Jumaane Williams Owns the Left Lane. Why Hasn’t His Campaign Taken Off?

At an outdoor event space in Buffalo, a diverse crowd gathered for a benefit to help the families affected by the horrific mass shooting at a supermarket in the city’s East Side.

Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate who is running for governor, had planned to attend, his campaign said. But as the crowd hushed and the names and ages of the victims were read aloud, Mr. Williams was absent.

Running late, the candidate had decided instead to head directly to the Tops Friendly Market where the racist massacre occurred, milling around a group of volunteers handing out groceries and food to residents.

Mr. Williams seemed cautious at first, but eventually he 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 sometimes on their behalf,” 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.”

Still, she conceded that many in Buffalo were less familiar with him. “I knew he was running for governor, but I haven’t really followed it, because I think I haven’t really seen him in upstate New York,” she said.

Mr. Williams, at an event to help the families of the shooting victims in Buffalo, said that his wife’s cancer and the premature birth of his daughter had curtailed his campaigning.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

After a competitive run for lieutenant governor four years ago, Mr. Williams generated excitement in progressive circles when he announced that he would challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul in her bid for her first full term.

He had name recognition, charisma and a clear political lane: Ms. Hochul and another primary rival, Representative Thomas R. Suozzi, are considered centrist Democrats; Mr. Williams is backed by numerous progressive-oriented groups, including the Working Families Party.

But Mr. Williams has failed to gain much momentum ahead of the June 28 primary. He is far behind in fund-raising, has not run any television ads, and has done far fewer campaign events than might be expected of a major candidate for governor.

Beneath it all is an underlying issue, though Mr. Williams is careful not to blame his campaign woes on it: His wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer last year, and their daughter was born prematurely in February.

Mr. Williams’s wife, India Sneed-Williams, a lawyer, said her husband had twice privately offered to drop out of the governor’s race. She refused, she said. She wouldn’t let him because “I know who I had married.”

Mr. Williams acknowledged in an interview that he came “closer than I had ever been” to dropping out of the race.

“There were a few times that I think it did impact the campaign,” Mr. Williams said.

“Could I give everything I would normally give to a campaign while I’m going through this?” he added. “The answer is no.”

But he decided to push on, even as his campaign worried that it would not have enough money to compete. “It was always about the ability to show a path, even if it was uphill,” he said.

With a month remaining before the primary, Mr. Williams’s supporters recognize that describing his path as uphill undersells just 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 a Hochul administration that believes that the ultra-wealthy also deserve government to do their bidding for them.”

Mr. Williams, comforting the family of an 11-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet in the Bronx, has called on state leaders to better address the root causes of violent crime.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Mr. Williams and his aides concur. They hope that he can use two upcoming debates to portray Ms. Hochul as a nicer version of her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports many of the same policies as he did, such as changes to the bail reform law, and raises millions from the same special interests, labor unions and business groups that supported him.

Ms. Hochul has shown other recent signs of potential vulnerability: Her chosen lieutenant governor resigned in April after being indicted on fraud and bribery charges. She has also been criticized for pushing $600 million in state subsidies to build a football stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

“It’s unfortunate because those things aligned with Jumaane having a baby that was very premature and also his wife going through cancer treatments,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, a grass-roots organizing group that has endorsed Mr. Williams. “It was hard for him to be out there as much as he wanted to be.”

Ms. 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 amassed an overwhelming advantage in fund-raising 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 as of January, according to the most recent round of financial disclosure reports, and is set to report updated numbers later on Friday.

Mr. Williams ran a spirited campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018 against the incumbent, Kathy Hochul, who is now governor.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“We always had a conversation about is this sustainable? Are you OK? Do you want to keep going?” Ana María Archila, a candidate for lieutenant governor and his running mate, said. His decision to stay in the race, she added, solidified Mr. Williams as a candidate who brings his life into he public arena in a way that humanizes everybody else.”

Mr. Williams’s campaign expects to be able to air ads on cable closer to the primary, and noted that he did not widely advertise during the primary for lieutenant governor in 2018, when he beat Ms. Hochul by 60,000 votes in New York City.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist, said that although Ms. Hochul was not exciting the Democratic base, she had not antagonized it either. He still expected Mr. Williams to have a better showing than the 12 percent he received in a recent poll.

“He’s working the progressives hard and he has a Hispanic lieutenant governor working hard out there, too,” Mr. Gyory said. “I think there’s more energy on the ground for Jumaane than there is for Suozzi.”

Mr. Williams, a self-described “activist elected official,” is known for speaking out against discriminatory policing practices and getting arrested to protest them.

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 challenges. 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 as they explained how they had to deal with everything from rundown apartments to the lack of a safe park space.

He ran into some he knew from his early days as an activist, and connected others with the public advocate’s office to deal with issues such as a backed-up sewer at the day care center.

“Could you see Gov. Hochul really walking around here authentically talking with people?” said Jamell Henderson, a Kingsborough resident who led the visit.

Mr. Williams and his running mate, Ana María Archila, at a recent visit to the Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

At another recent event in the Bronx, where various public officials addressed 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 offered a fiery denunciation of Ms. Hochul, accusing her of failing to designate enough funding in the state’s $220 billion budget to address the root causes of violence.

At his appearance in Buffalo, Mr. Williams again attacked the governor, this time for funding the Bills stadium while the Black neighborhood where the shooting occurred suffered from decades of systemic racism.

He said he was angry that Ms. Hochul had said she lived 10 minutes from the scene of the massacre, but did nothing to help the neighborhood add other grocery options beyond Tops, the only supermarket in the area. “I’m like, ‘You just found that out?’” Mr. Williams said.

By the time he made it to the next event, its organizers were packing up. 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,” Mr. Williams said. “But I fight uphill.”

Jesse McKinley reported from Buffalo, N.Y.