ALBANY — Republican candidate for attorney general Keith Wofford in Tuesday’s debate accused Democrat Letitia James of being incapable of pursuing corruption by her benefactors and friends in the Democratic Party while James accused Wofford of being unwilling to challenge GOP President Donald Trump and his policies that hurt New Yorkers.
It was a historic debate in that, for first time, both major party candidates vying for a statewide office are African American.
James, 60, who is endorsed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said she was confident she would get the legal referral Cuomo had denied past attorneys general to root out corruption wherever she found it.
“We need to appoint a public integrity office in the office of attorney general,” James said, saying there are limitations to how much corruption an attorney general can pursue. “As attorney general you are not the super district attorney . . . the criminal jurisdiction is circumscribed.”
Wofford, 49, said he knew how to use the existing powers of the attorney general to be tougher on corruption. It’s the wrong approach to seek tough laws “from the same governor and Legislature that is robbing us blind . . . you need someone who won’t be passing the buck,” he said.
Former Democratic Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and current District Attorney Barbara Underwood used state laws creatively to sue Trump, his charity and businesses in New York. James said she would continue those cases with a passion, while Wofford said some appeared legitimate while others were politically motivated by “camera hound” Democrats.
“We need to go through those to see which were made to get in front of TV cameras,” said Wofford, a Buffalo native and attorney in Manhattan. He said the legal test was whether Trump’s actions as president threatened the state’s sovereign power and hurt New York. Those should be pursued, he said. He also said he would seek Trump’s tax returns, which the president has refused to release.
James, the New York City public advocate, noted that one of Wofford big campaign contributors was Wall Street mogul Hank Greenberg, who has lobbied to weaken the state’s Martin Act that was successfully used against him by former Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
“Mr. Wofford is unfortunately surrounded by people who are part of the Trump administration,” James said at the Spectrum TV-NY1 debate in Manhattan. “Mr. Wofford stands in direct conflict with all that the attorney general represents.”
James also made the point twice that Wofford voted for Trump, and then blamed Trump in part for Saturday's fatal shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“That hateful rhetoric of this president has just emboldened white supremacists,” she said, noting that the shooter should face the death penalty though she otherwise opposes the capital punishment. “The president of these United States should take some responsibility . . . we find ourselves more divided now that any time since the Civil War.”
“I disagree with putting it at the hands or feet of the president,” Wofford said. “Certainly hate groups . . . long predate any particular politician on the scene today . . . [but] I agree the president should tone it down.”
In a “lightning round” question, James, who lives in Brooklyn, was tripped up when asked if she ever ate a “garbage plate,” which is a favorite regional dish in Western New York.
“A garbage plate?” she asked.
“Of course I’ve eaten a garbage plate,” Wofford said. “Welcome to upstate.”