Stakes Are High in New York Attorney General Race


Elections for state attorney general seldom make national news, but this one should.   The Sept. 13 Democratic primary for New York state’s attorney general is hotly contested, and the unusually powerful position will have broad implications for Wall Street and President Trump. The state’s unique Martin Act gives the AG sweeping powers to investigate and extract billions in fines from Wall Street banks, insurance companies and energy firms, often without going to court or relying on a “preponderance of evidence.”

For these reasons, New York’s AG has been a high-profile political platform, boosting the gubernatorial campaigns of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.  In May, the position unexpectedly opened up when Eric Schneiderman resigned after allegations of sexual and physical abuse were reported in the New Yorker.

Three well-funded Democrats are vying in next week’s primary, with the endorsement game dominating local news. New York City pubic advocate Letitia James has been winning this battle by getting the endorsements of Cuomo, EMILY’s List, several unions, the Democratic Party, and a long roster of elected officials.  

The most progressive of the candidates, Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law school professor and leftist activist, has won the endorsements of the New York Times, the New York Daily News and newly influential Democratic socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.  

With most of the endorsements accounted for, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has not been able to tout a list of supporters – a fact he wears as a badge of honor, saying it will make him independent of Cuomo and party insiders.  A fourth candidate, Leecia Eve, a Port Authority commissioner and former Hillary Clinton aide, has received the Albany Times Union endorsement.

One of the most contentious issues in the race is whether the candidates want to be known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” as Spitzer was dubbed when he held the position.  During his tenure, Spitzer went after this sector by resurrecting the rarely used Martin Act, enacted in 1921. It enabled the hard-charging AG to collect billions in fines and take down people and firms through settlements, while elevating his profile to run for governor.

James, the current frontrunner in the race, has stated that it is “critically important” that she NOT “be known as the Sheriff on Wall Street.” This prompted Teachout to say she “can’t wait” to be known by the term. Maloney piled on by saying that James “either doesn’t understand the office or have the right priorities.”  He added, “You sure as hell better be the Sheriff of Wall Street because that is the job title.” However, Maloney has had to defend his record of voting to roll back Dodd-Frank regulations and accepting corporate donations. James has pulled back her earlier remark by stating on her website that she will take “on Wall Street abuses” by using the Martin Act.

One thing the candidates agree on is that the New York attorney general’s office should be used to oppose President Trump and his policies.  Before resigning, Schneiderman had taken more than 100 legal or administrative actions against the Trump administration.  In June, his appointed successor, Barbara Underwood, filed a lawsuit against Trump for allegedly using Trump Foundation assets for business and campaign expenses, which is illegal.

Teachout wants to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and reverse its immigration policies through litigation.  She is also involved with a federal lawsuit against Trump alleging that his business interests violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits public officials from receiving gifts from foreign nations without congressional approval.

The Democratic Party is still reeling from the upset victory in New York’s June congressional primary in which Cortez beat longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. Next week’s primary is a test of whether the progressive or establishment wing can turn out voters for an election that falls on a Thursday.

While James initially started out as the establishment favorite and heir apparent, she has had to play catchup with Teachout’s more progressive base, voter enthusiasm and the New York Times endorsement.  In 2014, Teachout had a surprising performance when she received 34 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary against Andrew Cuomo despite having little money or name recognition.

Maloney’s potential path to victory is that he has outraised and outspent his opponents. He’ll likely not take votes from Teachout, but could tap into James’s New York City establishment base, where she has appeal as the only gay candidate. There’s been little public polling since a Siena College survey taken in late July.  It had James at 25 percent, Maloney at 16 percent and Teachout at 13 percent.  More than 40 percent of the voters were undecided at that time.

An unusual aspect of this race is that Maloney is running for two offices in the same election year.  When he announced for attorney general, he did not drop out of his re-election race for Congress. If he wins the primary, he says he’ll drop out of the latter, allowing Democratic officials to select a replacement candidate. In a district where Trump won by three percentage points, it’s unclear how the voters will react to Maloney’s plan to use his congressional seat as a consolation prize. Without clear legal precedent, Maloney plowed ahead and transferred $1.4 million of the $3 million in his federal campaign account for Congress toward his state attorney general race.  Teachout went to court on Thursday to stop him from spending his federal money in a state race, but was unsuccessful. “Congressman Maloney is running for the top law enforcement job in the state while violating state campaign finance laws,” Teachout said in a statement. 

After the primary, the Democratic winner will face Republican Keith Wofford, a Manhattan lawyer born in Buffalo and educated at Harvard.  He’s getting traction on trying to stop New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council from putting a cap on app-based car services such as Uber. Wofford has said that, as a black man, he has “personally endured decades of race-based refusal from Yellow Cab drivers in New York City and I will not stand by and watch politicians take us back to the blatantly racist status quo that African-Americans were subjected to, prior to the arrival of ride-share services.”

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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