At an outdoor event in Buffalo, a diverse crowd gathered for a benefit to help the families affected by the horrific mass shooting at a grocery store on the city’s East Side.
Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate running for governor, planned to attend, his campaign said. But when the crowd fell silent and the names and ages of the victims were read aloud, Mr. Williams was absent.
The candidate arrived late and had instead decided to head straight to the Tops Friendly Market, where the racist massacre took place, surrounding a group of volunteers distributing groceries and food to residents.
Mr. Williams seemed cautious at first, but eventually struck up a conversation with Brenda Williams McDuffie, a former president of the Buffalo Urban League and a Brooklyn native.
“They want people they trust to be able to communicate on their behalf sometimes,” Ms McDuffie said. “I know his voice and how he uses his voice and his values and love for the community, so it’s exceptional for him to come.”
Yet she admitted that many in Buffalo knew him less well. “I knew he was running for governor, but I didn’t really follow it because I don’t think I actually saw him in upstate New York,” she said.
After a competitive run for lieutenant governor four years ago, Mr. Williams sparked excitement in progressive circles when he announced he would challenge Governor Kathy Hochul in her bid for her first full term in office.
He had name recognition, charisma, and a clear political path: Ms. Hochul and another primary rival, Representative Thomas R. Suozzi, are considered centrist Democrats; Mr Williams is supported by many progressively oriented groups, including the Working Families Party.
But Mr Williams has failed to gain much momentum ahead of the June 28 primary. He is way behind in fundraising, has done no television commercials, and has done far fewer campaign events than would be expected of a major candidate for governor.
Underneath lies an underlying problem, though Mr Williams is careful not to blame his campaign woes: His wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year and their daughter was born prematurely in February.
Mr Williams’ wife, India Sneed-Williams, a lawyer, said her husband had twice personally offered to step out of the governor’s race. She refused, she said. She wouldn’t let him in because “I know who I was married to.”
Mr Williams admitted in an interview that he had come †closer than I had ever been” to drop out of the race.
†There were a few times I think it affected the campaign,” said Mr. Williams.
“Could I give everything I would normally give to a campaign while going through this?” he added. “The answer is no†
But he decided to keep going, even though his campaign feared there wouldn’t be enough money to compete. “It was always about the ability to show a path, even when it was uphill,” he said.
With one month to go until the primaries, Mr. Williams that describing his path as uphill, how steep it is.
Sochie Nnaemeka, the head of the New York State Working Families Party, described Mr Williams as a “moral figure” who can “contrast with a Hochul administration that believes the ultra-wealthy deserve the government to step up for them too.”
Mr Williams and his assistants agree. They hope he can use two upcoming debates to portray Ms. Hochul as a prettier version of her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports many of the same policies he does, such as changes to the bail reform bill, and raises millions from the same special interests. , unions and business groups that supported him.
Ms. Hochul has shown other recent signs of potential vulnerability: her elected lieutenant governor resigned in April after being charged with fraud and bribery. She has also been criticized for pushing $600 million in state grants to build a football stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
“It’s unfortunate because those things coincided with Jumaane having a baby that was very early and also his wife who was undergoing cancer treatments,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, an organization that Mr. Williams supports. † “It was hard for him to be there as much as he wanted.”
Mrs. Sneed-Williams finished chemotherapy three weeks ago and their “miracle baby” is now healthy.
Ms Hochul, whose campaign spokesman declined to comment, has largely ignored Mr Williams. She has built an overwhelming lead in fundraising and has a solid lead in the polls.
The governor has $18.5 million on hand and has raised $31.7 million, her campaign said this week. Mr. Williams had raised just $221,000 in January, according to the most recent round of financial disclosure reports, and will report updated numbers later on Friday.
“We always had a conversation about is this sustainable? Are you OK? Do you want to continue?” Ana María Archila, a candidate for lieutenant governor and his running mate, said. His decision to stay in the race, she added, confirmed Mr Williams as a candidate †who brings his life into the public arena in a way that humanizes everyone else.”
Mr. Williams’ campaign expects to be able to air ads on cable closer to the primaries, noting that he didn’t do much advertising during the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s primary, when he met Ms. Hochul with 60,000. votes defeated in New York City.
Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist, said that while Ms. Hochul didn’t stir up the democratic base, she didn’t antagonize it either. He still expected Mr Williams to outperform the 12 percent he got in a recent poll.
“He works hard for the progressives and he also has a Spanish lieutenant governor who works hard,” said Mr. Gyory. “I think there is more energy on the ground for Jumaane than for Suozzi†
Mr Williams, who describes himself as an ‘elected activist’, is known for speaking out against discriminatory police practices and being arrested for protesting it.
When he won a special election for public advocate in 2019, Mr. Williams spoke candidly during his acceptance speech about seeking therapy for mental health problems. And in the video announcing his bid for governor, he talked about living with Tourette’s syndrome and the involuntary body movements that come with it.
During a walk-through at Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn with Ms. Archila, Mr. Williams easily connected with tenants while explaining how to deal with everything from run-down apartments to the lack of secure park space.
He ran into a few he knew from his early days as an activist, and put others in touch with the prosecutor to solve problems, such as a clogged sewer in a daycare center.
“Could you really see Governor Hochul walking around here and talking to people authentically?” said Jamell Henderson, a Kingsborough resident who led the visit.
At another recent event in the Bronx, where several government officials spoke of the death of an 11-year-old girl who was struck by a stray bullet, Mr. Williams was the last elected official to speak.
He complained to Mrs. Hochul vehemently accused her of not providing enough money in the state’s $220 billion budget to address the root causes of violence.
On his appearance in Buffalo, Mr. Williams again ran for governor, this time to fund Bills stadium, while the Black neighborhood where the shooting took place suffered decades of systemic racism.
He said he was angry that Ms Hochul said she lived 10 minutes from the massacre but did nothing to help the neighborhood add groceries other than Tops, the only supermarket in the area. “I’m like, ‘Did you just find out?'” Mr. Williams said.
By the time he reached the next event, the organizers were packing. Mr Williams apologized and chatted for a few minutes. What did he make of his chances, one of the organizers, Willie Aytch, asked?
“It’s always uphill for me,” said Mr Williams. “But I fight uphill.”
Jesse McKinley reported from Buffalo, NY