New York City Public Advocate Letitia James is fresh off her victory in a contentious four-way primary for the Democratic nomination, but she hasn’t yet completed her path to becoming New York state’s next attorney general.
James enjoyed a 10 percent margin of victory over her closest competitor in a race that polls showed as neck-and-neck entering its final phase. And with New York’s sizable Democratic registration advantage and massive turnout bump in Thursday’s primary, by most measures she enters the general election as a favorite.
But Republican Keith Wofford, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Manhattan, promises a vigorous campaign as the Republican nominee. He’s on a leave of absence from the firm while he runs for the position, which hasn’t been held by a Republican since 1998.
“I’ve got a track record and expertise that provides a real value to the public,” Wofford said in an interview with the New York Law Journal on Friday. “I’m selected by counsel who have billions of dollars at stake who could hire anyone. The taxpayer needs someone when their billions of dollars are at stake who has the same expertise.”
His campaign has hit the ground running, having already committed $3.25 million to advertising, according to a press release sent on Friday. He released his first television ad this week, which premiered Thursday night.
Wofford defines himself as a fighter for middle-class families in the ad, where he appears in the East Side neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, his hometown. The neighborhood is among the city’s most impoverished areas.
“When you talk about qualifications for AG, for me it starts with my background and the sensibilities that I bring to litigation [from] where I’ve grown up,” Wofford said. “I was a working-class kid, which matters a lot in this context because the original associations for me in life with success were hard work and education.”
But James had less kind words for Wofford during her victory speech to supporters Thursday night. Her remarks suggested the tone of her campaign over the next eight weeks will be to tie her opponent to the de facto leader of the GOP, President Donald Trump. Trump is a natural foil for a would-be Democratic AG, as the next holder of the office will inherit cases filed by their predecessor to challenge policy initiatives of the administration, as well as a probe of the Trump Foundation.
“The next two months will be just as important as the last three, because we now face an opponent who voted for Donald Trump, who doesn’t share our values,” James said. “Now is not the time for a Trump supporter to be in the office of attorney general.”
Little is known about Wofford’s positions on high-profile cases currently being pursued against the Trump administration, and Trump himself. He said on Friday he would only bring litigation against the administration if it was in the interest of the state and its residents. He argued former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had done so mostly for political purposes.
This is Wofford’s first stint in politics. He’s currently a co-managing partner at Ropes & Gray, where he primarily focuses on bankruptcy cases, creditors’ rights, and corporate reorganization. He said his experience managing the firm, which has hundreds of attorneys, has prepared him over James to take the reins of the Attorney General’s Office.
“My opponent doesn’t really have that expertise,” Wofford said. “Dealing with melding a successful team of lawyers on that scale and magnitude is something I’m very proud to have already done and a skill that I would bring to the office.”
Wofford will face an uphill battle against James, who has an enrollment advantage in New York where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. He is confident voters will cross the aisle to vote for him.
“Voters are going to vote for me regardless of party because they don’t want to make the same mistake we’ve made the last three times in selecting the AG,” Wofford said. “And that is picking an AG who is trying to move themselves up rather than moving the people up.”
Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer both served as state attorney general before their elections to the top statewide office. Before his dramatic exit from office, Schneiderman had been widely considered a future contender for governor.
James’ political aspirations have long been known to political observers and operatives in New York City. Her run for public advocate was seen as following an often-taken path toward a future mayoral bid. But James acted quickly when the opportunity to run for attorney general opened up in the wake of Schneiderman’s precipitous downfall amid allegations of domestic abuse.
Attorney general is not the first high-profile law-enforcement post James has been mentioned for. When Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson passed away in October 2016, supporters put forward her name as a possible replacement. But the job ultimately went to Thompson’s top deputy, Eric Gonzalez.
James’ tenure as public advocate has also showed her interest in using the levers of the law to advance policy goals.
The office of New York City public advocate has no such statutory powers, but James, like some of her predecessors, has tried to expand its reach, generating public attention but mixed results in the state’s courts.
Her lawsuit on behalf of the families of city school children over air conditioning on buses transporting disabled students received a green light in September 2016 when a Manhattan Supreme Court justice ruled James could proceed on behalf of the students, promoting Politico to opine that the decision “could significantly expand” James’ “litigious approach” as public advocate.
But a decision by an Appellate Division, First Department panel a month later reversed the Supreme Court’s ruling. That decision continued New York state courts’ general approach of constraining the public advocate’s use of litigation.
Assuming New York voters choose either of the two major-party candidates, James and Wofford are each poised to make history by choosing the first person of color to serve as the state’s top lawyer. James would be the first woman elected to the position, and the first woman of color elected to statewide office.
James was not available for an interview on Friday. The general election is set for Nov. 6.