Jumaane D. Williams, the left-wing New York City public advocate, announced an exploratory committee for governor on Tuesday, the most substantive sign yet that next year’s primary may become a vigorous battle over the direction of New York’s Democratic Party.
Mr. Williams pledged to press an ambitious progressive agenda if he runs, and, in a nearly 40-minute interview, attempted to draw overt and implicit contrasts with Gov. Kathy Hochul — suggesting that she did not do enough to push back on Andrew M. Cuomo before his sudden resignation in August.
His announcement amounts to an unofficial kickoff to the 2022 Democratic primary for governor, a race poised to be defined by both matters of competence and issues of identity, geography and ideology.
Mr. Williams said he intended to make a firm decision in the next month, in consultation with an advisory committee that includes two prominent New York City progressive leaders: Brad Lander, likely the city’s next comptroller, and Antonio Reynoso, who is on track to become Brooklyn borough president.
With the field of Democratic candidates still largely unsettled, Mr. Williams’s allies hope his move gives him an edge over other prominent New York Democrats looking at the race. Letitia James, the attorney general, is privately discussing the contest with party donors and officials, with her allies sounding increasingly bullish on the likelihood of a campaign to be America’s first Black female governor.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is also thought to be interested, and other Democrats from across the state are in various stages of examining the race as well. Ms. Hochul, who has said she will run for a full term next year, has participated in a flurry of fund-raisers and recently expanded her senior campaign staff.
Some Democrats have questioned whether Mr. Williams will ultimately pursue a bid should Ms. James, his fellow Brooklynite, jump in the race, given overlapping — but certainly not identical — bases of support. But Mr. Williams, for his part, electrified many progressive voters during his 2018 run for lieutenant governor, losing to Ms. Hochul by 6.6 percentage points. And in a rematch, Mr. Williams would benefit from better name identification than he had before and experience running statewide.
But Mr. Williams, a self-identified “activist elected official” who says he is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, would also face significant skepticism from the many moderate voters who remain a force in New York Democratic politics, both in the state and, as this summer’s mayoral primary showed, in the city.
And Ms. Hochul, New York’s first female governor, is now in a far more powerful position, having taken over as chief executive after Mr. Cuomo resigned in disgrace.
She is poised to enjoy significant advantages of incumbency as she unveils projects across the state, seeks to build an overwhelming fund-raising advantage and experiences, for now, a sense of good will from many lawmakers who appreciate her efforts to break with the governing style — and with some of the personnel — that defined the Cuomo administration.
Ms. Hochul, plainly aware of the need to build her profile downstate, is constantly in New York City for public events and fund-raisers alike, and she recently tapped Brian A. Benjamin, formerly a progressive state senator from Harlem, as her lieutenant governor. She has pleased left-wing lawmakers with several recent policies, including extending the eviction moratorium and releasing nearly 200 detainees from Rikers Island amid a crisis there.
But Mr. Williams signaled that if he were to run, he would make the case for electing an Albany outsider who represents a total break with the capital’s culture.
“We have consistently, vocally pushed back on the atmosphere that was there, and I think that’s the type of leadership we need,” Mr. Williams said.
“It’s hard to renew and recover,” he said at another point, “if you have the same old systems and structure that allowed the toxicity, allowed the scandals, allowed egos and personality to get in the way of progress.”
Asked if he disagreed with any of Ms. Hochul’s actions as governor, he said she should have visited Rikers Island but acknowledged “some of the low-hanging fruit that has happened, which is positive.”
Still, he suggested that as Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, she could have spoken out against him more forcefully.
“I just imagine if there was a lieutenant governor that pushed back a little bit harder, we may have not been in the situation we’re in,” he said, though Mr. Cuomo iced Ms. Hochul out of his inner circle. “There’s more that a lot of people could have done, but I ran very intentionally and specifically in 2018 on that message.”
In 2018, Ms. Hochul, a centrist Democrat from western New York, declined to name any areas of disagreement with Mr. Cuomo during a debate with Mr. Williams, and spent her time in office traveling the state, promoting the administration’s policies.
But she also backed the independent investigation into Mr. Cuomo, accurately noted that she was not close to him or part of his decision-making processes, and has promised that “no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment.”
“It’s a little early, given that the governor has only been in office four weeks,” Jay Jacobs, the moderate chairman of the New York Democrats, said of Mr. Williams’s move. “You have to be running for reasons that transcend ambition. There has to be a rationale that makes you believe that you would be better than this governor. So we’ll see what he has to say.”
A representative for Ms. Hochul declined to comment.
Mr. Williams indicated he was committed to an exploratory committee regardless of who else decides to run, and said that his efforts would include building out infrastructure for a potential campaign. But pressed on whether he would run for governor if Ms. James did so, he did not answer directly.
“The attorney general is doing an awesome, awesome job,” Mr. Williams said. “To my knowledge, she hasn’t publicly expressed interest in running. What I will say is, this exploratory committee and public service in general, I’m not doing this to run against anybody. I’m doing this to run for something.”
Mr. Reynoso, a city councilman, said he spoke with Ms. James over the weekend about the governor’s race, and expressed admiration for both her and Mr. Williams.
“Everybody that loves Tish loves Jumaane, and I think they’re going to have to figure out what they have to figure out,” Mr. Reynoso said, adding that Ms. James told him she intended to speak with Mr. Williams. “I care deeply about both Jumaane and Tish, but my history with Jumaane specifically in the Council has made it so that I will be with him should he run.”
A representative for Ms. James declined to comment.
Mr. Williams has governed as a left-wing official who is closely attuned to combating gun violence, arguing that investments in the social safety net are a vital component of public safety and central to promoting an equitable recovery from the pandemic.
Mr. Williams would be competing against at least one history-making female candidate. He acknowledged that “identity is very important” and pointed to his own, as a first-generation American; as a person with Tourette Syndrome, and as someone with the potential to be the first Black New Yorker elected to the governorship. (The former Gov. David A. Paterson, the first Black governor of New York, assumed the position after former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation.)
“It’s important for people to see themselves,” he said. It is also vital, he said, to ensure that “the right person is there to fight for all of the identities when the politics get hard. And we’ve seen, too often, that not happen.”