Not one of the four candidates for the Democratic primary for New York attorney general were spared from questions and allegations about their handling of money lobbed by both fellow candidates and moderators at a debate on Thursday night that got testy at times.
New York City Public Advocate Tish James was the early frontrunner in the race. But Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout, running on a progressive-leaning platform, has gained momentum after receiving a key endorsement from The New York TImes which called her a “firewall” against a “historically corrupt” New York state government.
They are running against U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, and Leecia Eve, a Verizon Wireless lobbyist and a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Barbs were already flying between two of the candidates hours before the debate, which was held at the Cooper Union on the New York University campus and hosted by WNYC 93.9, got started — Teachout filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court alleging that Maloney violated campaign finance laws by shifting $1.4 million from his Congressional campaign fund to the campaign for his bid for attorney general.
Maloney’s campaign put out a release prior to the debate that Manhattan Supreme Court Justice William Franc Perry tossed the suit within minutes of it being filed, but the Teachout campaign clarified that the judge had only denied a motion for an injunction. Both the Teachout campaign and Maloney himself said the judge set an October hearing in the case.
The debate began with several questions in which the candidates did not differ much on their positions, including standing up to President Donald Trump and Trump-tied businesses and entities, cracking down on financial scofflaws and corruption in Albany and protecting voters’ rights.
But things heated up when Teachout and Maloney sparred over Maloney’s votes in Congress in which he broke from fellow Democrats to roll back provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, the legislation signed into law in the wake of the financial crisis.
“To be the next sheriff of Wall Street, you need to be able to stand up to big bank lobbyists, not take corporate money” Teachout said.
Maloney referred to the argument as a “pile of nonsense” and argued the legislation maintained regulations on big banks.
Following that exchange, WNYC host Brian Lehrer, who moderated the debate alongside Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, asked Maloney about Teachout’s lawsuit, asking if he was playing “fast and loose” with the rules and donor cash.
Maloney responded by citing recent reports by the Albany Times-Union that Teachout, a scholar in political corruption, has struggled to make timely reports that vendors working for her campaign received payments from a federal political action committee that Teachout created as an outgrowth of her failed congressional bid.
“You’re not going to sue your way to a victory, Zephyr,” Maloney said. “The voters will decide this race.”
Teachout’s lawsuit is not the first time that Maloney’s campaign has been hit with a legal challenge — plaintiffs from his district challenged his simultaneous runs for state attorneys and to be re-elected to his congressional seat.
Last month, the state Court of Appeals declined to hear an appeal in the case, allowing a lower court’s ruling in Maloney’s favor to stand.
Lehrer and Bharara, who since he was fired by Trump last year has emerged as a vocal critic of corruption in state government (and foe of the Trump administration), also lobbed questions about finances at Eve and James; Bharara asked Eve why, unlike her three opponents, she has yet to release her tax records.
Eve cited legislation that James sponsored in the New York City Council that protects employees from having to disclose their salary histories as the “primary reason” for not disclosing her taxes and said she has made disclosure of her finances
“I have now 72 pages of disclosure forms that speak about my assets or lack thereof in detail,” Eve said, then using her response to attack Teachout on her oft-asserted claim that she doesn’t take corporate money, arguing that she has taken PAC money in the past.
Lehrer also turned questions about finances to James, noting that while as New York City’s public advocate she has devoted energy to shaming landlords with her “Worst Landlords In New York City” list, the New York Post reports that the real estate industry has donated at least $213,000 to her campaign since May.
James responded that most of her donations come from donors giving $200 or less, that she is “unbossed and unbought in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm” and that, as an African American woman that she has trouble raising funds.
“There is not one contributor to my campaign that was on the worst landlords list,” James said, and said she is not afraid to haul supporters to court.
Questions about Teachout’s record as an attorney also surfaced during the debate, with Bharara noting that Teachout was just admitted to the New York bar on Aug. 22, and with James taking her to task for a sanction she received while she was an attorney in North Carolina she was sanctioned because she “abandoned a death row inmate to join a campaign.”
Teachout fired back that she had not been censured by a North Carolina grievance committee, as James claimed — she was fined $50 for leaving the state and not providing a forwarding address.
The candidates are running to succeed former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in May amid reports that he abused women. The primary election is set for Sept. 13.