Democrat and Republican officials picked their official candidates for attorney general earlier last week, setting the stage for party primaries in September and on to the general election in November.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James got the nod for Democrats during their convention on Long Island. For Republicans, Ropes & Gray partner Keith Wofford secured his party’s support.
“The attorney general stands at the vanguard, as a firewall of protection—not a wall of exclusion,” James tweeted out from her campaign account after receiving her party’s nod. “There has perhaps never been a more important time for a strong, independent attorney general who will restore public integrity in our government. And she is ready for the job.”
During his open acceptance speech, Wofford pointed to his current position representing creditors seeking to recover in bankruptcy and other defaults as the exact kind of experience needed in the AG’s Office.
“We need an attorney general who knows how to recover the billions of dollars in taxpayer money that have been stolen through waste, fraud and abuse by our elected officials in Albany,” he said. “I believe I am the only candidate in this race from either party who has the experience, professional integrity, and independence to serve as the next attorney general.”
Should both win their party’s primary, the matchup would be a historical one, as it would be the first time anyone can recall that both major party candidates for a statewide office were African-Americans.
Wofford’s spot seems secure, as he appears not to be unopposed for the GOP bid. James, on the other hand, faces competition from at least two serious contenders to be the Democratic Party candidate on the ballot in November. Hanging over all of this remains the reason for so much activity around the attorney general’s race this year—the spectacular and precipitous fall of Eric Schneiderman, who, only a month ago, appeared well on his way to cruising toward re-election. That is, before The New Yorker published multiple women’s accounts of slapping, choking and belittlement at Schneiderman’s hands.
That framework, amid a broader reckoning in the #MeToo moment, is sure to impact the course of the race. The Democratic primary has certainly been molded by the circumstances. Rumored male candidates quickly become scarce in the run-up to the party convention. This left the door open for two prominent women to step forward to challenge James.
Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham University School, is no stranger to politics, as either an activist or a candidate. Four years ago she ran as a first-time candidate against Andrew Cuomo in the gubernatorial primary, capturing more than a third of the vote. Two years later she ran for Congress in the district just south of Albany, losing to Republican John Faso by just six points.
Teachout is a scholar of all things public corruption—she’s written treatise on the history of it in America, and done legal work to battle it in the courts. She’s party to a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, alleging his abuse of the emolument clause of the U.S. Constitution. Little surprise, then, that she vows to use the power of the Attorney General’s Office to hold both companies and elected officials accountable. Being independent—accountable only to the voters, the law and her own conscious—would be key for her as attorney general, she said.
“Direct battle may not be a central part of the job, but it really is a central part of the job right now,” she said in a phone interview. “We are in atypical times right now. Expertise in constitutional law and anti-corruption law is especially important.”
Leecia Eve, the other Democratic candidate, touts a background with deep Democratic Party connections, and a resume to match. She is the daughter of a prominent former Buffalo state Assemblyman, Arthur Eve. A Harvard Law School graduate, she began her career clerking for state Court of Appeals Judge Fritz W. Alexander II, where she overlapped with Michael Garcia, now himself a judge on the court, clerking then for former Chief Judge Judith Kaye. She’s worked at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and made partner at Hodgson Russ back home in Buffalo.
Her work in politics include roles as counsel to Hillary Clinton and, before that, Joe Biden during their time in the U.S. Senate. More recently she served as deputy secretary for economic development in New York under Gov. Cuomo. She has also sought the lieutenant governor spot in 2006, running unsuccessfully to be on the ballot alongside Eliot Spitzer.
Eve says four things separate her from her Democratic opponents: her legal experience—“it’s unmatched”—her public policy experience, her knowledge of the needs of New Yorkers through government work, and her experience running before.
While she said the Attorney General’s Office is working to push back against the “bad actor in Washington” in Trump, she said she also wanted to use the office to fight for low-wage workers, and to empower New Yorkers to better know and leverage their rights, among a number of items she said “may not be sexy” but were important.
“The goal is to have all New Yorkers, regardless of their needs, regardless of their level of education, regardless of the power they have or do not have; to have some sense of what their rights are to be best prepared to push back against what may be happening against them,” Eve said in a phone interview.
Both Teachout and Eve face an uphill battle against James, now the party-backed favorite in September. Herself an attorney, James has been a public defender and an assistant attorney general. She was elected to the New York City Council in 2004 on the Working Families Party line. In 2013 she ran and won the race to become the citywide public advocate. She’s used the office to push a number of issues, at times pushing the limits of its ability to operate like a more traditional prosecutor’s office.
In a statement provided by her campaign, James said she has spent her career using the law as a tool to defend the vulnerable and ensure their rights are protected.
“As attorney general, I plan to use the law as a shield of justice for immigrants, the LGBT community, tenants, farmers, small business owners, and hardworking New Yorkers in every corner of this state,” she said. “Whether that be taking on the Trump administration trying to deny our constitutional rights, protecting consumers from Wall Street abuses, or hold an elected official accountable for destroying public trust, I will never shy away from pursuing justice.”
Whoever wins the Democratic primary can expect to face off against Wofford. A political novice, Wofford has a prestigious legal background. He likewise attended Harvard Law School, after growing up of modest means on Buffalo’s East Side. Now co-managing partner of Ropes & Gray’s New York office, Wofford works primarily on behalf of investment funds operating in the distressed debt sphere. Before joining Ropes & Gray, he was a senior securitization analyst at Moody’s.
Wofford did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. At the GOP convention, however, he took aim at the Democratic predecessors in the Attorney General’s Office. The office has “contributed mightily to New York’s reputation as the most corrupt, and the most anti-business state in this nation,” he said.
The three prior AGs—Schneiderman, Cuomo and Spitzer, all Democrats—have only used the office to further political ambitions, and to take out political opponents, according to Wofford. The result has made New York “a national embarrassment,” and he vowed to “tackle the political corruption, both legal and illegal, that has plagued our state for too long.”
“I’ll put an end to it.”