News & Politics

How a City Hall Shooting Gave New York a Potential Attorney General

Letitia James in part owes her political career to an infamous New York City incident

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On the afternoon of July 23, 2003, New York City Councilmember James Davis escorted his onetime opponent Othniel Askew past metal detectors and into City Hall, explaining to colleagues: “This is the guy who was once against me, but now he’s with me.” At least one fellow councilmember, Charles Barron, was alarmed by Askew, put off by his rough handshake and intense stare. Davis, however, was unconcerned. “Don’t worry, Charles,” he said. “He’s a military guy. He’ll calm down soon.”

Shortly after, just after Davis left the council chamber balcony, where he’d been talking with city employees about a proposed resolution about workplace violence, Askew pulled out a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and opened fire, shooting off as many as fourteen rounds. At least two of those bullets struck Davis in the chest, killing him. Askew kept shooting even after Davis had collapsed. One witness, seated in the public gallery just a few feet from the attack, was struck by Askew’s stillness as he fired, telling the Times: “He looked very serious, and he didn’t even move.”

James Davis’s murder had a lasting impact on New York City, and not just because Mayor Bloomberg immediately banned anyone from bypassing the metal detectors at the City Hall gates. It also helped launch the political career of the woman who is hoping this fall to be elected New York’s attorney general: Letitia James, the current Public Advocate for the City of New York.

While multiple Democratic candidates are running in the September primary — notably former gubernatorial hopeful Zephyr Teachout, but also upstate Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and former Hillary Clinton advisor Leecia Eve — James has several advantages over her opponents. She captured 85 percent of the delegate vote during the party’s convention in May, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and several powerful labor unions have endorsed her, making her the favorite to move on to the November general election.

And yet, for all of James’s accomplishments — graduate of Howard University law school, attorney at the Legal Aid Society, head of then–Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s Brooklyn office, chair of the Economic Development and Sanitation committees — she might never have made it to this enviable position if not for Davis’s tragic death.

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In 2001, three favorites were vying for the Brooklyn city council seat held by the long-serving Mary Pinkett, who was prohibited from running again because of term limits: James, then a Spitzer official; Davis, a former cop and minister; and Peter Williams, then the director of housing and community development for the National Urban League.

The pugnacious, charismatic Davis edged James by a slim margin, rankling Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman Jr. and the rest of the party machine. Davis rode to the victory largely on the strength of a platform to quell violence in Crown Heights and its environs.

It’s unclear exactly how well Othniel Askew and Davis knew each other prior to that fateful July afternoon two years later. But something was deeply amiss in Askew’s mind. In 1996, he had attacked his partner, Mario Romero, with a hammer, hospitalizing him. Askew later pled guilty to harassment, and orders of protection were issued against him. Still, by 2002, Askew had grand plans to unseat Davis, criminal history be damned.

Askew’s political ambitions got off to a rocky start. He failed to collect enough signatures to appear on the ballot for the Democratic primary, botching his chance to establish his candidacy.

Angry about being rebuffed, Askew embarked on a farcical campaign to unseat Davis, barging into his meetings and demanding that he sign a letter naming Askew his successor should he ever vacate his position. Asked by reporters about Askew, Davis replied that he’d never heard of him. Yet the former cop had evidently done some recon on this aggressive new irritant, and was well aware of Askew’s arrest record. In a call to the FBI hours before the shooting, Askew accused Davis of pressuring him to drop his city council ambitions by threatening to expose his past crimes. (Davis’s supporters denied this.)

Moments after killing Davis, Askew was shot by Officer Richard Burt, a plainclothes officer who drew his own weapon and fired from the chamber floor. He fired six shots and hit Askew at least five times, causing Askew’s body to crumple on top of Davis’s in the front row of the balcony. The moments that followed were complete pandemonium.

“People were falling down the stairs,” one witness told the Daily News. “Everybody was going crazy trying to get out of there.”

Both men were taken to NYU Downtown Hospital, where they were pronounced dead.

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The killing reopened a wound in a fairly recent post–9/11 city, and certainly succeeded in tightening security at City Hall. But amid the shock and horror, there remained a pragmatic question that nagged for an answer: Who would fill Davis’s seat?

After her bitter loss to Davis, James had wasted little time dwelling on her loss, enrolling in Columbia University’s Public Administration masters program while working as an aide to Rep. Roger Green. But when the 35th District seat was left vacant, she immediately launched another campaign, backed this time by the Working Families Party. For WFP’s part, James represented an opportunity to bolster its City Council influence by electing a member on its own line. Yet even as James switched her registration, her ties to Norman, in addition to her time working for Spitzer and Green, still bound her tightly to the Democratic Party.

But now, James had a new problem: Davis’s brother, Geoffrey, the director of an afterschool program affiliated with Medgar Evers College, announced just a week after the shooting that he’d be running to replace the slain councilmember, vowing to carry out his brother’s antiviolence agenda.

For a minute, it looked as though Geoffrey might ride the tide of his brother’s memory straight to council chambers. But it turned out that Geoffrey had a rap sheet, which included convictions for soliciting a prostitute and nonpayment of child support.

Geoffrey began lashing out at the opposition. A month before the general election, two volunteers for James filed a complaint against Geoffrey with the NYPD, saying he threatened them while they waited for the subway. In a signed statement, the volunteers alleged that Davis approached them shouting, “I should fuck you up right here,” among other obscenities, the Daily News reported at the time. Davis’s mother, who was present at the time, allegedly told her son to stop menacing volunteers, to which he reportedly replied, “Shut the fuck up. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of my … business?”

“It was a terrifying experience. He was very angry,” one of the victims told the Daily News.

James, meanwhile, kept her head down and her image out of the tabloids — a tactic that ultimately worked. On November 4, 2003, James defeated Geoffrey Davis in a landslide win, netting 76 percent of the vote. In October 2013, James defeated Daniel Squadron in a runoff election to earn the Democratic nomination for Public Advocate. She ran unopposed by a Republican candidate in the general election and secured 83 percent of the vote.

When news broke that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had abused at least four women, Twitter was immediately aflame with politicians calling for his resignation. James’s account, however, was silent. A little over a week later, she announced her candidacy.

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